While the steelhead fishing community is preoccupied with the latest, greatest equipment and techniques that facilitate catching a steadily increasing proportion of a fixed or diminishing supply of fish, the degradation and sell off of the last of the best rivers in British Columbia goes unnoticed. Of greatest concern are the internationally renowned Skeena tributaries as well as Mother Skeena herself. Those aren’t the only victims but they serve as the best examples to illustrate where we are. Elsewhere in BC, virtually every river that still supports enough fish to attract angler interest is besieged with the same phenomena. Guides are ever more dominant, boats are everywhere they are legal and motors that propel them are ever more powerful, angler density is increasing steadily and everyone blames everyone else for being the problem. Lets look at some facts.
First, those guides. There is a pervasive myth that there are adequate controls on how many guides are licensed to operate on the blue ribbon or classified waters. Think of the Bulkley River for example. Yes, the regulations specify how many guides are licensed but they make no mention of how many assistant guides can operate under one licensed guide. Over time the number of assistant guides on the Bulkley has grown from an original number of a half dozen (late 1980s and early 90s) to more than 40 as of 2013. No one can even tell us how many there are today. Every one of those guides and their small army of assistants operates a boat whenever they are on the water. There was once a clear policy stating that an angling guide could occupy no more than one base camp and one satellite camp and the latter could not be more than a small, single building. Those familiar with the Babine River, for example, will recognize the three guide lodges on that river each have one satellite camp and each of those consists of one building. Contrast those original provisions with what we see on the Bulkley system today. One guide maintains two main lodges and three satellite camps of unlimited size strategically located to occupy prime waters at prime times continuously over the best weeks of the season. On unclassified rivers there are no restrictions whatsoever on guides or guiding other than the sport fishing regulations that apply to everyone.
The regulations pertaining to angling guides state plainly that “the guide must be present on or near the waters during substantially all times that guiding is occurring”. The intent of that regulation was to ensure that angling guides were angling guides, not rod day brokers who sub-contracted their rod day quotas so they could conduct multiple operations from multiple facilities or locations coincidentally. Obviously no one in a position of authority was paying attention over the past many years as the rod day brokers kept on pushing the envelope. The Bulkley example is hardly unique. Similar situations exist on several other of the Skeena area’s classified waters. Defenders of free enterprise are quick to claim they provide jobs and support numerous local businesses through their activities. That deserves a bit of attention as well.
One only has to Google Skeena steelhead guiding or anything similar to come up with enough web sites to consume many hours of intrigue. What emerges repeatedly is the business of non-Canadians serving as travel agents, booking agents and hosted travel purveyors on behalf of the rod day holding guides who cut deals that compensate them to the tune of 15-20% of the weekly guided angler fare as well as free fishing in return for arriving with a weekly complement of customers. Some of those agents deal with multiple guide operations. It isn’t just foreigners performing that role either. British Columbia resident operators do likewise, sometimes even advertising themselves as guides. Factor in that a growing majority of the major steelhead lodges on the blue ribbon classified waters are foreign owned and the notion that local businesses are primary beneficiaries of the guiding industry is without foundation.
That’s just the licensed guides. A few more mouse clicks will reveal a growing list of operators that provide everything but hands on guiding………..sort of. Just because they own strategically situated, first class streamside facilities that provide services that can include everything from boat rentals, boat launches, shuttle service, maps and tackle and just because they show up on the web sites of the same people that service many of the prominent licensed guides/rod day brokers, why would anyone think they fit the definition of a guide? Why bother with the angst of securing an angling guide license and rod day quota if you can enjoy all the same benefits at a fraction of the cost and zero likelihood of any legal retribution? Or, you can cut a deal with a licensed guide who will happily guide patrons of these unlicensed operations on one or two days during their week long stay and leave them to carry on unaccompanied on the intervening days. Then there are the other “service providers”, similarly unlicensed, who don’t operate out of their own or any single facility. They are much more difficult to identify and quantify but, make no mistake, they are out there. Those familiar with the long running dispute between guides and outfitters out there on the BC hunting landscape will recognize many similarities.
When all the guiding and pseudo guiding is added up there is clearly a lot of money changing hands. One wonders if Revenue Canada has ever been alerted or paid any attention. For certain all those booking agents, trip hosts, tackle vendors, equipment suppliers, film makers, etc. that are frequent flyers at the high end camps and facilities never declare any income or other benefits they derive, at least nothing that contributes to British Columbian or Canadian tax coffers. Guides pay $450 annually for their license and $31 and $26 per rod day for quota days on Class 1 and Class 2 waters respectively. However, those fees only apply during classified periods, most commonly between September 1 and October 31. Outside those dates there are no rod day fees for guides or daily fees for clients. Furthermore, there are no rod day fees for any unclassified waters. A week’s worth of lodge based guided fishing in a classified situation will fetch anywhere from $5000 to $7500 US. Helicopter facilitated guiding commands much higher prices. (Contrast the duelling helicopters today on the Zymoetz R and the upper Nass and Skeena systems with their virtual absence when the classified waters system was enacted.) Thirty-one dollars per day to the Canadians that rightfully own the resource versus $1000 US per day in the pocket of those who sell it doesn’t strike me as a fair shake. Is there another resource based industry in British Columbia that enjoys anywhere near that level of subsidy?
Next up are the two other (unguided) angler classes that originate from Canadian provinces other than British Columbia or from outside Canada. Both have grown to become a highly visible presence on prime waters at prime times and the numbers of both are perceived by many BC resident anglers to be compromising that original quality fishing experience the classified waters system was supposed to protect. Data from license sales certainly supports the observation there are more non-BC anglers on the water and it is reasonable to conclude more licensees translates to more days being fished. How many more, which group they are attributable to and what the temporal distribution of days fished remains inconclusive, however. One would think that sometime during the 26 fishing seasons since the classified waters management system was enacted a consistent, comprehensive data system would have been developed. The fact there hasn’t leaves no baseline against which to gauge accurately where we are presently. Worse yet, even simple statistics that are available from the wholly inadequate existing system are not being examined. For example, it should be a very straightforward exercise to add up and report on the river specific numbers of classified waters days purchased by guided versus non-guided non-Canadians. That alone could put to rest much of the mythology in circulation.
Residents of BC are supposedly the most important component of the classified waters angler population. Once again, license sales data points to a rising trend but that doesn’t tell us how many of those who purchased a license actually went fishing (we know from historic surveys many don’t), much less how many days may have been spent on which rivers and when. Of all the classes of angler licensees, the data available on this first priority resident class is the most deficient. Some will remember there were “guardians” conducting angler surveys on some Skeena tributaries for three seasons (2013-2015 inclusive). I understand those surveys were intended to address many of the questions raised here. Only one report (for 2013) has ever been published and it was embarrassingly deficient.
The last point I’ll make here concerns the endless struggle to try and sustain the steelhead supply. In a lifetime spent in a multitude of forums where commercial fishery interception of summer steelhead was the consistent and, frequently, the sole focus I can easily count on my fingers how many of the guides who account for an ever larger piece of the steelhead pie attended. Instead it was the volunteers, those unpaid, conservation oriented, British Columbia resident anglers with nothing to gain financially who showed up to do the heavy lifting.
Enough of the problems. Lets look at potential solutions or at least ways and means of stemming the tide. “Quality fishing” remains a concept defined in the eyes of the beholder but who can deny there comes a point where too many people destroys any concept of quality? The only solution to that is limiting the number of participants. That isn’t some elusive administrative task. Quebec has had an effective system (ZECs) for doing precisely that for as long as classified waters have existed in BC. Our own BC Ferries has a decades old reservation system and the Dean River draw has been around for an equally long period. If we don’t think we’re there yet or the debate around which class of anglers is responsible for what amount of the perceived problem isn’t detectable from irrefutable data, put a system in place that requires every single angler to purchase a license for every day fished on every water. Then and only then will there be a basis for informed decisions. In today’s digital world this isn’t the proverbial rocket science. The lack of enforcement around illegal guiding could be addressed effectively as well if ever there was a limit placed on how many licenses were available for specific waters at specific times. Competition from non-guided, non-residents could also be easily controlled if and where it was problematic by limiting the number of licenses available to them.
Boats have become the dominant feature of angler use on virtually every classified water, as well as every next best river that wasn’t classified in 1990 but has since been victimized by all the same problems that drove those regulations. There are some excellent creel survey data from the early days on the Bulkley River, for example, that indicate how small a proportion of the anglers present operated from boats. Today’s situation is in marked contrast. What people fail to consider in that outcome is the difference between 100 anglers on foot and 100 anglers in boats. Think about that and think about what additional pressure it brings to bear on a supply of steelhead that ranges between the same annual highs and lows it did fifty years ago. There are regulations available to limit the times and places where boats may be used. Why not boat free times and places to accommodate the fish and perhaps even a few low budget anglers who can’t afford to join the bigger, better, faster mobile tackle shop parade?
Coming soon to a river near you?
For those who think the Montana experience will never happen in Skeena country or elsewhere in British Columbia, here’s a web site that you might want to consider.
There are also provisions available to the statutory authority for angling guide licenses to place conditions on any and every one of those licenses. Why not guide free times and zones, why not limits on how many boats one guide license can put on the water on a given day, why not a limit on horsepower, why not a limit on how many assistant guides can be licensed by one guide and how many camps can be operated, why not mandatory guide accompaniment rather than taxi service………? There are many tools already on the shelf to address the ever escalating and disproportionate amount of pressure exerted by the angling guide community on a supply of fish most of them sell on behalf of foreign owners who don’t pay their way. While I’m on the payment theme, why don’t guides pay for every rod day rather than just classified rod days and why don’t they pay a fee that more reasonably reflects the value of what we let them sell?
Change is always an ordeal. If the people we’ve been paying to conserve quality angling opportunities, primarily for the benefit of residents of British Columbia, are serious about doing their job, change is long overdue. If dollars are the mantra, forget the classified waters system, abandon guide licensing and all that goes with it, and reinstate a kill fishery for wild steelhead. The Vedder experience can be duplicated a dozen times over easily enough. Or, just keep doing nothing. Those in command deserve a reminder though. Presiding over once upon a time world class fisheries while pretending to manage them bears with it the burden of responsibility for their demise.