A few people with a stake in the classified waters fisheries of the Skeena country know there are discussions underway between the government folk responsible for managing those fisheries and several angling guides who operate there. The vast majority of us who journey to those waters annually know nothing or, at best, are on the outside looking in. If you’re like me, you don’t have a problem with enlightened discussion about the future of those once upon a time world class fisheries. But, when those discussions occur behind closed doors in high end steelhead lodges and involve only government and guides, hackles rise.
The information coming my way is from local residents who became aware of such meetings and decided to organize themselves into a group whose intent is to launch somewhat of a counter-offensive. Again, fair enough. Just one question – what about the rest of us? Who speaks for the British Columbia residents who fish the Skeena tributaries and account for half or more of the annual angling effort but don’t live in the communities where these discussions are held? We contribute every bit as much license revenue and undoubtedly provide disproportionate economic contributions to local businesses because, as travelers, we buy a lot of goods and services that locals don’t.
And, where are our government fisheries managers in all of this? Have they made anyone outside that inner circle of guides aware of processes well underway? Where, when, how? Do they have a timetable or agenda? I have sent a number of personal emails to senior staff of the Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resource Operations in Smithers since January of this year. Questions and comments around the level of angling guide use, boat issues, the proliferation of stand alone, independent camps allowed under a single angling guide license, corporate concentration of rod day quotas, data gathering programs that were promised to clarify long outstanding questions around who is responsible for alleged “crowding”, etc. Nary a one was answered. Stonewalling only adds to perceptions, based on long time professional experience and even longer angling experience with guiding on Skeena tributaries, that resident anglers are not being accorded fair opportunity to be heard.
The greatest problem with managing the Skeena area classified waters fisheries is the lack of data to either support or refute commonly held beliefs with respect to how many people are fishing and what license category they represent (BC resident, non-BC Canadian resident or non-Canadian resident). Further, how many of those people are guided? If anyone thinks these questions can be answered definitively given the existing state of license data retrieval and reporting systems, they are just plain wrong. Until those circumstances are addressed the mythology and religious convictions that have trumped all else since the mid-1990s will continue.
How about an illustration or two to emphasize that point? There were guardian programs on the Bulkley River in 2013, 14 and 15. As far as I have been able to determine by inquiry to the Smithers office, only the 2013 report has been completed. I have a copy. All I can say is, if that report is taken as reflective of what the Bulkley fishery looked like in 2013, bad decisions will be made. I note that I fished for extended periods in all three years the guardians were supposedly active and I never encountered one.
Second, in a reflective moment after receiving a broadly circulated summary of license sale information several weeks ago, I thought it would be interesting to tease out the non-Canadian angling activity on the Babine River, a river I have long personal experience on. In that situation a high proportion of the traffic is made up of guided anglers who do not reside in Canada. Interestingly the license sales data indicated there were far fewer non-Canadian rod days fished than there were rod days allocated to the guides. Now, there are a variety of potential sources of the obvious problems noted and I attempted to take them up with those who might be able to address them. So far, no response. What concerns me most, though, isn’t so much the discrepancies in that particular situation. Its more that the people directly involved in compiling these data didn’t recognize their numbers didn’t make sense. Apparently the multiple and diverse hands whose collective task is (presumably) to summarize license sales data, issue angling guide licenses and their inherent rod day quotas and scrutinize mandatory angling guide reports are not connected. Perhaps there is a logical explanation for the obvious discrepancies but who is examining such questions? If the one and only circumstance on which I chose to perform my own little test of data quality reflects what exists for other Skeena tributaries, we can all squirm mightily over any discussion or decisions based thereon.
One of my early mentors, Dr. Ted Bjornn, at the time a widely acknowledged authority on freshwater fisheries management, preached to his graduate students repeatedly – good management requires good information. I’ve not forgotten his sermons. If management of angler use on the classified waters of Skeena is ever going to meet its stated objectives there needs to be an irrefutable data base underlying it. That message is almost as old as classified waters but we’re still dancing around the edges of things like guardian programs that will only proliferate uncertainty and debate. Here’s what should/could be done.
- Subject to existing classified waters regulations respecting who gets to fish where and on what days, require every angler that wants to fish any classified river in the Skeena drainage to obtain a river specific permit for each day they intend to fish. There would be no limit on how many daily permits someone could purchase, at least not until it could be demonstrated conclusively who needed to be controlled. The clients of all those service providers who claim not to be guides would be subject to the same system. The reservation system now well tested by BC Parks is ample evidence of a system readily adaptable to classified waters. Check it out: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/reserve/
- Amend the existing regulations respecting penalties for non-compliance with angling licensing and the suggested permit requirements. Presently the license fees for, say, a week of classified waters angling for a non-Canadian resident exceed the fine and the risk of being caught is negligible. Fines should be a deterrent, not an invitation to non-compliance.
- Develop a fee structure that facilitates the hiring of bona fide enforcement personnel that have full power to demand that anglers produce their licenses and permits. The guardians of the present have no authority to demand licenses or deal with anyone who refuses or is suspected of being non-compliant.
- Investigate and remedy problems with respect to retrieval and verification of angling guide reports of licenses sold to clients who use any rod days that fall under that guide’s rod day quota on all classified waters. Similarly, investigate and remedy problems with respect to license sales data summaries for all other licensees on classified waters.
- And, while we’re at it, lets get on with amending those regulations governing conditions of an angling guide licence on unclassified waters (as per my June 4 post). Maybe then we can begin to address all the same issues that drove the development of classified waters management and are now eliminating a steadily diminishing supply of alternative angling opportunities.
If enough people raise their voice on the future of fishing on the Skeena’s classified rivers we can achieve a more defensible and broadly accepted management system. Make your views known to those Smithers FLNRO officials while there might still be time. The key contacts are:
Anthony Pesklevits, Director, Resource Management firstname.lastname@example.org
David Skerik, Manager, Resource Stewardship email@example.com
As a final note dare I suggest quality fishing is an elusive concept that will never be achieved in the absence of limits on the number of participants? The Atlantic salmon world abounds with examples. Look to some of the storied rivers of the north shore of Quebec, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Norway, the Kola Peninsula or, if you prefer steelhead, try Kamchatka. If we are serious about delivering on long standing objectives for classified rivers management we need to start thinking about how many of “us” get to play per unit time and space but not before we have the hard data to guide intelligent decisions. If business opportunity and economic activity is our gospel then forget classified waters regulations and the continuing agony of pretending to deliver quality fishing. Let anyone who wants to be a guide fill their boots, reduce license fees and reinstate a kill fishery for steelhead. I’ll bet the farm we can turn the Bulkley into Vedder north and the money will flow as never before.