Where Next on the Skeena?

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.

Comments 14

  • Hi. bob. Nice info. What do you think should be done at this point? What are the options?
    A bit of info. I heard from a First Nations food fisherman that this coming week they have been told to pull all nets. Enforced by Gitksan Fisheries staff. He seemed to be listening. As if not he would loss his net.

    • The next couple of weeks will carve the picture in stone Bob. In the meantime I think everyone involved in the Skeena fishery should be preparing to stop fishing. We need to see some leadership from all the government people (including First Nations) that finally places fish first. No more pandering to commercial fishing interests, no more pretending to atone for the sins of our forefathers, no more finger pointing from recreational fishermen who think they are never part of the problem. We need to ask ourselves the penetrating question – when is conservation the first priority?

  • I’m not as confident as Bob Clay that the fish quit biting completely once they’ve been caught a couple of times. There are certain holdover spots (e.g. holes at the mouths of spawning tribs) that tend to stack fish. These fish arrive in Sep and I’m guessing that half of them don’t move more than 100 meters until they spawn six-plus months later. The river goes out for a few days and these formerly stale fish start hitting again. An angler hooking one of these multiple re-runs can tell very fast: they come in fast, “fins up.” Some have hook marks. Others have recognizable features (“you again?”). These spots are candidates for mandatory limits on fishing intensity via either daily draws, maximum numbers caught or periodic closure (e.g. every-other-day) to give the fish a break. Or anglers can do what Bob C suggests and fish other, less crowded spots with fewer (but fresher, less pressured) fish.

    For 2017 (at least) sport fishermen (guided and unguided) should be minimizing our personal impacts on these depressed stocks. How about “one and done” as a mantra? Or “two and I’m through?” Anglers who don’t find it worth their time/money to travel all the way to the Skeena to enjoy so few hookups should consider giving the system a miss in 2017.

  • Darn good research!
    It’s nice to see someone making this situation transparent!
    If both our Federal and Province Ministries made this type of report public knowledge it just might sway ALL interest parties way of thinking.
    Some may even step back and look at it from a conservation point of view and leave the Rods in the closet or Nets in the shed !
    Guide Outfitters spread along the entire Watershed will likely have allot of pressure in order to fill clients daily requirements. Can’t imagine the pressure the assistant guides are going to have. Likely see a rash of boat traffic morning and afternoon hitting the various runs and historical holding areas more than once during the day! Likely need a marine traffic cop out there!
    It’s going to be a wait and watch scenario, whether it be FN, Guide Outfits with legal rod days, and the average angler joe to whether the fish come first or the values that fill the bank accounts or freezers are priority one!
    To look at this from other side of the fence maybe it’s just another way the Fish Gods are exposing what glut and greed can do to a natural resource !
    Definitely going to make a economical impact which will either weed out the weak or cause local and provincial governments to come up with a bandaid response!
    With BC pumping out over a 100 million and counting with the wildfires this season they likely won’t be too quick to make a decision on financing the downturn in the salmon or steelhead migration industry !
    You can bet your last 20 dollar bill there will be a few pro hatchery advocates pushing that envelope toward the powers to be in order to solve the problem!

  • This will be my 11th year hauling myself north. I have stayed at lodges on the Babin and the Dean. I also fish myself. Why? Because here in Oregon we have destroyed most off our fishing with Dams, logging, agriculture and poor management of commercial fishing. When it’s gone–it’s gone! To lose the skeena fishery would be an irreplaceable disaster for everyone. Steelhead draw people from all over the world and we spend great sums of money on licenses, tags and such. Stores, motels fly shops, gas, liquor, gear, plane tickets. All that is renewable every year if there are these great fish. Fight hard as hell to protect them–for all of us!

    • So what they just said about pressure on a limited number of fish, you’re still going to come up and fish it. Seems reasonable.

    • Fight hard as hell to protect them–for all of us? You should’ve wrote “Fight hard as hell to protect them–FROM all of us! Maybe it’s time you stay home this year. We’ll manage without your money.

  • Where next on the Skeena?

    You can probably find a few answers south of steelhead paradise.

    Hope I’m wrong.

  • With the change in government things might change, but unless people other than the those who profit from the fishery need to have their voices heard. My perspective on the situation on the Skeena is best voiced with this note that I sent to the new minister of the environment.

    ENV.Minister@gov.bc.ca

    Dear Sir;
    This note is regarding the state of our fresh water sport fisheries. In particular the precipitous decline of our most treasured sport fish here in the BC, the Steelhead. And the obscene level of angling pressure that is being put upon the entire wild populations of fish in the Skeena watershed.

    By allowing unfettered access by jet boat on rivers like the Bulkley we are leaving no holding water unchallenged every day during the season. Secondly because there is no limit upon the number of licenses issued for Steelhead on the best easily accessed rivers the paltry numbers that are left in our waters see no respite from being hooked many times during the season.

    I have personally seen far too many played out dead Steelhead in the slack-waters for many years especially in the areas of the Bulkley which see the greatest angling pressure. Steelhead unfortunately are very easy to talk into taking a hook and on the rivers where they are known to bite easily they are subject to being hooked far too many times during the season.

    We have essentially lost the Thompson river fishery and a many others are at the tipping point. It is time to take the conservation of the best of what we have left seriously for a change and limit angling opportunities. Yes this will be a very unpopular move for many, but it is becoming absolutely necessary.

    Thank you
    Eric Reesor

  • Pointing fingers is not going to help, because the problem is multifactoral to include climate changes coming so very rapidly.
    Bob is correct, giving the rivers and fish a rest will make a difference. It might even help the incredible anadromous fish to survive enviro changes enhanced by man. It really is our sacred oath to be stewards of our planet and its wildlife.

  • My question in all of this is: has counting fish for certain spawning channels on the Skeena and Fraser plus commercial fishing in those estuaries caused the demise of Sockeye runs in other tributaries? Is this an eggs in one basket scenario? My disappointment in DFO and the federal and provincial governments to get a handle on this problem is stifling.
    There should be a moratorium on open cage fish farming for closed containment. This to keep chemicals, antibiotics and waste out of our sea, pour the fact that closed containment waste water can be used to grow things like lettuce. Thus cleaning the water and recycling it back for fish growth with very little makeup water required and no chemicals. What further things will happen in the Skeena when the moratorium comes off open cage farming for our northern coast. It would seem to me that if some one with authority in this country had the coconuts to do something we could change things. As for limiting the commercial fisher and sport fisher I think that should be part of it. I love to fish and eat fish but would limit my time on the water. Funny we the sport anglers are willing to play but I’ll bet the only ones. We have to suck it up because climate change isn’t going to help these fish.

    • A lot of ground covered here Gary but I’ll give a bit of a response to some of it. The demise of almost every fish stock you can identify in BC is heavily attributable to mixed stock commercial fishing. Thats simple historical fact. Strong and/or enhanced stocks are targeted at the expense of small stocks that cannot withstand the same level of harvest. The list of weak stocks just keeps getting shorter as, one by one, they are lopped off the bottom and forgotten. Compounding that we are losing fresh water habitat at a steady pace and creating an ocean environment increasingly less accommodating for the fish we cherish most. Yes, closed containment is, by far, the preferred option. That is driven entirely by economics though and the open net pens of the moment win out on that front every time. With markets like eastern US restaurants fuelling the demand for farmed Atlantics and consumers who don’t know or care about the bigger picture, we’re up against it. Governments are not about conserving and protecting wild things. How much evidence do we need to understand that? If the public at large ever gets organized to the point of getting government’s attention, there is hope. We have to do as much as we can in that regard but it is going to take a lot more than a handful of us recreational fishing advocates to get that ball rolling.

  • Thanks for the update and information Bob. I sure appreciate it. Seems like a never ending fight and a thankless one at that. Fortunately, we have some steelhead warriors like yourself. Hope you are well my friend. Old man and I may come up your way and say hi in the fall.

    John

  • In other words you are saying DFO purposely or unwittingly sacrificed other tributaries for the sake of satisfying a commercial fishery and or for what they thought better control of it. This is the sort of Crap that has to stop in this country. Along with governments subsidizing industry in the guise for more jobs and throwing environmental law out the door it’s no small wonder we are not in worse shape. As far as fish farming goes; the enitial start up cost for closed containment is a lot higher than open cage but there is a payback with the saving in chemical, antibiotic use and fish loss due to disease plus being able to grow byproducts with the waste water. Norway is finally unhinged for this now they have realized the devastation open cage farming has had on there wild stocks. Also why in the world did we allow a foreign species to be farmed in Pacific water in the first place. May as well I guess we let all the other creatures in as pets so the idiot owners can let them loose into our environment. Old and tired of all this stupidity. What tha hell happened to good practice solutions.

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