Signals abound that the abundance of wild steelhead in British Columbia is going nowhere but down. Yes, we can find occasional examples where a particular river did better than its neighbours some years or a river where the catch success doesn’t match the broader picture but, all things considered, the general pattern is not a happy one. Here’s a few of those signals and some thoughts on their implications.
- “The blob” or massive warm water intrusion that prevailed in the Gulf of Alaska and the central north Pacific in 2015 and 2016 has been monitored closely in terms of its consequences for salmon and steelhead. The salmon people are well aware that chinook returns, for example, are going to be very poor coast wide this year and next. Steelhead data is sparse in comparison but there is enough of it to postulate that co-habiting chinook and steelhead targeting similar food items are not going to trend in opposite directions.
- Compounding the ocean survival scenario pursuant to the blob, all of south western British Columbia experienced severe drought conditions for weeks during late summer in 2015. This wasn’t just your average late summer drought. This was historic. Those conditions couldn’t possibly not have influenced survival of rearing juvenile steelhead and therefore the number of smolts that could be expected to migrate seaward in 2016, 2017 and even 2018. Fewer smolts entering an ocean environment poorly suited to accommodate them does not make for an optimistic forecast.
- In terms of adult steelhead returns, the blob appears to have produced what we should have expected in 2016 for both winter and summer steelhead and again for winter steelhead through the season just ended. Can anyone conjure up a credible case that we won’t see a similar pattern for the summer fish to come to our coastal rivers over the next two or three months and our interior summer steelhead bound for the Fraser, Skeena, Nass, etc. tributaries come late summer and early fall? Yes, poor salmon returns will have a major influence on commercial net fishing openings and that will definitely send more of those interior summer fish upstream than might otherwise be the case. Remember 2016 on the Skeena in that context though. Poor sockeye returns severely curtailed commercial netting but the steelhead fishing was still poor. Imagine what it would have been if the standard 25 – 50% of the run had been removed or otherwise compromised by the nets.
- Angling pressure continues to escalate in terms of numbers of anglers in all the best times and places. Someone might counter that the total license sales and days fished is less today than it was a decade or two ago. The mischief in that is those data do not account for the fact there are now so few streams on, for example, Vancouver Island that still support a bit of fishing that everyone is now concentrated on them rather than on the 50 or more they were once spread over. Consider the influence of guides. I’ll argue that, on almost every Skeena tributary, there is now at least three times as much guiding pressure as there was when the regulations supposedly capping their activity were implemented in 1990. Non-guided anglers, whether from British Columbia or elsewhere, are also far more prevalent today than at any previous time. Then consider the steadily increasing frequency of boat use and the vastly increased efficiency of the gear the average angler of the present is now equipped with. Social media and all it brings us in terms or predator efficiency adds to the mix. All of these together can’t possibly be sustainable if people expect to enjoy anything approximating a “quality fishing experience”. Of course, if that experience or balancing angling demand with fish supply aren’t concerns, none of this is worth reading.
- The differential between US and Canadian dollars is a big invitation for American anglers to head north of the 49th. Recent history instructs us Skeena country will be their primary destination. As opportunities to enjoy anything approximating what British Columbians might define as quality fishing for steelhead evaporate over the US steelhead range, our rivers are even more in demand. All good if you’re a guide or a member of the broader business community focused on quantity versus quality but not exactly a plus if you’re a “local” planning on enjoying what once was available in your back yard.
Now, what are the people responsible for managing our steelhead fisheries doing to address any of these signals and potential consequences?
The last major move to reduce angling pressure on wild steelhead stocks in British Columbia came with the implementation of catch and release regulations. The dates for those measures were variable around the province. Vancouver Island was in the forefront in the late 1970s and into the 80s. Skeena took similar steps through the early 1990s. The relatively few remaining BC rivers still exempted at the turn of the century were brought into the fold in 2007. In the decade since the only measures brought forward to manage anglers have been closures, most notably on the Thompson River where severe conservation concerns have been disturbingly obvious. The only situation approximating an attempt to balance fish supply and angling demand has been the Dean River permit system, now more than 25 years back in the rear view mirror.
Guiding, that activity almost anyone with a few basic qualifications can enter, has blossomed in recent times. Unfortunately the tracking systems once in place have not kept pace. Try and determine how many guides and assistants operate on specific waters today. Oh yes, there is a cap on the number of guides and on guided rod days for parts of the season on classified waters but lets see the number of assistant angling guides operating on those same waters. No one even knows who to ask to determine how many guides and assistants operate on all the next best rivers that aren’t classified and how much activity they brought to bear last year and the year before and……….? How many fish do guides account for and where does that fit in the big picture of river specific management? Is the catch allocation fair and reasonable? Remember, there hasn’t been a steelhead river added to the classified waters list since 1990.
The First Nations influence on steelhead will continue to grow. The hear no evil, see no evil, head in the sand approach by both federal and provincial governments is obviously a fact of life today. Regardless of one’s convictions in this regard, it is simply not realistic to assume there will be more steelhead to meet the steadily emboldened demand of a steadily increasing First Nations population. Which piece of the finite pie will that come from?
We shouldn’t leave out our friendly seals here. Remember that exploding 40,000+ population of the Georgia Basin (Salish Sea)? They’re doing a wonderful job of slurping up enough of the larger hatchery reared smolts (i.e. chinook and steelhead) along with co-migrating wild smolts to seriously compromise smolt to adult return rates. Will the marine mammal protectionists reign supreme while all of us taxpayers continue to fund hatchery production that does little more than subsidize seal population growth rates and further jeopardize orcas dependent on adult chinook?
Hopes for increased funding for provincial fisheries were raised going into the recent provincial election. Then came the budget estimates of the agency responsible short weeks before. I looked through the multitude of pages documenting the planned expenditures of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO), the agency government chose to bury the fish and wildlife managers in. In that entire volume I could not find the word fish (or wildlife). How’s that for raising optimism about steelhead management?
Long gone are the days when there was any visible evidence of steelhead or steelhead fishery management. It seems not to mater whether one tries to penetrate provincial or federal government walls in these respects. My several previous posts on the Stamp River summer steelhead scenario serve as graphic evidence. It’s bad enough the federal people stay that course but the provincial people whose bailiwick it is to manage those once famous fish have never uttered a word either. Numerous messages to the Skeena country’s fisheries management regime regarding classified waters issues have been met with the same unprofessional, disrespectful and frustrating silence. Several rounds of dealings with the province’s Fisheries Regulation Advisory Committee (FRAC) over the past couple of years have produced parallel institutional inertia. Look to the Thompson scenario. How many years of coordination and total immersion in process and at what cost to arrive nowhere? Can anyone identify a single tangible step taken (as opposed to planned) that has improved the lot of those fish as they slide into oblivion?
Problems are easy. Not so solutions. One thing is clear, however. We can no longer rely on leadership or advocacy from the provincial government agency with the statutory authority to deliver steelhead management. Change will not come by defaulting to a system in disarray. If the angling community is not prepared to organize itself into a collective voice that recognizes the fish supply versus angling demand dilemma and how best to address it, we will lament the present as the good old days all too quickly.