Just over a month ago I tried to offer up a bit of a forecast of what the Thompson steelhead would be facing this season. If history is any guide we’re at the peak of the return to the lower Fraser now so any fuzziness around the picture is fading rapidly. Keep in mind that, whereas all eyes are preoccupied with the Thompson, those other interior Fraser steelhead stocks (Chilcotin, Stein, Nahatlatch, Bridge/Seton) are in as bad or worse shape. Sadly, they are no longer on anyone’s radar. I’m no better in that I find myself losing sight of those other once significant stocks and hastening their fall from the radar while referring only to Thompson. So, please remember, when I say Thompson I’m really talking interior Fraser. With that in mind, here’s what we have in view.
The Albion test fishery (i.e. the Department of Fisheries and Oceans chum salmon test fishery on the lower Fraser River) is the single in-season tool that has been used to predict the abundance of interior Fraser steelhead for as many years as I can recall. In reviewing the immediately available data (2000 to the present) on steelhead and chum salmon catches by that fishery we should be able to get a reasonable impression of the 2017 outcome. The data indicate the average annual steelhead and chum catches up to Oct 5 between 2000 and 2007 (both years included) were 17 and 1219 respectively. The corresponding figures for the years 2008 through 2017 were 5 and 1290. The year I chose to separate the two periods is entirely arbitrary but it seemed to be a bit of a turning point for steelhead. That was not the case for chum. Catches of the latter have varied only about two-fold over the 18 years I examined whereas the steelhead catch has ranged from a low of 1 in 2004 to a high of 39 in 2000. The Albion catch of steelhead as of Oct 5, 2017 is 2, the second lowest ever recorded (it was also 2 in 2003).
The chum figures are worrisome in the context of what they portend for commercial and First Nations fisheries that are now underway. DFO has already opened known steelhead migration corridor, Johnstone Strait, to seines targeting chum. The first opening was Oct 2, the next has already been announced for Oct 16. Gill net openings began Oct 5 and extend through Oct 7 with another opening scheduled for Oct 10-12. The word steelhead appears exactly once in those announcements. Marine mammals get two wordy paragraphs and sea birds and sea turtles get one each. Given the fact DFO could not possibly be unaware of the sensitivity around steelhead by-catch, especially for those terribly impoverished interior stocks, the only interpretation I can make is the lack of significance attached to steelhead is deliberate. Draw your own conclusions:
While I’m on the subject of commercial fishing I’ll challenge anyone in DFO to produce a shred of credible evidence there is any compliance or enforcement with respect to the conditions of license specifying brailing, sorting of catch, onboard revival tanks, etc. for non-target species.
Next along the gauntlet for interior bound steelhead are the immediate approaches to the Fraser and the fishery likely to occur in the river proper. The chum figures at Albion to date are significantly higher than they were a year ago when DFO unleashed commercial fishermen to target chum roe and First Nations to make up for lost chinook and sockeye opportunity by targeting those same chum. Of course, the overlap in run timing between chum and Thompson steelhead is virtually 100%. The First Nations fishery? Well that’s just not controllable, regardless of what public pronouncements are made in boardrooms or in front of cameras. The FNs will do what they do and steelhead will die. Prove me wrong.
Then we get to the recreational fishery which holds itself to have no significant footprint on steelhead. The loudest voices there come largely from the sport fishing business community that insists anglers don’t target stocks/species of concern. And, even if an angler did hook a non-target fish incidentally, he/she always carefully releases it with zero harm done. No matter the Fraser River bars between Chilliwack and Hope are lined with anglers who oftentimes are poorly versed in fish identification and proper handling procedures. All the professionals squiring clients around through those same waters in ever more numerous and sophisticated watercraft operated so their sports can encounter maximum numbers of fish while insisting they fish “selectively” couldn’t possibly be a concern either.
The bottom line is the recreational fishery is every bit as much of a problem for what remains of Thompson steelhead as either of those other two fisheries, if not in actual physical impact, then certainly in political optics. Try telling First Nations leaders who have constitutionally protected rights to fish they shouldn’t be out there when anglers are. Alternately, try selling commercial fishermen that they shouldn’t be allowed to soak a net after they have been cut back tremendously over the same period of time the recreational fishery has grow by an order of magnitude.
Lest I tar all the recreational fishermen with the same brush I’ll recognize the heroic efforts of one. Greg Gordon, a long time Thompson steelhead devotee has done more to promote conservation of those fish than the next ten best advocates combined. In keeping with his ongoing passion for conserving those fish he wrote another letter on behalf of the BC Federation of Fly Fishers and President Jesse Blake to Federal Minister Dominic LeBlanc a few weeks ago. The reply he/they received speaks volumes about what Thompson steelhead are up against. Judge for yourselves.
Dear Mr. Blake:
Thank you for your correspondence of August 15, 2017, regarding Interior Fraser River steelhead.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is committed to managing fisheries in a manner that supports conservation and sustainability using precautionary guidelines as articulated in the Sustainable Fisheries Framework.
With respect to steelhead, both federal and provincial officials make decisions on how these fisheries are managed. DFO collaborates closely on these decisions with the Province of British Columbia, meeting regularly to advance policy and planning objectives and initiatives to support overall conservation. Coordinated approaches to steelhead management in the Interior Fraser River are also considered. Additionally, the Department has been engaging with the Province and First Nations through the Thompson Steelhead Working Group.
The Department opens First Nation, commercial, and recreational fisheries only when the fish populations returning to a river system are judged to be sufficient to ensure the long-term sustainability of the stock. DFO is not considering changes to existing fisheries management measures currently.
DFO is committed to continuously improving existing fisheries planning and to ensuring the availability of best information for fisheries management decisions. At this time, DFO is working to develop a model of assessment to measure the exposure of Interior Fraser River steelhead during commercial chum fisheries, when there is concern about steelhead bycatch in gillnets. DFO plans to share this new model with the Province, First Nations, and stakeholders in advance of the 2018 fishing season to allow sufficient time for discussion regarding fisheries’ implications in steelhead management.
I trust that British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development will give due consideration to your views regarding trout and trout release.
Thank you for writing. I hope that the information provided is helpful.
Original signed by
Dominic LeBlanc, P.C., Q.C., M.P.
Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard
c.c.: The Honourable Doug Donaldson, M.L.A.
British Columbia’s Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development
Thank you Minister LeBlanc. We can certainly look forward to another model or iteration of an existing one to guide decision making in 2018. How comforting. Apparently no one told the Minister about First Nations fisheries or the seine fisheries that have been well known for decades to impact Thompson bound steelhead. And, that Thompson Steelhead Working Group?! Now there’s the classic example of smoke and mirrors. It is really quite remarkable how politicians are allowed to exempt themselves from any accountability by referring to processes and policies that are nothing more than products of illusion. One figure tells all Mr. Minister.
Lets put a bring forward on that commitment to bring the new model “……to stakeholders in advance of the 2018 fishing season allow sufficient time for discussion regarding fisheries’ implications in steelhead management”.
There have been more commendable efforts by forward thinking sport fishing organizations. Here is a letter dated Sept 26 from the four major groups involved:
Fisheries & Oceans Canada
Hon. Dominic LeBlanc, Minister
Dear Minister LeBlanc:
Re: Interior Steelhead -Thompson and Chilcotin Stocks
Our organizations have grave concerns for the future of the Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead stocks. The remnants of these stocks are at the point of “Extreme Conservation Concern”. So extreme are our concerns that there has been open discussion and consideration for an application for a Species at Risk Act (SARA) listing on all of these stocks.
These steelhead stocks suffer mortality from non-selective net fisheries as they return to the Fraser River and ultimately their streams of origin. Over the years these fisheries have taken steps to limit by-catch of these stocks. However, their returns have now reached such a low number that they cannot sustain any further interception from non-selective net fisheries in tidal waters of the Fraser River without risking extirpation.
Two actions that are required to address the long term decline of these stocks: 1. reduction to zero of the mortality of all First Nations, commercial and recreational fisheries and 2. long term investment in maintaining functioning watersheds that support these and other important salmonid stocks.
Of immediate concern is the annual Fraser River commercial gill net chum fishery which is completely non-selective and results in the mortality of interior-bound steelhead. This fishery must be eliminated and replaced with more selective fisheries as conducted by First Nations fisheries above Mission BC. We note that recent discussions between the recreational sector and the First Nations Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance were positive. This is significant since both parties have a unifying interest in the sustainability of Fraser River steelhead and other salmon stocks.
The Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead are world renowned and a priceless biological asset that is in immediate jeopardy as indicated by this years test fishery index in the Albion Test fishery which is the lowest on record
Significant investment is required between your agency and your provincial counterparts to address the interception problem in the short term and in the long term restoration and maintenance of watershed functioning of priority spawning and rearing habitat for these and other salmonid stocks. We are encouraged by the dialogue that has begun between Minister Lana Popham and your Parliamentary Secretary Terry Beech on fisheries issues.
Minister, we appreciate your commitment to openness and transparency made at the recent announcement on the Cohen recommendations, particularly the increased investment in science. We believe given these commitments there is an excellent opportunity to address the endangered Fraser Rivers steelhead stocks now as we recently discussed with your Parliemntay Secretary Terry Beech.
We recognize the current total salmon fishing closure on the Fraser River as an important precedent for protecting stocks of concern as were past actions protecting interior coho stocks. Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead stocks are equally deserving of this protection, combined with a unifying strategy to protect and restore watershed functioning.
We recommend a federal provincial round table be established with First Nations and other sectors to deal with the immediate and the longer term concerns for salmon and steelhead stocks.
We look forward to a reply addressing our concerns and suggestions.
Harvey Andrusak, president, BC Wildlife Federation
Brian Braidwood, president, Steelhead Society of British Columbia
Rod Clapton, president, BC Federation of Drift Fishers
Rich Ronyecz, president, BC Federation of Fly Fishers
Hon Catherine McKenna, Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change
Hon Jonathan Wilkinson, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change
Terry Beech, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans
Hon George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy
Hon Lana Popham, BC Minister of Agriculture
Hon Doug Donaldson, BC Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development
John Rustad, Opposition critic, Ministry of Forest Lands, Natural Resource Operations
Norm Letnick, Oppostion critic, Ministry of Agriculture
One can hardly take exception to anything said here but there are troubling signs of how we’ve become victims of the consultation treadmill and political correctness. Every word has to be calculated to protect interests that may or may not have anything to do with the letter itself or its central issue. More evidence of the times we live in. Stay tuned for another ministerial response that falls back on that closing recommendation to manifest as a reincarnation of the Thompson Steelhead Working Group. Promise me there won’t be another “round table” in addition to it.
So, there you have it people. Thompson steelhead are on the brink. The only people who care are an easily ignored handful of recreational fisherfolk who don’t even speak with one voice. How hard can it be for far off Ottawa to pay limited lip service to a fish with relatively few and diverse advocates and one whose management was delegated to a provincial agency that now shows no sign of owning a pulse?