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?
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.
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.