Now would seem to be a reasonable time for a hard look at the cards in the deck we’re playing with?
- Lets begin with the visual impact stuff that ought to be capturing a lot more attention than it is. To put this into perspective, Thompson fish are the steelhead equivalent of Adams River sockeye. The latter are proving to be an emerging concern as the ink dries here. Of course the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is pulling out all the stops to address that situation. Eyes will be on DFO as the interior Fraser steelhead return unfolds this year. The following three graphics are clipped from documents prepared by both government and non-government Thompson River steelhead fishery interests.
- The Chilcotin steelhead, those fish that once graced government tourism brochures, seldom rate honourable mention among sport fishermen any more. The other three stocks of Interior Fraser Steelhead (IFS) are so far off the radar they may as well be classed as extirpated.
- Commercial fishery interception of IFS is not restricted to just the lower Fraser River and its approaches or even to the southwest coast of Vancouver Island and Johnstone Strait. Those fish are undoubtedly caught (and die) as a result of any net fisheries operating on their migration route. That likely includes at least occasional interceptions in the outer southeast Alaska fisheries and the domestic fisheries that occur at points between there and the northern tip of Vancouver Island. (Those fisheries are far less prominent today than they have been in years past.)
- The notion that steelhead are protected from commercial harvest is unsupportable. Catch reporting is equally deficient so no one really knows how many steelhead of which origin are being removed as they migrate south along the BC coast to the Fraser itself. The numbers of IFS steelhead involved are undoubtedly small but, at this point in history, every fish counts. Remember also that the assumption every fish released from a commercial fishing vessels equates to a spawner (unless harvested by a Frist Nations fisher or subjected to recreational fisheries impacts) has no basis in fact.
- The in-river First Nations fisheries between the mouth of the Fraser and the IFS tributary of origin are not controlled and not controllable. Adams River sockeye attract lots of attention in a year such as this but, even there, the reality is the enforcement of any restrictions on FN fisheries falls far short of eliminating gill nets from the Fraser. It will be business as usual as soon as the main pulse of sockeye is past. IFS steelhead will be caught and never reported regardless of what is said in front of microphones and cameras.
- The executive summary of the current federal/provincial agreement with respect to interior Fraser steelhead (IFS) reads as follows:
“Selective commercial fisheries will be considered consistent with Policy for Selective Fishing in Canada’s Pacific Fisheries. In addition, other commercial south coast fisheries are to release to the water with the least possible harm all steelhead caught incidentally in fisheries targeting other species. For Fraser River commercial gill net fisheries, the strategy is to protect 80% of the Interior Fraser River steelhead run with a high degree of certainty. The Department will continue to engage with the Province on the strategy for addressing steelhead impacts in fisheries.”
If you’re masochistic enough to wade through 536 pages of process and policy you can look up the entire “Integrated Fisheries Management Plan” for DFO’s South Coast Division at http://waves-vagues.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Library/40601006.pdf See if you agree with me that, over the past decade, there has been a strong inverse relationship between the volume of IFMPs and the abundance of IFS/Thompson steelhead. The same old same old steelhead related language is simply rolled over from year to year. All one has to do to confirm just how ineffective these annual plans are is to look at the preceding figures. The same can obviously be said about that ongoing “engagement with the province”. Of course one could also point out that there is a fundamental difference between 80% of 10,000 steelhead and 80% of 3 or 400 steelhead. Then there is that interesting term “a high degree of certainty”. Any guesses on how that is applied?
- An eleventh hour initiative to include steelhead in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Wild Salmon Policy is now catching the attention of the province. I remind them that the WSP took years to craft before it was finally signed off in 2005. In 2016, with implementation of the WSP not even close to being achieved, it was scheduled for a four phase review process. The descriptions of that process are disturbingly familiar – “….consulting broadly with parties across BC and the Yukon on the draft implementation plan. Information about additional WSP-related activities being undertaken by First Nations, partners, and stakeholders across BC and the Yukon will be sought, and a final draft of the document will be readied for approvals.” Surely no one in a position of familiarity with the WSP and the inner workings of government is naïve enough to believe engaging in a multi–year process to revise a policy that was never implemented to begin with will do anything to save a species the management agency in charge has refused to recognize for more than a century.
- The next IFS conservation initiative capturing attention (again) is Canada’s endangered species legislation (SARA or Species at Risk Act). One might assume securing a SARA listing for an iconic stock like Thompson steelhead, down to a meagre 254 spawners in 2017, is a no brainer. But, a federal process entertaining a west coast species under the jurisdiction of a provincial agency does nothing to enhance the prospects for success. Politics aside, some very good and very concerned people involved with the principle group here (COSEWIC, Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) have offered sound advice on the process involved. Stated simply, we are talking four years from now just to get a status report through all the preliminaries and no certainty around an actual listing even if that hurdle is overcome. Here’s a clip from an exchange of personal emails on the subject from February, 2017. It ought to serve as a reasonable indication of what those IFS would face. The italicized piece is a direct quote from an excellent article on the Species At Risk Act posted at: http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/february-2017/recovering-the-species-at-risk-act/
Then, the status report goes to a federal minister who…………“may then consult with provincial and territorial governments, Indigenous organizations and wildlife management boards, industry, civil society and citizens. These consultations in turn inform the minister’s recommendation to cabinet, which ultimately decides whether to accept or reject COSEWIC’s advice (or, in rare cases, to send the assessment back to COSEWIC
- With both sockeye and chinook fishing by FNs on hold or at least partially constrained will we see a repeat of 2016 where DFO encouraged FNs to target chum salmon whose run timing is the worst case scenario for overlap with IFS? How do we feel about taking nothing more of a huge commercial fishery catch of chum salmon than the roe of the females? How responsible is that? How does it square with the Wild Salmon Policy?
- One more item to think about – as the southern and central interior of British Columbia continue to smolder through an unprecedented forest fire season, has anyone stopped to consider the predictable outcomes over the next year or two in particular? A disturbing amount of upland habitat in the Fraser drainages contributing to what remains of interior Fraser steelhead has been left devoid of forest cover. Soils will erode, sedimentation will increase, water temperature which is already a problem will certainly not improve, hydrology will be negatively influenced……. All things considered the fire devastation of 2017 is just loading more bricks on the conservation wagon.
What will it take to change the trajectory for Interior Fraser Steelhead? A quantum shift in thinking by all concerned parties is first and foremost. What are the chances of anything like that occurring? Are First Nations going to forego salmon to conserve steelhead? Are the divergent factions within the organized recreational fishing community going to join forces? Are the 90% or more of the recreational anglers who don’t even belong to any conservation organization or fisheries advocacy group going to weigh in all of a sudden? Is DFO going to acknowledge steelhead conservation concerns in any meaningful way? Are those who promote demonstration fisheries that are more about business than conservation going to continue eye poking First Nations fishers who have constitutionally protected rights and then expect them to help save steelhead? Is there any sign that other management jurisdiction, the Province of British Columbia, will ever show up?