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.