Situation Critical

Provincial biologist Rob Bison recently released the post-season assessment of the status of Thompson and Chilcotin river steelhead that entered the Fraser River in the fall of 2016. From Rob’s report:

“Estimates of Thompson River Steelhead, spawning in the spring of 2017, sum to a total of 254. The estimated uncertainty, expressed as the 95% credible interval, is 170-450. Estimates by tributary watershed areas are as follows: Deadman 47, Bonaparte 57, Coldwater 22, Spius 54, Lower Nicola (including tributary creeks) 74. These are the lowest spawning population estimates of Thompson River Steelhead ever observed since monitoring began in 1978. The Thompson River Steelhead population aggregate is classed as a Conservation Concern if the spawning population is between 430 and 1200. The stock is considered to be in a state of Extreme Conservation Concern if the spawning population fails to exceed 430.”

“The estimate for steelhead in the Chilcotin watershed is 180, the vast majority of which is expected to have spawned in the Chilko River (~90%) and the minority expected to have spawned in the Taseko and Little Chilcotin watersheds. This estimate of 180 spawners is the 4th lowest since monitoring began in 1972. The lowest estimate of 134 was observed in the spring of 2016. The Chilcotin River Steelhead population aggregate is classed as a Conservation Concern if the spawning population is between 300 and 760. The stock is considered to be in a state of Extreme Conservation Concern if the spawning population fails to exceed 300.”

There is no mention of the other smaller, less heralded interior Fraser summer steelhead stocks (once known as the west Fraser tributary stocks). I don’t fault Rob Bison for that. It is merely a reflection of the reality the only fish left to worry about are the Thompson’s. Even the once well known Chilcotin stock has all but dropped off the radar. It is bordering on unbelievable how far down the extirpation path all those stocks have progressed in less than one human lifetime. The revered Thompson steelhead down to 1 or 2% of their abundance when that river was first acknowledged as steelhead mecca?! The results from 2016 ought to be enough to catalyze action but, if not, consider a bit of crystal ball gazing.

Unless Thompson fish somehow manage to escape the consistent pattern of steelhead abundance up and down the coast this summer, there will be less of them in 2017 than there was in 2016. And, that’s before they get to the Fraser. When they arrive they’ll be on the heels of chinook and sockeye stocks that failed to meet the abundance threshold for commercial fisheries and even First Nations Food,Social and Ceremonial (FSC) fisheries. It remains to be seen if the FSC fishery threshold will be met by later returning sockeye but, even if it is, there is very likely to be a lot of catch-up fishing occurring along the steelhead migration route. If 2016 repeats itself the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will encourage the FN community to harvest chum to compensate for foregone chinook and sockeye. The overlap in run timing between chum and steelhead is a worst case scenario. Commercial fisheries for chum over top of critically low numbers of Thompson steelhead would be unconscionable but far less influential than similarly timed FSC fisheries which typically operate with infinitely fewer constraints.

The other worrisome issue regarding sockeye returns is the discharge level and water temperature in the Fraser. Right now the Fraser is running at 27% below average flow and 1.1C above average temperature. The temperature is predicted to rise another 1.5C in the next week. Caution abounds under those circumstances, at least for highly valued sockeye. Upriver destined, early returning stocks do not do well in water that warm. Many will die enroute. That just emphasizes the likelihood of little or no fishing in the Fraser until much later in the season when the conservation concerns for sockeye are less prevalent. Of course that would be during the period when steelhead are most likely to be encountered.

All things considered, the looming interior Fraser steelhead situation calls for action. That will not happen in the absence of major noise from steelhead advocates. History proves the Department of Fisheries and Oceans managers who call the shots will never admit to a steelhead conservation problem. The provincial people are so overwhelmed and supressed they don’t offer any hope either. If anything is ever going to change it will have to be a result of public pressure at the political levels that might count. Man the keyboards people. It’s now or never.

Comments 10

  • Thank you for sharing this.

  • Wow! Probably time to bring back the bait fishery on the Thompson!

  • What is a Steelhead? Is it a salmon or is it a Trout?
    It is my opinion that many years back DFO decided to prove; “scientifically” that the lowly Steelhead was a salmon. In that way it could become part of the commercial catch. Recently, when the minister of fisheries called to stop supporting the salmon eduction program said the steelhead was a Trout and not part of the program. Therefor; I think it is a fish that has become a bur in DFO’s side and will remain that way.

  • Bob as expected the shuffling of desks is happening. Unfortunately the management of the environment of the freshwater fisheries is being shuffled around like a hot potato. Sounds like the bureaucrats in Victoria are pulling the usual trick of obfuscation when it comes to exactly where to inquire or report.

    So it turns out the gutted and castrated legacy of the environment ministry is just a place for a minister to hang their hat not a real department or agency.

    Here is the response to my complaint about the abuses going on in our so called “sport fishery”

    “Dear Mr. Reesor:

    Thank you for your email of August 5, 2017, addressed to the Honourable George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, regarding the decline of Steelhead Fish in British Columbia. Minister Heyman has referred your email to the Ministry for review.

    While we appreciate that you took the time to share your thoughts, after further review, it has been determined that this topic falls under the purview of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. I have shared a copy of your enquiry with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, for their review and consideration.

    Thank you again for writing.


    Ministry of Environment and

    Climate Change Strategy”

    So what we now see is a shuffle to this catch all department which in reality has no real relationship to fresh water fisheries management, environmental protection or enforcement of any kind.

    Email to

    Essentially the environment minister is dissociated with the land and water base and is purely in charge of blaming everything on climate change and shuffling off any other minor concerns to a catch all ministry the minister of which I am sure is far too busy to worry about something as trivial the loss of the fish from rivers.

    Essentially what I see going on is a classical cya shuffle of the desks when it comes to the loss of anadromous fish in British Columbia’s rivers. The entire enforcement system is a make paperwork rats nest of clowns who’s only interest is keeping the flow of money from the public purse to their offices.

    • Eric, steelhead have been under the passive purvue of MFLNRO for some time now. So the desks were purposefully shuffled prior to the GreeNDP coalition (or whatever you call it).

      Word on the street is that the Min of Ag is actually running the steelhead show behind the scenes, with anyone left in MFLNRO pretty much as placeholders. Apparently this cosy situation predates the 16-year Liberal dynasty, so positive change seems unlikely with new government.

  • Yes it seems that the confused ministry situation obfuscates who exactly deals with fresh water environmental degradation. As things stand the word “environment” has been somehow taken out of the equation and shuffled off as if it is a different concern. That is the point. And this is why we must start putting pressure on all the politicians and fully expose the lack of any real oversight of the unrelenting abuse that goes on in the watersheds.

    We have already lost essential habit capacity to rear sustainable numbers of anadromous fish on South Vancouver Island, as well as the large portion of the Fraser systems. The very same problems are all too quickly moving north.

    As Bob has stated what we have left needs to be protected now and not written off like we are doing here in the south. We can say that rivers like the San Juan, which runs sub surface every season is now a complete write as Chinook habitat and that this is in a large part due to climate change. BUT the fact that there is also almost no duff water retention left in the mountain habitat has exacerbated the situation so that drought can no longer be tolerated. We must slow down the systematic northern progression of environmental destruction in BC if we are to have any fisheries in the future at all.

    These “environmental” concerns must be put back on the front burner politically if anything can be done at all. Perhaps closing the fresh water sport and commercial fishery completely for anadromous fish might wake a few people up. Here I make no distinction as to who is doing the fishing.

    Yes we will take a large financial hit and the so called largely off shore run “guide industry” will scream bloody murder. But better to shake things up now than to wait until there are no anadromous fish left, like on the San Juan.

  • Hi Bob

    Yes it is so sad to witness the death of one of the best and great SH river in our province, and it
    seems there is so little that we can do about it. Harry Lemire would be very sad also, it is good in away he is not here to be a witness to this death to his favorite river.

    Ed Fleming

  • For info this is a copy of the letter sent by the BCFFF to Minister LeBlanc & Doug Donaldson :

    The Honourable Dominic LeBlanc
    Minister, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
    200 Kent St
    Station 15N100
    Ottawa ON K1A 0E6

    Honourable Doug Donaldson
    Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development,
    P.O. Box 9049
    Stn Prov Govt
    Victoria BC

    Dear ministers,

    The BC Federation of Fly Fishers (BCFFF) is taking this opportunity to contact you regarding the dire circumstances surrounding Interior Fraser River steelhead (IFS).

    Recently, our Federation was advised that this year approximately 254 wild steelhead spawned in the Thompson River and its tributaries, the lowest return on record. Those numbers for 2016/17 represent the second consecutive “worst ever” returns in a long history of depressed steelhead stocks. For perspective, it’s believed that as many as 10,000 steelhead spawned each year in the Thompson pre contact.

    The Thompson is one of six river systems that host IFS within a vast geographic area in the BC Interior. All rivers within this region appear to share the same fate or worse, and likely face extirpation unless appropriate action is taken.

    The BCFFF is therefore requesting that all fisheries throughout the migration route of returning adult IFS be closed to fishing as a temporary emergency measure (sport, commercial and aboriginal, both ocean and in-river).

    In addition, we request that the province of BC implement a wild rainbow trout release in all fisheries throughout the range of IFS as the relationship between trout and steelhead is not well understood.

    The BCFFF understands the socio-economic implications of our requests; however, we note that many salmon fisheries within BC are closed under less dire and/or chronic circumstances.

    Yours truly,
    Jesse Blake

    In reality they should have stated that situation is nor unique to the Fraser system. On Vancouver Island the Englishman River historically had runs of 2500 -3000 fish and now has, if we are lucky 200. This river also should be closed to fishing for Steelhead. What hope have you got when the evidence regarding Steelhead numbers is widespread and documented and absolutely nothing is done about it. Same goes for the Stamp, Campbell, Puntledge, Little Qualicum, Big Qualicum, Salmon etc. etc.

    Who really cares apart from the sport fisherman,who chase this iconic fish far and wide. If the West Coast loses its Steelhead there is no hope for BC and its flawed fishery management policies and lack of enforcement.

    Without doubt we are coming close to the end game for this fantastic fish. What a tragedy.

    • Spot on Keith. One wonders if there is anyone left in either federal or provincial “fisheries management” agencies who even recognizes how bad the steelhead situation in this province is.

    • Keith, the BCFFF email you posted focused on IFS because of the potential for “catch up” fishing as Bob referenced above. Even if that scenario doesn’t play out as feared there’s really no steelhead to spare if we’re ever going to entertain the notion of rebuilding these stocks.

      BTW, the email above was a draft version. Minor changes were made to the final copy which is on the BCFFF Facebook page.

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