Slowly but surely the evidence of where we find ourselves with respect to steelhead and steelhead sport fishing in the foreseeable future begins to accumulate. In the “local” news of late we have the renowned Thompson steelhead, teetering on the brink of endangered species listing under the federal government’s Species at Risk Act. Long forgotten in the preoccupation with the high profile Thompson fish are a half dozen other interior Fraser tributaries as well as the small stocks of summer steelhead once abundant in dozens of Vancouver Island and coastal mainland streams.
The voices of the day cry foul with respect to commercial fishery and First Nations impacts, freshwater habitat abuses and deteriorating ocean conditions but when was the last time the recreational fisheries advocates took any responsibility for the status of their beloved Thompson fish? Lets look at a bit of history.
The Thompson steelhead fishery was not undiscovered until the late 1940s as some would have us believe. However, it was certainly not well publicized until Vancouver Sun newspaper columnist Lee Straight began his career in 1945 and developed a love affair with the river. For the following 25 years or more the Thompson probably garnered more ink in his columns than all other BC steelhead fisheries combined. It wasn’t until two decades after those halcyon years when there was even a steelhead fishing license required. In the meantime anglers could take three fish per day, have nine in possession and there was no season limit. Furthermore, there was no such thing as closed waters or times. Anglers hawked fish right off the spawning beds in all the tributaries now considered sacred. Slowly the times and places where steelhead could be fished and retained were cut back but the Thompson lagged almost every other steelhead stream of consequence in those regards. In fact it was the last of the province’s summer steelhead fisheries of significance to be managed on a catch and release basis and didn’t have any restrictions on the use of bait until a decade or more after everywhere else.
While the angling community was oblivious to its steadily growing influence on the status of the steelhead population the commercial fishery was subjected to progressive restrictions on the areas and times it could operate. Who among the anglers of the moment appreciates there was once a steelhead targeting gill net fishery in the lower Fraser River right through the fall, winter and early spring? Yes, seine vessels became ever more prominent further and further out along ocean migration corridors but the commercial fishery has endured far more control of its seasons and technology than has its recreational fishery competition. Today’s commercial fisheries intercepting Thompson steelhead are a small fraction of what they once were. Contrast that with the unprecedented increase in the efficiency and catching power of the recreational anglers and the armada they now cover the waters with from tidewater to tributaries. How many commercial recreational operators are out there on the Fraser today relative to 20 years ago? How many hungry bar fishermen populate areas that rarely saw anglers before sockeye and pink salmon (chums too) invited them afield? How many of this latter day crowd even know what a steelhead looks like, much less how to treat it if and when they encounter one?
The First Nations fisheries targeting or intercepting Thompson steelhead will always be an issue. FN rights are constitutionally protected whereas the privilege afforded an angler by a fishing license is not. That is the law of the land, like it or not. If anyone gets to fish it will be the FN community.
Much has been blamed on commercial fishermen and alleged indifference toward steelhead by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I’ll be last to defend either but I struggle to accept they are anywhere near the problem they once were. There is still popular literature out there that claims it was the Johnstone Strait and the Nitiinat seine fisheries that killed thousands of Thompson steelhead. The science in support of that at the time was skimpy at best but the card was played well enough to disguise anything that may have been happening courtesy of Thompson River steelhead anglers themselves.
Then there were the fish culture exercises and the ongoing population dynamics studies. Precious Thompson brood stock were removed from tributaries in failed fish culture attempts to produce enough fish to refine the commercial fishery interception picture and enhance stock size. Worse, we constructed a barrier fence on the most important steelhead spawning tributary, the Deadman, to count steelhead spawners and steal brood stock for those failed experiments. My former classmate, biological consultant and Thompson steelhead aficionado, Ric Olmsted, (RIP) once operated that fence on a contract basis. He and I frequently shared observations and opinions about the Deadman fence and several others operated for similar purpose elsewhere in the province. The bottom line is steelhead do not like fences. Ric contended the Deadman fence had a major influence on the proportion of the spawning population denied access to its preferred areas upstream. Has anyone ever considered that in the context of diminishing steelhead returns?
One can hardly take issue with the relatively recent wave among steelhead anglers. “Keep em wet” would seem to be the next best step beyond catch and release. But, is it a difference maker? Who recognizes the illusion of abundance created by the reality that anglers are capable of catching a steadily increasing proportion of a fixed or diminishing supply of fish…….over and over? How much catching is too much catching, regardless of how the fish is treated?
Keep em wet is all about the aha moment when the angling community discovered long standing science around air exposure among angler caught Atlantic salmon. Since then there has been a growing body of evidence the efficacy of catch and release is not what we have commonly believed. Beach seined coho and sockeye released on the lower Fraser bars did not perform as assumed in terms of migration rates, destinations and spawning success. That was all about single encounters. What about steelhead caught multiple times? An exploratory study on Bulkley River steelhead this year will be one to watch. There is an even better example readily available in that same river. Anyone who needs convincing beach seined or dip netted caught and released steelhead are highly unlikely to survive or behave normally need only visit Moricetown and observe fisheries management in action. Mind you, that’s a First Nations program which I think it safe to say is untouchable.
Coming soon to a stream near you – catch and release and even limits on same is not enough, keep em wet is not enough, dry lines only is not enough, hookless flies is not enough. Ultimately conservation is going to mean no one gets to play. Shed a tear for the Thompson steelhead fishery that went from discovery to disaster in less than a single human lifetime.
August 31, 2016