Here’s a bit of perspective on where we sit with steelhead returning to the Skeena this year. A table comparing numbers from recent years of test fishery results helps. Some will contend that the test fishery indices for the various species don’t adequately reflect the actual number of fish that have passed the test fishery site near the head of tide on the lower Skeena. That is an endless debate. What isn’t or shouldn’t be debatable is the straight up comparison of the various indices between recent years. The methodology in deriving them has not changed over that time, nor has the calendar. Here’s what we have to July 31 for 2017 relative to the half dozen preceding years, plus 1998. I included the latter because it was a year of zero domestic commercial fishing (coho conservations measures introduced by then federal Minister of Fisheries, David Anderson) and therefore represents the unaltered species run timing rather than just the proportion of the run that didn’t get caught prior to reaching the Skeena test fishery.
Skeena test fishery indices for sockeye, chinook and steelhead as of July 31 as a percentage of the season ending index for those same species:
Year Sockeye Chinook Steelhead
2016 62 83 44
2015 51 83 40
2014 63 96 25
2013 87 95 39
2012 86 91 36
2011 67 91 18
1998 81 95 49
What the numbers tell us is a substantial proportion of the sockeye return is already in the river (the up to the minute estimate from DFO is 73% of the expected 2017 sockeye return is now through), as are almost all of the chinook and likely around 40% of the steelhead. There is more to consider though. Every year covered here, except 1998, saw significant commercial fishing along the steelhead migration pathway between Southeast Alaska and the mouth of the Skeena. In other words, the proportion of the runs that reached the test fishery site was less than what was there before those fish encountered net fleets. If 1998 is more reflective of the true run timing for steelhead we can assume about half the 2017 return of steelhead is in the Skeena as we speak. Remember, there has been no commercial fishing in the immediate Skeena approaches this year so the 2017 numbers may be a more accurate predictor of the natural run timing than would otherwise be the case.
Now, lets examine 2017 more closely. What is evident is the numbers of sockeye, chinook and steelhead are all seriously depressed. Sockeye are near historic low as are chinook. Steelhead numbers have been as low or even slightly lower to this point in the season in early years of the test fishery but, remember, all those years were influenced heavily by a commercial gill net fleet of many hundreds of boats fishing four and even five days per week. With none of that in 2017 we sit at a steelhead index of 15.75 as of July 31. That translates to an estimate of 3,859 steelhead or one steelhead for every 114 sockeye. Even if we used the worst case scenario of 2011 when only 18% of the steelhead return had reached the test fishery by July 31 and applied that percentage to 2017, the total return to the Skeena would be only 21,439. If we went to the other extreme and chose 1998 as the best predictor, the total steelhead return in 2017 would be 7,876. The estimated minimum spawning requirement of 22,000. And, of course, the estimated number of steelhead passing the test fishery does not represent the number of spawners. First Nations harvest substantial numbers of steelhead every year, predators get some and an army of catch and release anglers (never mind poachers) also leaves a significant footprint.
Another feature of the 2017 scenario that is instructive is there have only been 5 days when the steelhead test index exceeded 1.0 and none where it reached 2.0 up to the end of July. That is virtually unprecedented. For example, the average number of days of indices exceeding 1.0 over the preceding six years was 15 and many days in those years saw indices in excess of 2, 3, 4 and even higher.
With every indication available pointing squarely at a steelhead conservation issue, what do we see out there? Is there any detectable presence of the provincial government agency charged with managing our steelhead resource? Has the federal agency that is seen to be endorsing FNs to harvest steelhead in replacement of foregone sockeye and chinook recognized the severity of the 2017 circumstances? Do those people really believe the FNs can selectively harvest chinook by using a large mesh gill net set for many hours at a time or even one drifted through prime areas? (Perhaps they should look at how many sockeye the large mesh chinook gill net used by their own Albion test fishermen on the lower Fraser catches every year.) And, to repeat the same old question, do DFO and/or the FNs believe it is responsible or credible to target steelhead that are more than two orders of magnitude less abundant than sockeye that are off limits for food, social and ceremonial demands? Surely it is understood that even if every Skeena steelhead was harvested it wouldn’t be enough to fill the void attributable to impoverished sockeye and chinook. Will there ever come a day when DFO will acknowledge steelhead might be in the same conservation mode as their precious sockeye and chinook? (Check out lost and forgotten chum salmon status for an even worse example!) Has the angling community, especially the commercial angling community, acknowledged or even recognized the scenario? Are the guides and foreign booking agents sending out anything other than “come and get ’em solicitations?
One more time – this is uncharted territory. Are we going to roll the dice and pray or pretend that 2017 is another example of the run being late or the test fishery underestimating the return? Are we going to sit on the sidelines and not even attempt to address any element of the circumstance we find ourselves in? Surely there is enough information out there now to do more than preside over the status quo.