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.
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.
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.
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?