Yesterday’s Gone

Late one night somewhere west of Vanderhoof back in the pre-Sirius days I needed something to keep me awake for the last few hours of one of those 1300 km road trips home from the big city. Out came a few CDs. Now all of us have probably experienced a time or two when a song stuck. On this occasion it was Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 Don’t Stop.

Don’t stop, thinking about tomorrow,…….Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.”                                

 I’ve recalled those lyrics more often than I can remember over the years and frequently applied them in a fisheries context.

How about if we pause and reflect on how many rivers we have, the quality and productivity they exhibit, the prospects for sustaining those features and consider them together with the number of highly informed anglers with equipment and technology never before seen by steelhead. Add to that the accumulating evidence of the deteriorating quality and quantity of ocean habitat. When sea surface temperatures rise and become unsuitable, or at least less optimal for steelhead, and considering the northern limit for BC fish is set by the Aluetian Island chain, the physical space available shrinks. Then we overload that space with too many competitors of pink and chum persuasion that mop up preferred food items for steelhead. Connect all these dots and the foreseeable future is not going to bear much resemblance to what we have known, even in the recent past. New approaches are going to be required if we we want to preserve any semblance of the fish and fishing too often taken for granted. But who pays attention? Who is out there trying to make the adjustments that might avoid outcomes everyone says they don’t want to see?

A seine opening on the highway to the Skeena

I’ve noted many times already on this blog the days of securing government agency responses to steelhead related circumstances brought before them are a distant memory. Advocacy and leadership are gone. That sad story has been evolving ever since 1999 when senior fisheries staff of the federal and provincial governments got together and came up with an agreement that gave the latter’s steelhead voice to its Ministry of Agriculture. That would be the same people responsible for fish farms and commercial fish processing. Here’s a clip from the most recent (draft) Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) that speaks to where that agreement has taken us in the 18 years since.

“DFO and the province of B.C. have renewed discussions on a joint approach to the management of steelhead returning to the Skeena watershed consistent with the 1999 fisheries management protocol between the federal and provincial governments. This work is intended to specify clear management objectives, management responses and mechanisms for technical support, management planning, communication and dispute resolution. Work on this approach will include consultations with First Nations and stakeholders.”

Good luck on finding that fisheries management protocol or anyone who was involved in its preparation. And, even more good luck on finding evidence of anything of substance on management objectives, mechanisms for technical support, planning, dispute resolution, etc. Consultations with First Nations and stakeholders is an equally elusive, ill defined concept. Given the emasculation of the provincial government’s steelhead voice, the escape clause the 1999 agreement gives DFO and the ongoing First Nations position and attitude toward steelhead and steelhead fishing, it falls to the angling community as the only voice to try and hold all three government’s feet to the fire. Consider some examples and looming scenarios.

Babine sockeye, those enhanced fish that are singularly responsible for all the mixed stock fishery ills of the Skeena, are predicted to return in very low abundance this summer. If the predictions prove anywhere near accurate there will not be any commercial fishery in the immediate approaches to the Skeena. Once upon a time that was the best possible scenario for steelhead. No gill nets = double the number of steelhead otherwise expected in all the upriver tributaries come September. How likely is that for 2017?

Nowhere in BC is it more obvious that First Nations are assuming a much more prominent role on the fish harvesting scene than in the Skeena and Nass country. The avenues whereby First Nations fill any void left by former commercial fishermen are many – through treaties, by replacing non-First Nations fishermen bought out by the Federal Government with First Nations fishers (take your choice – “Allocation Transfer Program”, “Pacific Integrated Commercial Fisheries Initiative”, “Inland Demonstration Fisheries”), through communal commercial fishing licenses, as exclusive participants in “economic opportunity fisheries” or as fishers operating under the food, social and ceremonial harvesting provisions that stemming from the Canadian Constitution based Sparrow decision in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1990. Then there are the occasional fisheries labeled “Excess Salmon to Spawning Requirements”, also the exclusive purview of First Nations. If whatever benefit steelhead might have enjoyed by reduced commercial fishing in years of weak returns of enhanced Babine sockeye haven’t already been offset by some combination of these First Nations fisheries, they soon will be.

Those revered interior Fraser steelhead are a further example of the path we’re on? Look to the record low returns of those fish in 2016. Still, that critically low abundance of Thompson and long forgotten Chilcotin steelhead was not enough to cause DFO to close the Fraser River to harvest surplus chum salmon. Remember, the only real commercial value of those chums is the roe sold at outrageous price in a luxury foreign market. Of course, the Fraser had been closed to all fishing for a period prior to the steelhead run timing to protect impoverished chinook stocks (which were far healthier than Thompson steelhead). But, when all those chums showed up, the Fraser reopened with DFO encouraging First Nations to have at them to offset foregone chinook harvest. Obviously the well understood desperately poor steelhead return and the fully documented overlap between steelhead and chum run timing had no bearing on DFO’s decision.

At the risk of becoming a broken record on the subject I’ll throw in that Port Alberni area fishery about which every inquiry sent to the DFO hierarchy from there and Ottawa has failed to get a response. It’s only been nine months though. Given that outrageous example of a fishery gone wild, how can one help but be left with the impression DFO is wilfully blind to First Nations impacts on steelhead? Finally, those old enough to have experienced the Bella Coola spring steelhead fishery will recall it was closed to all fishing to conserve steelhead that were being decimated by in-river First Nations gill nets. Thirty-five years later it is still closed, at least to thee and me.

First Nations represent the fastest growing segment of British Columbia’s population. Coincidentally their demand for more of our fisheries resources is growing disproportionately through all the avenues described above. Add on the equipment and technology now employed and the notion of sustainability may exist in boardrooms but certainly not on rivers. There are only so many fish, independent of who harvests them. How is it not understood the supply of fish can’t support everyone who refuses to accept a smaller piece of a diminishing pie? DFO obviously isn’t going to show up on the steelhead conservation front, the province isn’t going to shut down Mr. Pattison’s seine fleet and the shore based processing industry (what remains of it) and First Nations aren’t going to develop a soft spot for steelhead any time soon. Prove me wrong.

First Nation fishers drift netting on Skeena at Kitwanga


Proceeds of a single drift of a gill net by First Nations fishers, Skeena near Kispiox.

No one can argue credibly that the burden of reduction in harvest pressure on wild steelhead over the past many years has been borne disproportionately by the angling community. Commercial fisheries have been constrained, admittedly, but not because steelhead have ever been acknowledged as a conservation concern. The conservation card would require DFO to shut down every fishery. History proves that never happens. First Nations fisheries that were considered illegal at the time the screws began to turn on angler harvest of steelhead have gone in the opposite direction ever since. On analysis, it isn’t unjust or unreasonable to state anglers have been the sacrificial lambs that subsidized the other harvesters.

What next?  Even if commercial fishing was to be cut back to a fraction of what it is today the politics around First Nations strengthening their grip on anadromous fish are clear. The best the angling community can do to help itself is to try and stretch out our remaining opportunities by softening our collective footprint. Protecting the basic habitat is always top of mind but, beyond that, I see two broad areas where we can adopt measures that could help slow the rate at which we’re losing opportunity – education and regulation. The first has more potential than the second. Keep in mind that old cliché – everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die.

On the education front we need to adopt an entirely different mind set than has been our norm. The weapons race is going to kill us faster than anything. We aren’t going to stop the competitiveness among tackle and equipment industries but we/they need to understand the technological race to the bottom benefits no one. When there aren’t sufficient numbers of steelhead to entice anglers to participate in the Easter Parade of gear and the guiding establishments who hold all those million dollar rod day quotas don’t have fish to sell, then what? Here’s an example of one of the routes to steelhead Armageddon.

I humbly suggest that when we extoll the virtues of boats that plough up fish habitat and/or physically abuse the fish themselves we’ve gone too far. Surely we can agree there should be limits to where we allow such equipment and behaviour, whether fishing related or otherwise. How big do motors need to be? Why does every river navigable by ever more sophisticated or capable water craft need to be so exploited? Step back and ask how fish resources can be anything but negatively influenced when their few remaining safe havens are gone? Is anyone paying attention to the escalation of boat traffic on most of the rivers that created British Columbia’s rapidly fading reputation as a world class wild steelhead fishing destination?

We’ve been inundated with the “keep em wet” philosophy over the past year or two. More recently its “four is enough” capturing the air waves spotlight. The former is obviously good practice but social media is replete with here’s me with another one pics that oftentimes appear to have taken enough time to compose that stress would become a significant factor. Is there any less impact on a steelhead briefly held out of water to snap a photo and one subjected to inordinate amounts of time spent composing a unique photo to one up the social media crowd? A regulation forbidding removal of a steelhead from the water only goes so far.

Four is enough falls into a similar category. Regulation is not the answer. There is already plenty of evidence of widely divergent opinions on the philosophy, let alone the difficulty of developing and applying any catch and release limit regulation that might be effective. Peace in the Middle East is no less likely. Those that are married to using the most effective fish catching equipment and techniques to maximize the number of fish they can bring to hand need to be educated to do otherwise. Shaming those who just don’t get it is a last resort, although not ineffective.

The choice is ours. Anglers can take the high road and continue to lead by pushing new approaches that focus more on experiences and less on numbers and egos or they can throw in the towel in frustration over never seeing any tangible benefit to their sacrifices. One produces a longer life expectancy than the other.

Comments 8

  • If the fish populations are so low that they can’t achieve escapement goals, or the goals are too low to begin with, we shouldn’t be fishing. We should be focusing on restoration.

  • I think you’re too pessimistic toward “Four is enough” even without adequate COs for enforcement . For starters, any outfit with rod days is going to adhere to such regulations as they don’t want to be fined/lose their guide license/be publicly named and shamed. That immediately means that every guide becomes a keen set of eyes on the water: if their clients are limited to four a day, then the self-guided anglers sure as hell are going to be subject to the same limits.

    If we started praising people who stopped fishing and stowed their rods while they leisurely floated to the takeout, then that would be a nice ego massage for those fortunate enough to have beached their daily quota before the day was over. There’s a lot to be said for floating past the last dozen anglers and declaring, “Yeah, I got mine fourth around noon and I’ve just been enjoying the day since then.” Certainly my reply to someone saying that would be, “Good on you.” A few toasts in the Alpenhorn would add to the prestige.

    I’m in the minority in that my friends and I fish gear more than the fly. If you want to make more converts to the fly, it’s quite straightforward: if you’ve hooked a pair or (gasp) three early in the day, then if you want to keep fishing it’s time to get out the bug rod and start swinging.

    I don’t agree that “shaming those who just don’t get it” is effective. If I’m swinging a spoon, I don’t need to hear a sportsmanship lecture from indicator dead drifters or Spey anglers dredging with 550 grain heads and 12′ of T14 with 4″ long intruders with drop back hooks. If your baseline tackles is single handers and floating lines, then you occupy the true moral high ground . . . and the fishing tourism business will crater along with catch rates.

    Managing the tackle box is divisive and counterproductive to overall fundraising and conservation. Let’s leave it to each to decide what method he uses . . . but when you’ve hit your number, you’re done for the day.

  • For what it is worth, there appears to be some movement at the Federal ministerial level to bring about some sensible regulations, see e-links.
    I think this announcement signals a willingness to take action. Perhaps this is the time to press the Minister on doing something similar here on the West coast. And, to press his Provincial counterpart to make some corresponding moves.

    • Thanks for the comment Rory. There are obviously many parallels between the Atlantic salmon and steelhead fisheries except that our eastern friends have never shown any inclination to familiarize themselves with anything outside their world. I’ve known and dealt with the wonderful people at WW Doak for many years, as well as some of the ASF people going all the way back to the 1980s. Great guys but remarkably unfamiliar with catch and release implementation and consequences.

      The business of locals departing the fishery following C&R implementation is/was 100% predictable, as is the longer term build back of those departures. River specific harvest quotas is always a good idea if that can be adequately administered and managed. Otherwise they run the risk of everyone intent on harvesting fish gravitating to the places where that is legal, thus creating another set of problems for fish and fishermen.

      Co-operation between federal and provincial people is far more likely on the east coast that out here. We only wish we could get the two solitudes to sit down and deal effectively with issues like Thompson steelhead. Recall my earlier messages on the frustration I’ve endured trying to get anyone in the federal shop to answer my most basic questions re the Stamp/Somass steelhead situation. The provincial shop is even more out of the loop. Fly at it though. To you I throw the torch.

  • There are other futures for fish than the one we are seeing. The extinction of specific races of the “hooked nose” species is our doing but the extinction of runs is not the end of the road.

    We have seen our limited attempts at habitat restoration pay off and as it becomes commercially uneconomic to send out boats to net up Pacific Salmon perhaps we will finally start to value what is left over differently.

    All the different species of Oncorhynchus have one characteristic that keeps us from completely extincting rivers. They do have a tendency to lose their way and go up new streams other than the ones that they were conceived in. So they very slowly do populate new territory.

    We still see hatcheries as single entities and this is our mistake. We still can try labour intensive in stream hatching along with much more extensive habitat restoration if we have the will to do it. The current hatchery methods are seriously flawed and need a complete rethink to say the least.

    What is the payoff for this extremely expensive undertaking? In truth zero dollars if you conceive of the effort as a financial for profit undertaking. And this is where we also must change our mindset. Like space exploration the pay off is in the doing and the investment in our ecology through the labour done. The financial rewards are not tangible in any other way other than immediate work that is creative and innovative instead of exploitative and disruptive of the environment.

    It will take a mind set shift to see any of this occur but it is possible to change our path and aim it toward becoming real stewards of this planet.

  • For those who know me, they will no doubt acknowledge that I am not a ‘boots on at daylight and pound the water til dark’ kind of angler. Moreover, I choose not to fish each and every day when I am up on the Skeena and find as many days in camp, reading, walking about Smithers and patronizing the merchants, visiting with friends, or chopping wood for the campfire, tidying camp, etc., just as enjoyable. That said, I am just as ardent angler as the next guy or girl and when I fish, I fish to catch fish and enjoy the experience to its fullest. Having fished the Skeena and other watersheds in British Columbia for the past fourty-five years and a fish biologist for some 35 years, but now retired, I feel emancipated and free to speak my mind. Here’s how I see steelhead angling, as it should be.

    First though, I wonder what the impact or present day circumstance would have been to the steelhead resource if we all began releasing these fish ‘at the beginning of time’ instead of harvesting them, depending on our success and according to the regulations; that is, if you were an honest angler and abided to the regulations. As I recall, back in the seventies, one could buy two punch cards and harvest forty fish in a single season and I recall several anglers boasting about such ‘mighty feats’ as though they had something to prove. I also recall the poachers back in the day when they would take their underage sons down to the river and use them to fill more than their daily quota. Looking through my diary, I note that the most steelhead I killed in one year was eight. However, I recall a weekend back in the early seventies when John Milner and I drove up to the Thompson one weekend. Fishing was good; catching was even better. When I got home that Sunday evening, I placed three Thompson steelhead on the table to filet them, and both my wife and I were literally taken aback at the carnage before us. That was the first and only time I brought more than one fish home and it wasn’t long after that I started to bring all of ‘my memories home’ on film instead of in the round. No doubt my science background and professional involvement in the fisheries resource had something to do with my abrupt change in attitude and behaviour but the trip with John really had a profound effect on me. If I could go back in time, I would release those three Thompson steelhead and all the other steelhead that I have brought to hand over the years.

    I often ask myself why is it or what is it about human behaviour that takes us so long to elicit change when we know, all too well, the adage that ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’ really doesn’t work. Let’s face it; as a society we have made some serious blunders when it comes to managing the fisheries resource and people, for that matter. What’s more frustrating are some obvious changes that we could do to make life better for all of us, including steelhead.

    Let me be bold and say that the British North America Act, the Indian Act, and the Sparrow decision, among other laws of the land pertaining to natural resources, all need to be seriously examined and overhauled. Placing native Indians on reserves and affording them special privileges when it comes to harvesting salmon is fundamentally wrong in this millennium. Had Sparrow restricted native Indian fishing rights to the use of hand made tools and implements that were used pre-European contact, it would have made some sense but not today with nylon gill and seine nets, depth sounders, jet boats, and freezers in pickup trucks, etc. In general, placing native Indians on Reserve Lands has done nothing but oppress the present day native Indian and one only has to look along the Skeena watershed to see how impoverished most live, perhaps with the exception of the chiefs and counsellors that take the lion’s share of federal monies and line their pockets.

    The Babine spawning channels were and are a huge mistake that the federal government made and these need to be decommissioned. There are countless scientific publications documenting the demise of lesser abundant salmonid stocks in a mixed stock fishery where artificially abundant stocks are present. The same applies to hatcheries and is but one reason why hatcheries don’t work in the anadromous world. Oh, I know, the federal government uses the Tyee test fishery to properly manage the stocks; how’s that working out for everyone?

    There are still too many commercial boats fishing over too few wild fish and the federal government needs to rekindle their buy-out program and get some of those boats off the water.

    Presently, the number of farm produced salmon in the marketplace exceeds the number of wild fish and that number is certainly only going in one direction. Salmon farming in British Columbia is a disaster and has led to a number of significant problems in terms of their impact on wild salmonids. The fix is so simple! Restrict all fish farming to land based fish farming. More expensive? Yes, it is but at what real cost to our resource in comparison? Imagine if we, as a society, harvested moose and deer instead of raising beef? I think we all know the answer to what would happen to the populations of ungulates. Well, we are doing the same thing to our wild populations of salmon.

    The Moricetown fiasco needs to be brought to a halt. Native Indians transporting fish over the falls is doing more harm than good and I have witnessed, first hand, the capture and transport techniques using nylon nets, steelhead bouncing off the rocks and the poor condition of steelhead found upstream with frayed fins, ripped maxillaries and the like to say nothing about their changed behaviour after enduring the near death experience. I feel the same way about tagging programs; we already know enough about these fish. In example, almost all fish that are radio-tagged drop downstream for a period of days before resuming their migration. And some of you believe that briefly raising a fish out of water for a photo is inherently wrong; stop and observe the Moricetown fishery and the steelhead transport program the next time you drive by to see firsthand how your tax dollars are being used to ‘help steelhead’.

    There is no place for guiding on the Skeena watershed or any other river system for that matter. Guiding has significantly deteriorated the recreation experience for the angler on the Skeena system. Most of the problems with steelhead management or lack thereof can be attributed to the federal government. Not so with guiding however. Instead of observing illegal guiding taking place on the Skeena and enforcing a no guide policy, the provincial government decided to ‘regulate and manage guides’ by allocating rod days to the ‘lottery winners’. In essence, illegal guides were made wealthy overnight by the provincial government. Let’s remind ourselves that these fish belong to us, the people of the province and government is supposed to serve our best interests and not the interests of the few. Presently, the guiding situation is out of hand on the Skeena and in some of the more remote rivers, the guides look upon those of us that fish these rivers as intruders on their private fishery. What needs to be done is to have the province humbly recognize their mistake and buy out all of the guides that fish rivers in British Columbia. Perhaps there is a place for guides in the salt chuck or the lakes but not our rivers. Guides are one of the major reasons for overcrowding on our rivers.

    The size and number of boats on the Skeena system is also getting out of hand and needs to be managed. First, a restriction on horsepower is something that needs to be done immediately. There is no good reason to be running up and down medium to small rivers like the Morice, Bulkley or Babine in a two hundred horsepower, Teflon lined boat that can endure bouncing off rocks and boulders with impunity, all the while deteriorating any semblance of angling experience.

    The provincial government has made a feeble attempt to regulate non-residents on the Skeena; the weekend closure comes to mind. Where we need to go is much more aggressive in my thinking and one needs to start considering a lottery system similar to the Dean when deemed necessary and to return the recreation experience back to something that is desired and commensurate with a world class fishery. Angling fees also need to be significantly increased and that monies put directly into enforcement. Presently, it is a joke as to the lack of enforcement on the Skeena and doesn’t for one minute reflect the importance and inherent value of the steelhead resource.

    Back to reality. Will any of these measures be implemented? Colour me disillusioned as I see the federal and provincial governments turning a blind eye to all of the issues before us on the Skeena. Back in the day, most of the provincial fisheries staff were keen anglers, users of the resource, outspoken conservationists and perhaps some still are; however, I don’t see them on our rivers. I do know that these days, it seems the way to ‘get ahead’ in government is to keep your head down, smile at the powers to be and hope to be promoted as a team player so one’s pension can be maxed before the end of their working career. Where’s the passion folks, is it going the way of our steelhead resource? I think so.

    • Well other than the guides causing the over crowding on rivers, you are bang on! Take the Kispiox. There is a total of 384 allocated guide rod days, an these are split between 3 guide outfitters! So let’s do the math. If they guided for only 38 days, the legal guides would put 10 anglers per day on the river, that’s 3 1/3 angler per outfitter per day! If they were to guide the full 61 classified days you cut that just about in half! Don’t think the guides are the problem! Every creel survey on the Kispiox has found the angling effort is between 75 to 80 percent nonresident non guided! I do agree with some rivers being over subscribed with guides ( especially since the new , very aggressive fishing empire funded by foreign money” Frontier Far West” has come on the scene! The family run operations are being bought out and forced out! Its very hard to complete with all the out of country money coming in for the exploitation of “our” steelhead! Totally agree it’s past time to start limiting angler effort,it’s a zoo out there!!The salt water guides are not licensed and have no quotas, so it’s impossible to figure the impact they’re having! I do know our Chinook are close to going the way of the east coast cod! Fishing should be just that ,and not all about catching as Brad West implied! Let’s think about the fish instead of me ,me,me!!!!!

  • As Bryan wrote; “What needs to be done is to have the province humbly recognize their mistake and buy out all of the guides that fish rivers in British Columbia.” I have stated here on this site and elsewhere, that I, as a licenced B.C. angling guide am willing to take a buyout. I have made that sentiment known to the licencing agency without positive response. They have no plan to initiate a buyout anytime soon… if ever. So, if any non-governmental, civilian, ordinary citizen wants to buy me out and get me off the water as a fishing guide, please feel free to do so.

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