How many strikeouts and shutouts does it take before the season is over? Lets revisit that summer steelhead situation in the once famous Stamp River in that context.
After repeated attempts to obtain responses from everyone between the Port Alberni Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) office and the Prime Minister’s office, finally a letter has arrived. It came on the heels of my posting of a letter to the DFO Director General (DG), Rebecca Reid, right here on July 31.
So, here’s how it works. I sent my email to DG Reid and posted it as noted. Two days later the Port Alberni DFO man I’d not been able to secure any answers from for weeks regarding the 2017 fisheries and who never did respond to similar requests in 2016 sent me an email dancing around the edges my long outstanding questions. The following day the DG herself acknowledged my July 31 letter and committed to answering the same list of questions which I had sent to her in frustration over the chronic lack of response from anywhere else in the DFO hierarchy. No doubt this sequence was purely coincidental. Those answers promised by the DG on August 3 arrived on August 23 over the signature of designated hitter Andrew Thompson, the Regional Director of the Fisheries Management Branch. Before dwelling on that, though, it’s worth painting a bit more of a picture on how the system works.
When one specific subject highlighted in my many messages (nets stretched right across the Somass River in clear contravention of the Fisheries Act of Canada) began looking like it was going to be hard to make go away there was an immediate exchange of communications between the DFO office in Port Alberni and the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) detachment. The local DFO man contended in his August 2 email (the Thompson letter used the identical wording in his August 23 letter) they conducted joint patrols with the RCMP to enforce regulations around blocking the river channel. That was worth checking out. Immediately upon receipt of that Aug 2 email, I called up a person I know who is a member that detachment. I explained the situation and asked who the appropriate RCMP member was so that I may contact him/her to explore the information from DFO. I was given the name and number of the RCMP member and advised my name and number had been passed on and I should expect a call. That never happened. I’m certain it was entirely due to the enforcement people closing ranks to fend off any hint of a problem.
Now for that letter of August 23 from Mr. Thompson. Here it is and here’s why I consider it downright offensive.
The commercial and FN fisheries in Alberni Inlet and the lower reaches of the Somass River are focused entirely on two enhanced stocks – the Sproat and Great Central lakes sockeye and the Robertson Creek Hatchery chinook. The once plentiful anadromous salmonid stocks native to at least a dozen other streams in Alberni Inlet are either extirpated or ignored. My blood boils when I see verbiage like that which appears in the middle of the first page of Mr. Thompson’s letter. It smacks of people who are drowning in a sea of policy and whose view doesn’t extend beyond a computer monitor.
I know all about the conditions of license re catch reporting by commercial fishermen. I’ve read all that material on DFO’s Fisheries Notice web site for years. I also know a fair bit about the separation of the Conservation and Protection Division of DFO (i.e. the fish cops) and the Fisheries Managers. It is not an overstatement to say the connection is minimal and there is no such thing as compliance monitoring and enforcement regarding commercial catch reporting, especially if it has anything to do with steelhead. If the catch reporting system is anywhere near as efficient and effective as Mr. Thompson would have us believe, why would it take repeated inquiries and a full year to obtain the catch information for steelhead from 2016? Why should I have to wait until 2018 to learn what the mandatory catch reports say for steelhead in 2017? The sockeye numbers are compiled immediately and summarized in weekly in-season bulletins issued by the Port Alberni DFO office. Why would steelhead and every other species be treated differently?
Seven FNs conduct a variety of Domestic, FSC (Food, Social and Ceremonial) and EO (Economic Opportunity) fisheries but “privacy rules” forbid disclosure of which FN caught how many fish under which category, where and when? Are we allowed to know what the definition of each of those categories of fisheries is? How does all this square with what most of us might consider to be “fisheries management”? We do pay public servants to do their management thing on our collective behalf, don’t we?
Does anyone else wonder what the “steelhead encounter” figures mean? How does that relate to steelhead released (other than their sum is the same)? Even if the reported catches of steelhead reflect the true catch, do any of the management players understand what a couple of hundred summer steelhead mean to the remaining Alberni Inlet area populations? I wonder if those responsible for presenting those figures understand the difference between the narrow, shallow lower Somass River which is tidal but a completely different fishery from that which occurs in Alberni Inlet?
One might think that the agency responsible for the production of hatchery summer steelhead from its own Robertson Creek facility right there at the headwaters of the Somass system might be curious about the incidence of adipose clipped hatchery versus unclipped wild steelhead caught by commercial and FN nets. The frequency of adipose clipped steelhead could be a very instructive piece of data for a number of reasons. I’m betting the question has never entered the consciousness of anyone involved in the catch reporting business. The fact there has never been mention of single adipose clipped steelhead in circumstances where such fish could not possibly have been absent from the catch strikes me as one more measure of the veracity of the catch reports.
More on the enforcement business. Now I get it. The reason I have never seen a fishery officer on or near the water during my multiple trips to the Somass River over the past three years is because the patrols occur at night. Those patrol persons must possess some serious navigation equipment and skills to be able to find their way through all the gill nets deployed overnight by those FN fishers out there in Alberni Inlet. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how many patrols have been made and how many “incidents” were detected and how many of them ever resulted in enforcement action? Then again, given the complete latitude the FN fisheries are given, why would there even be patrols?
And, Mr. Thompson, you really do need better advice from whoever is responding to my questions around blockage of the river channel by FN fishers with drift gill nets. Your people couldn’t have been on the river and/or couldn’t have looked at the photos I’ve posted and still provide such information to you with a straight face. The Somass River net fishery conducted by the FNs is nothing less than war on fish whenever it is open. I almost feel sorry for anyone in DFO who is compelled to state that there is anything remotely approaching selectivity, release of non-target species, catch reporting, escape routes underneath nets, etc. As for joint patrols between Aboriginal Fishery Guardians, Fishery Officers, and RCMP members and the effectiveness of your consultative and education measures, I suggest you need to do some work to get that story better organized. (If what I’ve witnessed and photographed so many times over three years represents a positive outcome for any of these joint patrols and consultative and education measures I shudder to think what chaos would exist otherwise.)
Thanks for the advice on who to contact within the province re steelhead issues on the Somass system. You might like to know the person you suggested was one of my technical staff for several years before I retired. I’ve spoken with him frequently enough to know he does not participate in the in-season DFO “harvest committee” sessions hosted regularly by your Port Alberni staff. In short, there is no voice on behalf of steelhead. The reps you might point to as non-government spokespersons are primarily interested in generating as much business as possible by arguing for the highest possible catch and possession limits on those enhanced sockeye and chinook. Many (most?) of those you would list as recreational fishing community reps are too busy chasing chinook, halibut and tuna far, far away until those fisheries taper down for the season and they all return to freshwater to begin guiding for those magnificent surplus chinook bound for Robertson Creek hatchery.
The ultimate statement evidencing the attitude of DFO toward steelhead and uncomfortable questions sent their way comes near the end of Mr. Thompson’s letter. “…………..we consider the responses to the abovementioned areas to be complete and will not respond on these specific matters again.”
In looking back on all of this I find a tiny bit of satisfaction in having made the effort to include a chapter on the Stamp/Somass steelhead in my upcoming book, Days of River Past. At least I can rest my keyboard feeling I did what I could to leave a trail. I’m thinking there is one more suggestion I can make though. Instead of adding to the current momentum around tearing down historic monuments across the country, why don’t we construct one? It could be a modest little effort set up right at the main intersection in Port Alberni, the one where anyone can rest on a nice bench beside a scenic riverside walkway and watch fisheries management unfold right there in front of them. On that monument we could put the names of all the DFO officials from Port Alberni to Ottawa on whose watch the final nail in the coffin of the steelhead immortalized by Roderick Haig-Brown and Gerneral Noel Money was driven.