Any angler who has spent time in quest of Bulkley and Morice river steelhead in the past many years can’t help but be aware of the steelhead tagging program that has become standard fare at Moricetown. No one I know in either the federal or provincial fisheries management agencies dares question the efficacy of that program so it’s left to us “independents” to raise questions. Those who may not think it important to pay attention might want to know that the Bulkley/Morice system is the biggest wild steelhead producing system in British Columbia. For that reason alone it commands a lot more attention than it has been receiving. Here’s an overview of the evolution of the steelhead tagging program and where we find ourselves today.
Flashback to the early 1990s. Skeena steelhead abundance was near its all time low for three consecutive years. Conservation was the watchword of the day. With an estimated 40% of the overall Skeena watershed steelhead originating from the Bulkley/Morice system and the harvest of significant numbers of those fish accounted for by the Wet’Suwet’En First Nation fishers at Moricetown it was logical to focus on that site to see what relief might be possible. A modest pay to release program began. By 1999, a half dozen years after the payment seed had been planted, there was a major program underway to conduct a steelhead mark and recapture study aimed at estimating the abundance of Bulkley/Morice steelhead. That program involved beach seining and tagging steelhead at the tail out of the Moricetown Canyon and examining the frequency of tagged fish captured by fishermen using dip nets at the falls at the upstream end of the Canyon. Twenty years on we are locked into an ongoing steelhead population estimation program producing figures that are the stuff of duelling science and of no value to managing the steelhead resource. I’ll support my opinion with some further background.
It seems to have taken a considerable number of years for the major efforts that began in 1999 to morph into a program that could finally be rationalized scientifically, in the boardroom at least. A major inquiry into the status of all Skeena salmon and steelhead was initiated by the two government fisheries agencies of the day (Department of Fisheries and Oceans federally and the Ministry of the Environment provincially) in 2007. The group of experienced and respected scientists was known as the Independent Science Review Panel. Their report was submitted on May 15, 2008 and is available here: (http://skeenawatershedinitiative.com/library/lib157) Among other things the report recommended a major upgrade to steelhead stock assessment. The Bulkley population estimation program became a focal point because it was perceived as a means of refining the much older Tyee test fishery data base compiled by DFO from 1956 onward. That makes sense if the figures derived at Moriectown are credible. They weren’t then and never will be.
What the esteemed scientists and too many other naïve and/or wilfully blind people fail to appreciate is Moricetown isn’t the equivalent of a Babine fence. Whereas the vast majority of Skeena origin sockeye salmon can be counted at that fence without ever being handled and those counts can be used to calibrate the test fishery catch which is made up almost entirely of the same fish population, Moricetown is nowhere near comparable.
First, the capture techniques are hard on the fish. Beach seines and extended air exposure are bad enough but the dip netting with large mesh nets (the only kind that can be manoeuvred effectively enough to catch fish in the turbulent water at the falls) are far more damaging and behaviour influencing. Referred to as “treatment effects”, these nullify several critical assumptions inherent in calculating population size based on the recaptures of tagged steelhead. The result is the steelhead population is overestimated, sometimes very substantially. In several years the figures derived at Moricetown have almost reached the estimated steelhead abundance for the entire Skeena system, as determined from the DFO test fishery index.
Second, there have been all sorts of problems with data quality. In the only year for which I was able to obtain complete records for all steelhead tagged I discovered 28% of the entries for tagged fish that had been recaptured noted a different sex than had been recorded originally. An identical percent of all tagged fish recaptures revealed discrepancies in the original versus recapture fish length of between 4 and 26 cm. Other problems included species errors (coho listed as steelhead), no tag information and mismatches in tag colors between tagging and recapture. It was never made clear if or how these issues were accounted for in the population estimation calculations.
Third, and likely very significant in terms of illustrating the damage done by the handling procedures, records of capture of steelhead bearing tags that had been placed on the fish in other times and places are almost never mentioned. Given that as many as 9,833 steelhead have been tagged in a single year (2010), one would expect to see repeat spawners encountered two years later. One would also expect at least some of the survivors from Moricetown to show up in commercial and test fishery catches in subsequent years. Again, I detect no mention of either. The conspiracy of silence with respect to commercial fishery catch reporting of steelhead is legendary so that may not be much of a barometer but the DFO test fishery would surely have caught steelhead that had been tagged at Moricetown if they survived and contributed, as expected, to a repeat spawning population.
Fourth, the incidence of tagged steelhead captures by anglers has been minimal at best. I know some of the guides who operate there do not divulge how many tagged fish they catch but the general angler population (myself included) has not seen anywhere near the expected incidence of tagged fish if those fish had survived and/or behaved normally. Many of the recoveries I have observed have been seriously injured and/or lethargic fish. Some of those recoveries occurred well downstream from Moricetown and even in the Skeena below the Bulkley confluence. Others were found dead or nearly so. Further, where the limited data are available, almost all the tagged steelhead captured by anglers originated from the beach seine sample. Considering that the number of tagged fish available from the beach seining operation exceeds the dip net sample by a wide margin every year (from about 2:1 to 5:1 except in 1999 when it was 9.5:1), steelhead originating from the latter group should always dominate. Again, that emphasizes the damage done by the dip netting and tagging process and how that potentially influences (overestimates) the population size as well as angling success.
Next on my list of issues are variable flow conditions and water temperature and how those bear on the proportion of the available steelhead population captured and tagged. Neither has been accounted for in any of the technical information I am able to put my hands on. When the Bulkley River is at a productive angling flow (say 100 cubic metres per second or less ) it is also at a good level for dip netting steelhead at the preferred spot tight against the rocks right at the base of the falls on river left (highway side). At that flow the alternate routes are seldom travelled by steelhead. The fishway is almost dewatered and the secondary channel between it and the aforementioned hot spot is similarly unattractive. As flows decline even further, steelhead become increasingly vulnerable in that top corner immediately below the main falls. So, at low stream discharge the proportion of the steelhead population that is caught by dip nets is much higher thus translating to greater potential influence on the mark/recapture population estimates. Complicating all that is the influence of water temperature which can vary by many degrees both within and between seasons. The worst case scenario is at low flow and high air and water temperatures which have been prevalent in some years. A steelhead that is captured by a dip net and endures all the attendant stresses of subsequent handling and air exposure at air temperatures in the mid-20s C and water temperatures in the high teens or early 20s C is a very different fish than its cousin than was beach seined, even at similar air and water temperatures. Remember, none of these differences have ever been acknowledged.
All the technical issues surrounding the steelhead population estimation methodology and results are the stuff of endless but pointless debate. What is missing in the bigger picture of Moricetown is the application of whatever results that do emerge. (My repeated attempts to obtain any reports beyond 2013 have been met with silence by both the provincial people and the leader of the Wet’Suwet’En fisheries program.) Considering that 2017 is the 19th year of what is sold as an ongoing steelhead stock assessment program I don’t think it unreasonable to be asking what benefit has accrued from expenditures that must now reach into the millions of dollars. I have seen lame attempts (about six years ago) at justifying population estimates on the strength of their utility in forecasting future steelhead returns. That begs the question of who is in charge of allocating public money for high priced contractors to generate such utterly ridiculous information? If no one in British Columbia can make a reliable forecast for a species such as sockeye with its comparatively simple life history, imagine the odds on getting it right for steelhead given their enormously more complicated life history combinations. Then, even if by some quirk it was possible to come up with a likely estimate of the steelhead population originating from the Bulkley/Morice system and approaching the Skeena estuary in a given year, what would the managers do with such information. Over the period of record for the Moricetown project there has been a five-fold difference in the estimated steelhead abundance between the worst and the best years. I challenge anyone to identify a single management measure that has been applied to address such differences.
As I was about to post this, the 2017 season end estimate of the Moricetown steelhead population arrived. It comes out as 9,234, the lowest since the program began in 1999. That estimate is based on a mere seven tagged fish recaptures. The statistical confidence around that is a mile wide. One thing is obvious though. The total catch of steelhead (167 by beach seine and 696 by dip nets) is, by far, the smallest over 19 years of record. That alone speaks to the status of the 2017 Skeena and Bulkley/Morice steelhead return.
The only real result of the Moricetown steelhead project is its influence on the steelhead that are handled by the people involved. As the program has grown in scope and efficiency over time, I’ll argue a disturbing number of fish are being impacted. No one knows the extent that this may have become a limiting factor in terms of steelhead population status but it definitely influences the performance and health of a significant number of steelhead for no good reason. Meanwhile we have PhD researchers from universities in Ontario and Massachusetts analysing blood chemistry from angler caught steelhead on the premise that keeping a fly caught steelhead out of water for a few seconds is a pivotal issue on the Bulkley and/or for steelhead in general. Bless me!
Twenty-five years ago we commenced paying Moricetown food fishermen if they tagged steelhead instead of killing them. If we took all the money being wasted on the program of today and paid people not to fish, the steelhead resource would be far better off. What are the chances of that ever happening? Who inside government would ever dare speak to the absurdity of the Moricetown program today and recommend a change in direction? Politics we have, fisheries management we don’t.
The story is best illustrated with pictures.