By now those with an interest in the summer steelhead stocks returning to the iconic rivers of British Columbia in 2017 are generally aware there are growing concerns about the size and health of those stocks. The Dean and Skeena river systems attract most of the attention in this regard while lesser known tributaries of the Nass River, immediately north of the Skeena, go largely unnoticed. Beyond the Nass are the other two major Pacific drainages, the Stikine and Taku, that are out of sight and out of mind for even the most knowledgeable members of the steelhead fraternity. That’s another story.
The Skeena situation is increasingly publicized because its steelhead are the best known and most sought after. Most of the enlightened steelhead anglers I know are well aware of the collapse of the sockeye stocks (90% or more of them originating from the artificial spawning channels at Babine Lake) and what they believe to be closure of the commercial fishery in the approaches to the Skeena. That is always the dream come true for anglers. No commercial fishery means every steelhead gets a free pass to the river beyond the killing fields. But does it?
Before Skeena bound salmon and steelhead enter Canadian waters they are intercepted by Southeast Alaskan (SEA) fisheries. The two fisheries long established to be of significant influence on Skeena, Nass (and, in some years even Fraser) are the Noyes Island seine fishery and the Cape Fox gill net fishery. After that we have a domestic fishery (DFO statistical area 3), ostensibly for Nass River origin salmon, but that fishery is squeezed in between SEA and the Skeena approaches (DFO statistical area 4). This year, whereas the Skeena fishery remains closed to conserve seriously depressed chinook and sockeye, all those other fisheries have remained open. One thing to remember here is that many of the commercial fisherfolk operating in that open territory (i.e. area 3) between SEA and the more southern approaches to the Skeena are members of the First Nations communities. Their inland relatives are the same ones calling for elimination of recreational fisheries for chinook and sockeye in both Nass and Skeena and announcing their intention to harvest steelhead in compensation for failed sockeye and chinook returns.
The July 18 update from our federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans gives us a sense of how things really work in decision making processes thee and me are not privy to. According to the DFO and Nisga’a fishery managers the Nass sockeye and chinook stocks are not following their pre-season predictions of slightly below average abundance. Those forecasts were at odds with well publicized scientific information of months ago as well as the expectations for those same species in the adjacent Skeena. Now, all of a sudden, the Nass chinook and sockeye are seen to be only half of the predicted levels. But, whereas the Skeena approaches were closed to all commercial fishing, as were the in-river recreational fishery for both species, the Nass approaches were open for net fisheries. To date there have been nine days of gill netting in those waters. Not to worry though, there was a non-retention regulation in place for steelhead. Fishers reported harvesting 34,443 sockeye (and releasing 246 steelhead, probably half of which were kelts). The only other species caught in any numbers was chum at less than 20% of the sockeye number. Chum are also widely considered to be a conservation concern almost everywhere in the Nass area and certainly throughout the Skeena. They were supposed to be released for the first six of the nine days fished thus far. If anyone thinks those gill netted and released chum and steelhead are all still swimming I beg to differ. Put all that commercial fishing information together and the question becomes what justification ever existed to open the area 3 commercial fisheries initially much less continue them for several weeks? Is it possible that Employment Insurance and politics trump fish?
In recent days the Nisga’a fishery managers demanded the recreational fishery for Nass chinook be closed for conservation purposes. DFO complied. A closure is entirely justifiable under the circumstances. But, the hypocrisy of the Nisga’a and DFO targeting anglers after already fishing on those same stocks with gill nets for nine days is a bit much. The seine fishers are in the same category. They have fished for seven days under non-retention rules for chinook, sockeye and steelhead and are certain to be given many more days to harvest virtually worthless pink salmon and more of those conservation concern chum. (Why seiners are compelled to release chinook but gill netters aren’t is another point of confusion.) Compliance with the rules around treatment of non-target species has to rank as the greatest charade of all. My friends from Carleton University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst will have to forgive me for repeating that their exhaustive research of the blood chemistry of fly angler caught steelhead far inland on the Bulkley River pales to insignificance relative to the need to explode all the myths around the fate of “released” fish in all these other fisheries.
Then there are those SEA fisheries. The Cape Fox gang is hard at it catching and retaining everything, including chinook and sockeye undoubtedly bound for both the Nass and Skeena. Noyes Island is just cranking up. Of course no steelhead data ever materialize from SEA. They learned long ago that non-retention, non-possession for that troublesome species guarantees there is no catch reporting that might be used against them. The notion that SEA seiners release “safely and unharmed” anything they cannot retain legally is another of the classic commercial fishery deceptions. Here’s a bit of evidence of how fish are handled in those SEA fisheries. These URLs are not cherry picked. They’re a random selection among dozens, perhaps hundreds, of You Tube clips that pop up when you do a search for SEA seine fisheries. Have a look at any or all of these and then see if you believe the SEA fisheries managers when they contend non-target species are sorted and released safely and unharmed.
As the screws tighten on our domestic north coast fisheries the next best bet for commercial net fishing vessels licensed for that area is the approaches to the Bella Coola and, of course, the Dean. Stay tuned for an unhappy story as that season unfolds. Further south, that Port Alberni area fishery for a single stock of enhanced sockeye is being prosecuted with the usual oblivion and practices toward about any other species. In keeping with the 2015 and 2016 conspiracy of silence toward my inquiries, objections to DFO over how that fishery is conducted this season have gone unanswered.
We’re entering uncharted territory as the days and weeks wear on. No one can say with certainty yet how the fabled summer steelhead of the Skeena will fare this year. History instructs we are somewhere around 10% of the annual escapement to the Skeena to date. If that turns out to be the case, the 2017 return would be less than 20,000 fish. I need the DFO and/or First Nations fisheries managers to explain to me how protecting 500,000 or more sockeye by targeting chinook and steelhead that are only 5% as abundant can possibly satisfy the food, social and ceremonial demands of the FNs, even if they managed to catch every last specimen of those two species. What does it take to convince DFO and the FNs that targeting chinook and/or steelhead under present circumstances is an unprecedented abrogation of responsibility? How much damage will be done as the endless debate around what constitutes a conservation problem for steelhead goes in circles for yet another year?
I said previously the looming scenario is one requiring everyone to down tools to conserve what is left. What are the chances?