(Or, to steal a line from Yvon Chouinard, when all the basketball players are seven feet tall its time to raise the hoop!)
How many times have we heard reference to lowering the bar, shifting the baseline or, in our grandfather’s vernacular, the good old days? Anyone who has been around the recreational, commercial and First Nations fisheries for any significant period would have to be anaesthetized to fail to appreciate the fact there is a strong inverse relationship between people and fish. With respect to the species British Columbia is renowned for (salmon and steelhead in particular) one only has to look at the pattern of diminishing returns with increasing distance south of our border to be struck with the strength of that relationship. I’m speaking of wild fish here, not the stopgap hatchery fish too many people think are sustainable. They’ll learn eventually.
BC is hardly exempt from the pattern to the south. How are wild salmon and steelhead doing within striking distance of the now densely populated southwest corner? It isn’t until we find ourselves somewhere along the central coast of the province there is any evidence of stability of fish populations over recent decades. The clock still ticks however.
Now, there are those who will trot out catch statistics to support their belief the fishing is as good or better now than it was in their father or grandfather’s day. Most often this sort of pronouncement comes from those intimately familiar with all the latest, greatest tricks of their trade that disguise the true abundance of fish. So, what is the evidence in support of something other than the current suite of circumstances that leads loud voices to trumpet the position all is well in the water?
When catch and release regulations for steelhead fishing gained a toehold in the late 1970s and, within a decade or so (depending on which part of the province you’re in), spread to almost every well travelled water the modus operandus of sport fishermen was to fish until a limit was caught and quit fishing. Double digit catch days were not unknown but that was certainly not the expectation or the objective of the vast majority of the dominant generation of anglers held to be the best rods on the water. The other thing of note is there were virtually no boats being used on the rivers that supported almost all the steelhead angling traffic in this province. The precipitous drop in angling traffic following implementation of catch and release left a new generation of anglers of anglers in a different situation than most of them had ever experienced. The upward trend in competition for progressively fewer fish that had been the pattern all through the late 1970s and early 80s reversed itself quickly. Those that were happy to fish on the new catch and release basis had all the fish to themselves. Catch rates were often impressive, thus creating the illusion of abundance. Then came the mid-1980s.
The years 1984, 85 and 86 arrived after catch and release rules dominated steelhead streams in southwestern BC. Those years later proved to be unprecedented in terms of the relative abundance of steelhead. Elsewhere in the province where catch and release had not yet been implemented the same pattern of fish abundance prevailed. Along with fish came rapid commercialization of their pursuit.
Guiding steelhead anglers emerged as the new issue on dozens of streams that had never seen anything of the sort previously. The pervasive view was there was money to be made. The gold rush was on. Those who were around Skeena country at the time will recall the classified waters scenario that developed through the late 80s and early 90s. Twenty years later the so called quality fishing the classified waters initiatives were formulated to preserve had become a very different reality. Coincidentally the infamous internet emerged as the ultimate source of knowledge on where, when and how to catch steelhead and promote guided angling such as never before. It wasn’t just the Skeena country that succumbed to intensified pressure and new technology. Every decent steelhead stream from Haida Gwaii to Port Alberni and the lower mainland could be found advertised as a commercialized angling opportunity that never existed for more than a tiny fraction of the history of any of those rivers.
And what about the target of the new wave steelhead anglers and guides who, by the turn of the century, had become remarkably more efficient predators? Were there any more fish to be had or were catch numbers merely a reflection of how good us anglers had become at catching a higher and higher proportion of what was out there? We know from comprehensive investigations of steelhead life history and survival undertaken between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s the ocean environment formerly believed to be a constant was anything but. The backward glance at the turn of the century confirmed the business of unprecedented (at least in our time) high ocean survival during the mid-80s, the period that catalyzed so much of what followed. That ocean survival scenario didn’t hold up but the opposing forces of lower supply but increasing demand continued to unfold throughout most of the steelhead range.
Take a look around the world of the present on British Columbia steelhead streams. The angling pressure is now focused on the shortest list in the history of the province. Twenty years ago there were dozens of streams that supported catches of a five hundred, a thousand or even more wild steelhead annually. Some, like the Vedder, the Dean and several of the Skeena tributaries still do. But, what about the Cowichan, the Stamp/Somass system, the Campbell/Quinsam, the Gold, the Qualicums, the Salmon, the Nimpkish and so on. Then there is (was) the Thompson. The angling effort and catch that was once spread over many dozens of streams is now somewhat less in total than it was at it’s peak but the increasing concentration on the remaining prime locations and times has been pronounced. That isn’t a function of fish abundance. It’s solely the product of progressively fewer rivers still supporting enough fish to attract interest and conservation measures (angling closures) on a growing list that don’t. On Vancouver Island, for example, the large majority of the steelhead angling effort over the past decade has been absorbed by the Stamp/Somass, the Cowichan and the Gold. Sadly, the Gold is slipping badly and won’t be worthy of mention for much longer.
Few who are qualified to speak to the issue would argue there are as many steelhead today as there was at various times in the past. That is the primary reason for the overall decline in the number of anglers. The catch trend does not parallel declining effort, however. That is a direct function of the enormously increased efficiency of anglers. Better equipment, better knowledge, better access via road, boat or aircraft gives anglers of the present fishing power heretofore unknown. More and more of the available fish in the streams still open are being caught, often repeatedly. Sooner or later that point will crystalize among anglers and managers. Think about that and the solutions that might be applied to address that inevitability.
Aug 1, 2016