Time for Maintenance?

The 2017 steelhead return to the Skeena is well enough along the picture is not going to change significantly for what remains of the test fishing season. Some hallmarks of the past and present are worth reviewing in the context of where we find ourselves today. Lets start with a few images that might serve to assist in the interpretation of some of the material that follows.

A Google Earth image of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans test fishery site on the lower Skeena River about four miles miles upstream from the commercial fishing boundary (diagonal white line at the centre of the image). The highest steelhead interception areas during a typical commercial fishing season are noted (“River”, “Gap”, “Slough”). The First Nations food, social and ceremonial fishery discussed below is focused on these areas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An expanded image of the test fishing site at low tide. The low slack set of the test net is generally the most prolific for steelhead. The test net is 200 fathoms long (1200 ft) and covers the typical migration corridor almost completely at low tide.

The estimated number of steelhead that have reached the tidal boundary of the Skeena River is approximately 16,000 as of September 8. Two decades ago a group of scientists known as the Pacific Stock Assessment Review Committee (PSARC) established that the minimum number of spawners required to seed the established steelhead habitat in the Skeena system was 22,000, but only if they were equally divided between sexes and perfectly distributed throughout each tributary. Obviously the chance of such a perfect scenario was exceedingly small so an additional number of fish was required to account for that. The PSARC people prescribed 35,000 steelhead spawners as sufficient to offset nature’s imperfections. If memory serves me correctly, the 35K also accounted for a small loss associated with natural mortality (disease, predation), the mortality reasonably ascribed to a catch and release recreational fishery and perhaps even some poaching but not the First Nations fisheries harvest. All things considered, the 2017 steelhead abundance is well less than half what it needs to be to achieve what was supposed to be the management goal.

The 2017 steelhead return as estimated at the test fishery site and in the context of the minimum and desired steelhead escapement levels. (Figure copied from weekly report issued by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Urban Development) on Sept 6/17.

 

An alternate illustration of the 2017 Skeena steelhead return relative to best, worst and average years. This illustration from the same source as the previous figure.

Consider yet another illustration of the status of the 2017 steelhead return, as well as the returns of the other salmon species and their relationship to past returns. These numbers are clipped from DFO’s weekly report dated Sept 5/17.

Sockeye Coho Pink Chum Lg Chinook Steelhead
2017 967.86 58.69 506.65 23.80 60.44 68.38
2013 471.09 52.09 796.38 20.67 102.55 98.50
2000’s Avg. 1912.76 74.47 1362.21 61.85 257.38 129.53
1990’s Avg. 1224.31 57.54 1102.41 65.67 223.25 97.87
1980’s Avg. 1601.53 80.09 1394.24 85.10 176.84 131.71

 

The annual fishing plan (Integrated Fisheries Management Plans or IFMPs) is the crutch the Department of Fisheries and Oceans leans on to support its actions with respect to in-season decisions on who gets to fish where, when and how. The IFMP for the North Coast of BC is the one that is supposed to address Skeena steelhead. The steelhead language is as follows:

“DFO and the province of B.C. have renewed discussions on a joint approach to the management of steelhead returning to the Skeena watershed consistent with the 1999 fisheries management protocol between the federal and provincial governments. This work is intended to specify clear management objectives, management responses and mechanisms for technical support, management planning, communication and dispute resolution. Work on this approach will include consultations with First Nations and stakeholders.”

Whereas Skeena steelhead command nothing more than this little bit of ink in a 412 page document, the “renewed discussions”                                                                   certainly caught my attention. How timely given the signals that abounded suggesting steelhead, coast wide, were going to be in very poor shape this year? In pursuing this piece I thought it worthwhile for a refresher on that “1999 fisheries management protocol” so I went on the search for a copy. I started with a former colleague whom I believe authored it on behalf of the province or at least had the greatest influence on its content. Years into retirement he was unable to trace a copy so on to other, more contemporary sources.

First, I tried the Acting Director of the province’s Fish and Wildlife Program in Victoria. I asked him for a copy of the original 1999 document and an update on the renewed discussions referenced in the IFMP. More than a month later I have yet to receive a reply. I put the same questions to the Director for DFO’s North Coast Division coincidentally. He didn’t respond either. The regional steelhead authorities in the Smithers office don’t even partake of the IFMP process so contacting them was pointless. There went what little faith I might have mustered for collaborative discussion on steelhead between the two principle governments.

To DFO’s credit though, I must acknowledge it has reacted appropriately to address a number of salmon conservation issues along the coast over the past many weeks. Skeena sockeye fisheries were curtailed dramatically, as were those for chinook. Fisheries for Nass origin stocks were constrained and Fraser sockeye and chinook fisheries have been virtually shut down. Yes, I know, there should have been parallel constraints on commercial recreational fisheries on Haida Gwaii and elsewhere to the south but at least there was some conservation action taken in response to predicted and actual returns of target stocks.

Alaskan managers shut down the entire Southeast area chinook fishery for conservation reasons well before the normal fishing season concluded. It was somewhat of a token measure given the harvest that had already occurred but at least there was some definitive actions taken to address what had become obvious and the managers refused to allow commerce to trump conservation. Upriver Columbia summer steelhead, those once famous Clearwater River “B-run” fish not unlike our Kispiox and Babine fish were predicted to be in very short supply this year. Voila, major recreational fishery restrictions. And again, yes, I know those restrictions do not do the job in the eyes of many but at least there was a management response to a conservation concern.

For Skeena steelhead there has not been a management response to low abundance since the early 1990s (i.e. the returns of 1991, 92 and 93) when it became painfully obvious something needed to change. Those were the years that resulted in implementation of catch and release, gear restrictions and additional seasonal closures that are now the norm. Those years were also ones that altered management of the commercial net fisheries in the Skeena approaches such that steelhead interception was reduced forever after. More remains to be done in that regard but at least the issue was put on the fisheries map as of those years. Remember also that 1990 was year one of the classified waters regulations and the first ever attempt to bring a burgeoning angling guide industry into line with public expectations around conserving a rapidly disappearing quality angling experience.

The Skeena recreational fishery for steelhead has changed dramatically since the last time there was any attempt to balance fish supply and angling demand. Anglers are now equipped with more gear, technology and instantly available information that allows them to fish more effectively in all the best times and places and bring steadily increasing catching power to bear on a fixed and often diminishing supply of fish. There are easily three times as many anglers in boats now as there was in the early 1990s. Oar power is fading in favour of screaming inboards and plastic bottoms that facilitate accessing every last piece of steelhead holding water regardless of flow conditions. There is more road access, more helicopters being utilized to penetrate the grass beyond the mountains, more guides and rod days and more streamside accommodation providers pretending they aren’t guides than ever before.

The First Nations fishery has grown dramatically over the same period referenced above for the recreational fishery. Whereas the data base for the latter is less than perfect there are no credible data on the steelhead harvest by FN fishers. All we can state with certainty is any constraints once thought to have existed with respect to gill nets and angling gear brandished by FN fishers have vanished in our ever more politicized world of fisheries management. To those who contest this remark, consider my earlier posts where I have pointed out the complete lack of vigilance with respect to the FN food, social and ceremonial fisheries unleashed both within the Skeena River and in its most steelhead sensitive areas immediately downstream from DFO’s test fishing site in the Skeena estuary as soon as the sockeye escapement threshold was achieved.

Admittedly there is little that can be done to influence the supply of adult steelhead returning to the Skeena approaches each year. Prospects for significant adjustments to the FN fisheries to benefit steelhead are equally remote. The recreational demand is something we can do something about though. Are we willing to address it or do we merely sit at home and watch on the big screen as the last great wild steelhead fishery follows the same path as all those other once famous fisheries far to the south? We wouldn’t leave the house we live in unattended for 20 or more years would we?

 

Comments 9

  • Truer words have yet to be spoken, yet similar thoughts have filled the minds of many long time resident anglers and when the rubber hits the road the stand to action is like splitting hairs!
    From the beginning of July to the end of October there isn’t one business operator along the Skeena Watershed that is not banking on boosting yearly revenues from the annual fishery migration. Everyone from the local tire shop to the real estate brokers hone in on transits heading for that wilderness experience of either salmon or steelhead. Heck even town councels throws a shingle up or two to promote a up swing in economical growth.
    When it comes to the guy that fished these rivers for 30 – 40 or so years that experienced total solitude and may have encountered a drifter appearing from the rising mist up river its disheartening. The activity and misuse of a public resource by what was stated in the blog above
    Is very factual. To exposes these blemishes or to ruffle feathers can determine ones destiny. The politics involved at this point have gone beyond repair. I would even go to say that local officials right down to Victoria are too afraid to utter a word. Those involved in policy change like their cozy jobs that leads to a healthy retirement pension. To add salt to that wound the governments of past have been with a mind set of Reactive not Proactive!
    To take a stand yes, to rant no, to lobby possibly, to expose the truth and actions of the goings between the mouth of the Skeena all the way to Morice Lake definitely.
    We the people of this Watershed along with our Ministry have been selling ourselves short not only in the salmon fishery but more so with the Steelhead fishery! In that we see the results we facing this season!

    • Well said Dave. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the entire recreational fishery scenario, on the Skeena in particular, is the complete absence of the business community in any forum related to the supply of steelhead they all tap for as much revenue as possible. Where are the guides, the tackle shop owners, the boat dealers, the bed and breakfast providers, not to mention the plethora of other less directly associated entrepreneurs when the steelhead test index tanks or the feds decide steelhead can backfill shortfalls in the supply of chinook and sockeye to meet the increasing demands of the First Nations community? Oh, and I almost forgot to mention all those foreign lodge owners and their booking agent and hosted travel friends who are the ultimate no shows in the steelhead supply arena.

  • Bob
    This reads very much like the opening remarks at a forum. Well worded concise on points and inviting. What is needed now is for the others to respond in like manner. Stating their views or defence so real discussion and negotiations of the new realities can begin. Unfortunately you appear to be the only attendee at the moment. What a very sad sad state we are in. One would think that other parties would have more respect for their positions and themselves to at least have discussions “in camera” to advance the integrity of fish management in this province. Survival is at stake.

    • Hope springs eternal Blair but one’s patience can certainly be tested. I find it enormously frustrating the fisheries management agencies are now so distantly removed from the realities of the steelhead scenario in British Columbia. When it gets to the point they don’t even have the professional courtesy to respond to public inquiries the resource is in more trouble than ever before.

    • The part that makes me crazy is there is no longer any bait restriction. Just what the interior Fraser steelhead need – a wave of hungry, poorly informed plunkers, less than skilled in fish ID and handling making up for lost opportunity while the feds were protecting their precious sockeye and chinook. Where are all the sport fishing reps that orchestrated the “protest fishery” short days ago now? (Did anyone notice the rigs some of those poor “sport fishermen” involved in the protest fishery were operating that day?) Oh, I know, they’ll all be out their teaching their grandchildren about perceived rights, tradition and the virtues of family fishing……….in their $150K rigs emblazoned with guiding advertisements.

  • I don’t think that the DFO under new government of Canada or the whatever it is in BC has the guts to stand up to the so called sport fishing industry or the gill net crowd.

    I received a reply to my complaints about the over exploitation of the best holding water on the Bulkley/Maurice. And how this so called sport fishing is over stressing the hen fish especially causing unacceptable mortality during the fishing season.

    The response that I received finally from David Skerik was that there is no problem with anglers catching the same fish over and over again on the Bulkley/Maurice, because there are plenty of steelhead in the Skeena systems left for anglers to stress to death.
    quote
    We closely monitor the size of the Skeena aggregate steelhead run and the Bulkley River run specifically, each year. Our data indicate that while the size of the steelhead run varies year-over-year, they are not presently at conservation risk. While this year’s run appears on track to be lower than average, the 2016 Skeena aggregate run estimate was the 6th strongest in over 60 years of monitoring. Skeena steelhead have over 30 life histories, which supports population resilience in the face of changing year-over-year conditions.
    End quote

    I have completely lost faith in the people who claim to be protecting our fisheries. The years of a flawed hatchery based management mentality have done this damage and created a false sense of security on the Skeena system. These are the same methods and attitudes that have very quickly destroyed the majority of river systems fisheries on Vancouver Island and the lower mainland/Fraser.

    Might as well just open up everything and allow all forms of so called sport fishing, gear heads slinging guts on sticky sharp trebles everywhere, no leaders under 10 feet for that matter. For all the appointed managers care right now as long as they get see their fat government pensions the angling for profit and meat crowd will hold all the cards. As witness to the recent opening of the Fraser while the water temps are through the roof and O2 saturation is still down in the dumps. I just wonder how well the fish will fight and how many that are hooked and then released will make it past Hope. Not that a fish that actually fights is what the majority of the arm chair guys are after!

    This is precisely why I originally wrote to the environment minister not the FLNR which is in reality as much of sham as is what has become the ministry of environment here in BC.

  • I guess the upside of the recent opening on the Fraser is it might allow a few late chinook to escape the inevitable gear head onslaught. I see the Fraser and Thompson did drop down quickly to between 16-17 c and the corresponding discharge levels did go up. So just perhaps the fish that are left in the Fraser system will get lock jaw and just bomb up to the spawning grounds in reaction to the change to favourable conditions.

    I am sure that the meat angling gear heads that do the long leader trick will catch on quickly enough though. I am due for a trip to the dental hygienist too bad the fish left to go through the lower Fraser gauntlet will very soon be in the same situation.

    Another good part of the opening is that quite a few will stay down south and leave the lower Skeena alone this year. But this might just be wishful thinking on my behalf!

  • While we reflect on these things, I thought it might be instructive to revisit some of the DFO’s lofty goals from way back in 2001:

    “The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is committed to inter-governmental agreements and to partnerships as a core method of delivering sound programs and of ensuring sustainable development across Canada. DFO’s Strategic Plan, “Moving Forward with Confidence and Credibility”, projects a long term vision for the department of an integrated organization promoting sustainable development, conservation and safety through shared stewardship and responsibility, partnerships and technology.”

    From GUIDELINES FOR ESTABLISHING MEMORANDA OF UNDERSTANDING (MOUs) ON FISH HABITAT MANAGEMENT WITH PROVINCIAL AND TERRITORIAL GOVERNMENTS Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Oceans Sector Habitat Management and Environmental Science DFO Nov. 2001.

    NOTE: Though these guidelines speak to habitat, the same admirable principles likely applied to other I..G.A.s related to West coast fishery issues. The words that leap out at me are sustainable, sound programs and especially “shared stewardship and responsibility” along with “Confidence and Credibility.” Anyone have confidence?

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