Steelhead Science and Politics, Moricetown Style

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.

The scene of the action at higher than optimal flow for steelhead catching efficiency (September 2017). The left arrow identifies the area where maximum steelhead catches normally occur but is unfishable at this flow. The centre arrow is the secondary route of steelhead and the right arrow the fishway entrance, seldom used by steelhead if the river flow is at average or below height when the peak steelhead movements are occurring.

 

The optimal steelhead catching location under ideal flow conditions in Sept 2010. The left arrow illustrates the location where the fish being transported up the gangplank was captured. The right arrow points to the carrier who will receive the fish from the catcher and transport it to the tagging location at the top right.  

 

A typical transfer of a dip netted steelhead from catcher to tagging crew awaiting.

 

 

Depositing the dip netted fish into the holding tank prior to it being dip netted out and transferred to the tagging vessel immediately to the left. (Still Sept 2010)

 

The tagging process underway.

 

Tagging in process. Note there is no circulating water in either the pre-tagging holding tank where the dip netted steelhead was originally deposited, in the tagging vessel where the fish is being processed or in the aluminum tube at lower left where the tagged steelhead will be deposited to slide back down into the stagnant water immediately adjacent to the tagging area.

 

The outlet of the tube used to convey more than 6000 dip netted and tagged steelhead back into the river in 2010. Lethargic, recently tagged steelhead can be seen trying to recover in the warm, stagnant water underneath the end of the tube. The average elapsed time from dip net capture to release was probably at least two minutes.

 

Fast forward to 2017. The dip nets are unchanged as is the optimal capture location although the flow conditions in 2017 largely eliminated that site for at least half of September. (This photo and the four which follow were provided by retired fisheries professional and long time Skeena steelhead advocate and angler Dick Burge. 

 

Up the ramp to for the handoff to the transporter who takes the fish to the holding tank from which it is later netted out and deposited in the tagging vessel.

 

The handoff. The difference between present and past is that a fish friendlier vinyl basket is used to get the steelhead from the dip net to the holding vessel beyond.

 

The steelhead being deposited in the interim holding vessel. The only difference between 2010 and 2017 is the color of the vessel. There is still no circulating water and the vessel is baking in air temperatures of at least 20C.

 

Left arrow = dry PVC tube that now replaces the dry aluminum tube of previous years. Right arrow = the interim holding vessel into which the steelhead had been deposited by the vinyl tube carrier and the net which was expected to be used to pass it from there to the tagging vessel at center. Middle arrow = decision that this fish was going to be clubbed and retained rather than tagged and released. 

 

The 2017 edition of the tagging site and equipment. There was a battery on hand that looked to have been available to pump water to at least some of the vessels and/or tube but it was not hooked up. The exit from the tube was similar to 2010 except that the river flow was higher in 2017 and presumably less stressful for any steelhead that made it to that point.

 

Morristown Falls as it appeared on Sept 24, 2017, shortly after the steelhead tagging program was abandoned. The arrow points to the location of a sign describing the tagging program. The question to be asked is why is the sign so obscured if it is intended to inform the public? Having visited and photographed Moricetown on numerous occasions over many years I never knew the sign was there until I happened upon it while photographing the falls and fishing locations at the relatively higher flows that prevailed during much of the prime steelhead fishing season in September 2017. 

 

The public information sign that is completely invisible from the highway side where most of the public stop to view the falls and the fishing activity.

 

A close-up of the section of the sign that explains what the steelhead tagging program is about. I find it curious there is reference to Alaskan recoveries of Moricetown tagged steelhead but our own domestic commercial fisheries are not mentioned, nor are the in-river First Nations and recreational fisheries.

 

Comments 4

  • There is a major problem both in this location and below the canyon aka idiot rock where non-native fishermen are able to fish on reserve territory with gear!
    The problem is much greater than that has been reported in this current blog!
    Being a resident of the immediate area the ability to make numerous visitations to both upper and lower canyon shines a brighter light on current daily events. Allot of which, between the steelhead tagging program and the sport fishery below, is hard pill to swalllow! It narrows down to no conservation or regard to future exsistance but rather self endulgence.
    Above, I have seen mature very healthy steelhead clubbed during counting hours and well after the days set time frame up to dusk!
    Below there are repeated fishermen that visit idiot rock daily. Some are resident and some are not. There are a few that leave with the days legal catch amount and return in that say day to repeat the process. One paricular foreigner visit the area sometimes three times per day with children in tow which enables the daily salmon take amount to triple!
    Once the Chinook have passed through and the Coho begin is where the real problems begins with the gear fishermen identifying the catch prior to dragging it up onto the rocks.
    The problem not having enough boots on the ground to police the lower canyon activity is not helping. The CO’s of this area have conflicting events, the tail end of a fishery migration and the beginning of hunting season. More so they are run ragged with half of the lower portion of the Province coming north to fill their LEH draw tags. It is clear to see though there is more effort in keeping watch over wildlife infractions than there is with fishing guidelines especially during Steelhead season.
    There is a couple more signs at the public view point that list the order of operation to those that are unfamiliar. They have been there since I arrived 33 years ago. Some facts have been updated, like the 30 fish per family limit to now 50 per family unit per year as part of the native food fishery.
    The rest of the stated guidelines are not adhered to by either those of the reserve or by DFO or MoE that I have noticed.
    Moricetown Canyon is only one of many problems within the Skeena Watershed as far as preservation and conservation of all species. The Bulkley to the upper reaches of the Morice hold a larger portion of the issues at hand.
    Yes DFO and MoE both don’t have the backbone to take the bull by the horns and correct a long time issue. Both departments have let these issues fester far to long to the point where big money from the guide industry to political correctness of the aboriginal rights!
    In conclusion I’ll repeat it’s worse than what this blog states !
    Yes – the Steelhead Tagging program is a waste of public funding and not adding to the species survival. This is very obvious!

    • Thank you for your enlightening comments Dave. I wish there were more local anglers prepared to speak out on what they are surrounded by. Please continue to keep us updated and informed.

  • This just came in from the Suzuki Foundation !
    Think we should all line up along a brick wall and together start banging our heads against it !
    http://www.davidsuzuki.org/media/news/2017/09/restoring-tools-and-science-helpful-but-fisheries-and-oceans-canada-failing-to-salmon/

    • Atta boy Dr. Suzuki. Now, can we talk about those interior Fraser steelhead that are in an order of magnitude worse shape than are Fraser chinook? Remember that DFO “Wild Salmon Policy” and all its promised protection for every salmon species (except steelhead)? If that WSP had ever come close to being implemented, the Cohen Commission would never have been necessary. I’ll be right beside you in that lineup.

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