Why Worry?

The following is a direct quote of a news release that arrived earlier this week. I include the full release lest I be accused of cherry picking or quoting anything out of context. Read on.

Improvement in Fisheries Management needed as Skeena River Faces Low Sockeye Return. Skeena First Nations and Recreational Fishers Urge Co-operation and Caution

July 12, 2017

Terrace, BC – First Nations along the Skeena Watershed and the Sport Fishing Advisory Board are seeking improvements in fisheries management in the Skeena Watershed to better prepare for years of exceptional low returns such as this year.

The rate of return of sockeye to the Skeena River this year is half the level of 2013 which was the worst on record. The current estimated total escapement of sockeye from the Tyee Test Fishery which is used to estimate escapement was about 68,000 by July 10th, while the escapement by the same date in 2013 was 94,000. The avg escapement by July 10th for the previous 6 years is 252,720. The current return is below the threshold for opening First Nations Food, Social and Ceremonial Fisheries.

Charlie Muldon of the Gitksan Watershed Authority said, “First Nations throughout the Skeena watershed have historically relied on sockeye for the nutritional, social, economic, and cultural wellbeing of our communities. We will not be fishing for sockeye this year, and while next year the run should be better, we must all commit to longer term planning to better prepare if 2021 turns out to be just as bad.“

Due to these low predictions, First Nations that depend on sockeye for their food, social, and ceremonial needs are fishing for other species such as chinook and steelhead instead, and are taking measures to avoid Skeena-bound sockeye, by using selective fishing methods such as large mesh sizes, and only fishing in specific areas and times.

Over the past year, First Nations on the Skeena have worked together to plan their fisheries, and have extended that spirit of collaboration to the recreational sector. With the increased effort for chinook and steelhead by First Nations on the river, First Nations and representatives of the recreational fishing community are discussing options to allow both groups harvest opportunities. These areas include popular sport fishing areas such as the Lower Kalum (at the confluence with Skeena), Ferry Island, and China Bar.

“The Skeena watershed hosts an internationally renowned sports fishery and provides recreational opportunity and economic benefits for local residents alike,” said Urs Thomas, Chair of the North Coast Sport Fishing Advisory Committee. “The strength of this fishery lies in the ability of all stakeholders to work together to manage this important resource. I hope in future that fishing plans and decisions on the Skeena can be made locally so we have buy-in from the First Nations and Rec sector and not by the Minister in Ottawa.”

Representatives of First Nations and the Sport Fishing Advisory Committee are encouraging cooperation and mutual respect on the river. “We hope that DFO recognizes the hard work both sectors put into collaborating on our fishing plans this year, and how we have gone above and beyond to reach out to develop workable solutions Muldon said. “DFO needs to take responsibility and provide the necessary resources to ensure the fishing season goes smoothly.

Skeena First Nations Fisheries Technical Committee is comprised of technical personnel of First Nations up and down the Skeena Watershed. This group advises First Nations leadership on technical aspects of fisheries management throughout the watershed. The SFAB has been the official advisory body to DFO since it was constituted in 1964. The SFAB provides an inclusive and broadly representative process for the views of the recreational fishing community. There are twenty-three local sport fishing advisory committees throughout the province with representatives from local recreational fishing interests.

For further information please contact:

Charlie Muldon, Co-ordinator Gitksan Watershed Authority, (778)-202-1458 cmuldon@gitksanwatershed.com

Urs Thomas, Chair, North Coast Sports Fishing Advisory Committee, (250) – 557-4325 urs@goldenspruce.ca

Ryneld Starr Skeena Fisheries Commission 250-877-3089 ryneld_starr@hotmail.com

Why should I or anyone else close to Skeena steelhead be concerned? After all, we have the renowned Sport Fish Advisory Board (SFAB), our conservation focused federal government and the ultimate conservationists, our First Nations community in lock step on surgically managing the Skeena salmon and steelhead fisheries. Lets dig a little deeper though.

The SFAB in northern British Columbia has not been around since 1964, as implied. It sprung to life in the 1980s and was virtually entirely focused on the rapidly developing commercial recreational fishery on the islands then known as the Queen Charlottes. I can say this because I was the sole provincial government representative at every one of those SFAB meeting for more than a decade. Steelhead were almost impossible to get on the agenda and First Nations issues, even if recognized, were carefully avoided. As time dragged on and the domination of the north coast SFAB agenda by the ocean based commercial recreational fishery operators continued, the province took the decision to abandon the process. Instead it adopted its own consultative process that dealt specifically with freshwater fisheries issues under its control.

Much transpired in subsequent years but the end game was the proponents of a kill fishery for Skeena steelhead assumed the throne on all things steelhead at the SFAB table. That group is now dominated by the people who have been relentless in their pursuit of killing wild, angler caught steelhead on both Haida Gwaii and the Skeena system. Those same individuals boycott the provincial consultative process because they choose to pretend the SFAB is the only game in town. DFO is entirely receptive to the notion the voice of the steelhead angling community is fully represented at their SFAB meetings. It supports their immovable position there isn’t and never has been any steelhead conservation issue in the Skeena. Further, when the First Nations and the perceived voice of anglers enter into discussions around collaboratively managing the recreational fishery in the Skeena, DFO will be perceived as the proverbial white knight by all those who don’t know any better.

But, what about those steelhead that are now going to be targeted in replacement for chinook and sockeye that are too threatened to support food, social and ceremonial needs of a rapidly growing and politically powerful First Nations Community?

Keep in mind the chinook run to the Skeena this year is very nearly the worst ever recorded since the inception of the test fishery in 1956. There aren’t enough of them to satisfy the food, social and ceremonial needs of the FN communities, even if they caught every last one. Then factor in it is pure nonsense to suggest a set or drifted gill net can discriminate between a sockeye and a chinook by adjusting mesh size. I’ve been there enough times to photo document just how deadly any of those nets are. Independent of the size or species of fish, they are all equally dead when nets are retrieved. Reduced numbers of nets is a start but those numbers would have to be a fraction of what they are presently to save any fish. Otherwise the remaining nets just catch more fish each.

A quick glance at the estimated numbers of sockeye versus steelhead getting into the lower Skeena puts things into sharper focus. The ratio of the former to the latter has ranged from 18:1 to 72:1 over the past six years (2011 through 2016). Three of those years saw sockeye escapements below to far below the level prescribed to satisfy the requirements to fill the Babine spawning channels that have been the primary source of the Skeena’s well known mixed stock fishery management dilemma for decades. At this point in the 2017 season the sockeye to steelhead ratio is 167:1. These are not figures available to only insiders. They can be pulled off DFO web sites in mere minutes. If the SFAB people who are now endorsing harvest of steelhead to compensate for a dearth of those historically preferred sockeye aren’t aware of those figures and their implications they are woefully unqualified to be claiming they represent the freshwater recreational fishery. By the way, the overlap in run timing between sockeye and steelhead is major. How could one be targeted while the other is unaffected?

I don’t have any magic bullet to fix any of the problems described above. All I can state with certainty is the Skeena steelhead resource cannot begin to fill the void created by failed chinook and sockeye stocks. If conservation is really the common goal, everyone needs to stop fishing. Standing firm on gill net selectivity, times and places where nets may be employed, release of non-target species and steelhead catch and release for recreational fishers, singly or in combination, will never achieve that goal.


Comments 11

  • I totally agree with everything you’ve stated Bob!

  • Couldn’t agree more Bob. I not sure if anglers in BC know of what happened nearly 20 years ago on the rivers of the Olympic Peninsular. When the runs of steelhead became fragile the fish and wildlife service closed the rivers to fishing completely. Only now are the fish beginning to come back to their former numbers. The fish are extremely resilient if they are given the chance to survive. Under the existing situation in BC, summarized eloquently above, I just cannot see that working. Based on my 5 years here in BC there is no good news where steelhead are concerned. I would call it fiddling while Rome burns, and if the interested parties fail to address the issues which are well documented there is little hope for any west coast steelheader.

  • Agree !
    First time in 32 years I have decided to leave the waders hung up in the man cave!
    Not only due to the low number of fish species and how it’s been regulated but in general how the rivers , especially the Bulkley hhas become a industry source. Yes good for locate economy – yes good for bringing people into the valley! Yet on the down side it’s being over populated to the point of it simulating some of the southern waters including Washington and Oregon States. Combat fishing!
    The financial gain isn’t In Smithers if at all the top end of the 1500.00US plus per client stays in a US bank account.
    It’s a shame how a public resource can be manipulated to the point where a river and its habitants are left to fend for themselves!
    It would be a shock to the system but I wouldn’t have any argument of closing the entire Watershed down for one season and lower the amount guided rod days per season thereafter. As well put back in place a boundary distance on confluences ( eg: tobbogan creek) where both steelhead and Coho merge into their migrating feeder streams.
    Also, included, which may be a pipe dream, is to restrict motorized boats on or most of the Bulkley to drift only. Guide traffic with 4-5 clients being dropped off along a entire run then moved 3-4 times up and down river during the day creates allot of havoc among local walk ins!
    I hope DFO & BC Environment wake up and learn from this quickly!

  • I don’t think there’s any chance that all parties agree to a First Nations and sport fishing moratorium in 2017. For that to happen, we’d need several consecutive terrible years of returns and we’re at least three years away from that. So this summer and fall the First Nations will be netting, and the sporties will be C&Ring the steelhead.

    The one positive in all this has been the cancellation of the commercial sockeye netting openings around Prince Rupert. Perhaps you can estimate (numbers or percentages of the runs) the uplift to the sockeye and steelhead runs, and then guess how many fish will be taken in the FN’s nets over and beyond what they normally net in an average year. On balance, maybe the steelhead will be better off this year than one would conclude from reading the preceding post.

    For example, if the Skeena watershed steelhead run is 25,000 fish in 2017 and the commercials typically caught (and killed) a quarter of it, we now have 6,250 “extra” steelhead entering the system. I’m hoping that the FN additional netting isn’t going to take that many fish, leaving the run better off numerically than in a normal year. A secondary question is which systems the FN will net heavily/moderately/not at all, or whether their efforts will be confined to the mainstem Skeena and Bulkley rivers? For example, if the FN aren’t netting the mouth of the Sustut, that river could have a bumper year. On the other hand, if Idiot’s Rock and environs are netted 24 x 7, then it will be lean pickings upstream.

    My assumptions are probably out of whack, so I’d value your take on it all.

    • Thanks Brad. I agree there isn’t a snowball in purgatory chance there will be any agreement between FNs and the sport fishing fraternity to down tools to protect steelhead.

      No one knows how many steelhead the FNs have been taking each year over the past couple of decades. The province once handed over $50K for a contract with a prominent FN person who was supposed to deliver a report on how many steelhead were harvested by the upriver Skeena FN communities each year. That is the one and only serious attempt I am aware of to come up with a credible number. Well, the cheque got cashed but no report ever materialized.

      Your math isn’t unreasonable but this is not going to be any average year. First, we’ll see how many steelhead actually arrive but the signals to date are not encouraging. As I’ve said previously, it is awfully hard to make a case that steelhead living in the same ocean at the same time as the failing sockeye and chinook stocks now arriving won’t be affected similarly. Note that the Nass system estimates for those two species have just been downgraded from “below average” to far below average. Second, the deflection of FN harvest away from sockeye and chinook to steelhead is unprecedented. If steelhead are going to be any replacement for those other two preferred species, the numbers that will be required would amount to much higher exploitation of steelhead than ever before. And, yes, there is a big potential for specific stocks to be seriously impacted depending on how much fishing effort is directed in the typically high steelhead encounter areas (Kispiox to Hazelton, Kitseguecla, Kitwanga, Moricetown….)

      The biggest concern at present is there is no evidence the management agency responsible for steelhead being involved in this looming scenario. They don’t respond to any inquiries or comments and they don’t show up at the meetings where these issues are front and centre. How can any of us be optimistic over the plight of steelhead at this point?

  • Doesn’t seem like an improvement in fisheries management to me Bob. Or very cautious. This whole release reads as if it’s intended to do the exact opposite of its stated purposes (cooperation and caution).

    We never seem to learn. Exploit ’til it’s gone.

  • If collectively, we sport anglers do not come together and cease our divisive territorial and methodical bickering, gill nets and commercial harvest of the entire oceanic food chain will continue their unmitigated free reign.

    There is only one off-set to their lobby and that is a larger or egual monetary lobby with larger numbers of votes behind it. Politicians thrive and respond to money and votes. It is incumbent on us to equal the money behind the lobby and exceed the votes. The public image of the FN with a tear in his eye needs to be replace with images of gill nets and environmental wasting. Just like Bambi is for the most part not socially unacceptable, so must the wild oceanic food chain.

    We need to begin greeting one another as brothers of a cause and immediately cease dividing one another over the use of pink worms or other petty minutiae. Sport angling is not the cause and can be the cure.

    • Don’t underestimate sport angling as part of the equation of diminishing fish resources. The fish pie is essentially fixed and/or diminishing while our notion all we have to do sustain it is to let everything we catch swim away. All that while we have more access to more places and more technology and fish catching knowledge to apply when we get there can’t possibly go on forever without consequences. One of the biggest obstacle we face today is acquainting anglers with their collective ability to compromise their own future.

  • Bob… I absolutely agree with what you say. Everyone wants to take and nobody wants to give. However, (however being akin to the dreaded “but”) when dealing with that pie, how is it sliced? How is it apportioned to Commercial; FN; non-FN Substance; Sport Fishing and Other as a cumulative remaining category. All I am suggesting is that we take on the larger issues before dividing our forces.

    Yes, I realize even my catch and release keep em’ wet fishing has an impact all-be-it small in the scheme…. Regardless my relatively small impact, sometimes I question if I shouldn’t just take up badminton?

    However, things going the way they are someone would find fault with using feathers for the shuttlecock!

  • Pretty quiet at Motown Canyon these past weekend !

  • Man is the only species who understand what would be required , yet continues to precede. Global climate change, fresh water scarcity, depleted fish stocks, overpopulation, etc. We have seen the problem–and it is US!!

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