How about a quick overview of the salmon situation along the BC coast thus far in 2017? Could there possibly be any parallels with steelhead that should be arriving right on the heels of chinook and sockeye?
So far one would have to view the chinook and sockeye returns to BC as more than just troubling. The science community warned many months ago that ocean conditions during the residence period for fish due home this year and next were very poor and the expectations of fisherfolk needed to be lowered. Well, the predictions are proving to be accurate, at least in terms of fish abundance. The expectations of those who ply the waters for those fish, not so much.
Skeena sockeye are so far below the previous record low abundance it is not just alarming, it is shocking. Chinook are not far behind. Something else to note on those numbers for this year when comparing them to any previous records. It isn’t an apples and apples situation. What we have this year is reduced fishing in the northern approaches to the Skeena (even in Alaska) and no fishing in the Skeena estuary itself. So, the test fishery estimates of both chinook and sockeye are very much higher than they would be if an average amount of commercial fishing harvest had occurred. The only years anywhere near comparable to what we see today in terms of the estimates of chinook and sockeye passing the test fishery occurred a half century ago when there were somewhere between 500 and 1000 gill nets choking off the entrance to the Skeena five and six days every week.
It isn’t just the Skeena that is a concern this year. Sockeye and chinook catches are down substantially in Southeast Alaska (even taking into account reduced effort) and in the Nass approaches. Barkley Sound and Alberni Inlet are off limits for sockeye fishing and the Fraser chinook are in desperate straits. Chinook returns to the Columbia and any other major producer one might want to look up all the way to California are facing similar circumstances. And, if chinook and sockeye aren’t enough of a clue, check out the status of the revered B-run steelhead bound for the interior Columbia tributaries. Web sites have bristled with news of that scenario for months. A bit of revealing background and updated information comes from my friend Pete Soverel and his Conservation Angler associates.
Our federal government fishery managers, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has already closed all fishing for chinook in the Skeena system for anyone other than First Nations (FNs). Reliable sources from Skeena country report that the monitoring of the FN fisheries is negligible so no one really knows how many have been or will be caught. What we can say is it doesn’t take a post doctoral fellow in mathematics or fisheries to see that the supply of chinook cannot meet the food, social and ceremonial (FSC) needs of a growing First Nations population buoyed by political commitments and policies increasingly divorced from conservation.
With sockeye in even worse shape than chinook, the current agreement between DFO and the FNs is there will be no targeted fishery for sockeye. DFO contends large mesh gill nets and beach seines will facilitate selective harvest of chinook. No matter that sockeye can be expected to outnumber chinook by at least ten fold. All observations on how non-selective gill nets in the mainstem Skeena are will be ignored and no amount of scientific publications on reduced survival and reproductive performance of beach seined and released sockeye counts. On with the show.
Ah, but isn’t no commercial fishery for sockeye every Skeena steelhead anglers’ dream? Typically it is but then comes 2017. The worst suspicions of the angling community about the position of DFO and FNs with respect to those pesky steelhead that are managed by the other fisheries jurisdiction in British Columbia, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO), were confirmed in DFO’s North Coast Salmon Update dated June 20, 2017:
In response to the very poor Skeena sockeye return projection, Skeena First Nations have indicated that, due to current Skeena sockeye return projection, they will not be fishing for sockeye in either the Skeena River nor in Area 4 to meet their food, social and ceremonial (FSC) needs and instead, have shifted their focus to the harvesting of chinook, coho and steelhead.
So, there it is in black and white. Steelhead are expected to help fill the void created by the dearth of sockeye and chinook. Think about that. Even if steelhead somehow managed to escape all the same forces responsible for the demise of those other two preferred food fish species, it isn’t plausible that there would be more than one of them for every 50 sockeye entering the Skeena. If steelhead abundance tracks that of chinook and sockeye that ratio could be a lot higher. But, we’re going to target steelhead as a food fish anyway. History proves it will be a cold day in purgatory before either DFO or the FNs would ever admit there might be a conservation problem for steelhead. Watch for bogus steelhead population estimates from Moricetown being trotted out to support the DFO and FN positions that any dearth of steelhead at the test fishery is an artefact of test net deficiencies brought about by high water, low water, debris problems, net avoidance due to pink salmon saturation, fish running deep, etc., etc. That tape never stops playing.
Who is speaking for steelhead these days? FLNRO would seem to have disappeared. That isn’t unexpected given the current political uncertainty in Victoria. It doesn’t help, either, that the FLNRO head was seconded to the Speaker of the House position as the unprecedented paralysis of the provincial political scene unfolds. That leaves his former Ministry an even more rudderless ship than it was in the many months prior to the recent election. But, we can count on the upriver angling community to rally around steelhead, right?
Well, there are a few dedicated rod holders with no stake in steelhead other than their own passion who are trying their best to keep steelhead issues in the forefront. Unfortunately they’re a lonely bunch. Remember that guiding industry? Is it anywhere to be found? The best line to describe their whereabouts comes from a guide friend who is as perplexed as I am over recent news of closed door sessions between guides and government regarding augmenting guiding opportunities. His comment – “yeah, they’re all doing whatever it takes to get a bigger piece of the pie that none of them show the least interest in conserving.” My growing pet peeve is the foreign steelhead pimps. How many web sites are out there now where they flog trips to a steadily increasing number of guiding and pseudo guiding establishments owned by their foreign brothers? What do any of them contribute to the decades old struggle by a handful of dedicated resident anglers with no vested interest to maintain that steelhead pie? The guides are outraged over the chinook angling closure but when was the last time anyone saw one of them at any forum where chinook conservation was on the table? MIA would be a kind label to apply. Lets call a spade a spade with respect to self serving commercial recreational fishing proponents and lend an oar to the British Columbians who are shouldering the conservation load. They and the fish deserve that.