Of Orcas and Steelhead

In British Columbia today I think it safe to state that a large majority of its residents are aware there are issues surrounding the health and survival of killer whales. The mainstream media has reported countless times on the status of the southern resident pods whose population is now reported as 76 animals and declining steadily. There is tremendous public awareness and support for these iconic animals. They are part of the fabric of our province. Need evidence? How about an October 13th feature article in the Vancouver mainstream media. Here’s the headline and introductory sentence:

Action for killer whales cannot be delayed

The Salish Sea’s Southern Resident killer whale population is one of the most critically endangered populations of marine mammals in Canada and the U.S.

There is another animal that is equally revered by some British Columbians and a few of their confreres from elsewhere. Its a cold blooded, slimy, lidless eyed creature that also lives in water, sometimes the same water as those orcas. Its called a steelhead, in this case a Thompson River steelhead, which is every bit as endangered as those orcas. Sadly though, whereas orcas have captured public attention through constant mainstream media coverage, those steelhead languish in obscurity while they spiral into oblivion. I’ll wager the number of British Columbians who even know what a steelhead is pales to insignificance relative to the number reasonably familiar with those orcas.

Long before anyone ever heard of southern resident killer whales Thompson River steelhead were known far and wide.

For the record – Thompson River steelhead are to British Columbia’s sport fishing reputation and heritage everything that orcas are to tourism, environmental awareness, education, quality of life, etc. Long ago a high ranking official in the province’s Ministry of Tourism informed a collection of us fisheries people that steelhead was a key factor in fishing related tourism, not because there were thousands of foreigners who could afford to journey to BC to fish for them. Rather, it was the mere fact this mystical fish still existed in numbers and places found nowhere else on earth. That alone was enough to sustain a freshwater sport fishing reputation internationally, even if steelhead were only a small fraction of the overall sport fishing tourism picture.

Thompson steelhead are not just any steelhead. They exhibit large average size and they possess a well documented (i.e scientifically) ability for swimming performance and endurance that places them first on the list in terms of their fighting ability. Within the steelhead angling community, not just here in our own back yard, but everywhere British Columbia steelhead are known, those qualities establish them as legendary. So, when these amazing fish are as threatened as southern resident orcas, why do they remain undetectable on the social and political radar?

The most recent information I can retrieve on sport fishing license sales provides some clues. The numbers are not right up to the minute but they do paint a reasonable picture of the likely constituency of Thompson steelhead anglers. Those numbers reveal roughly 15,000 steelhead fishing licenses have been sold to residents of BC each year in the past many. Typically only about two thirds of that population actually go fishing for steelhead. That gets us down to about 10,000 people. Among them I’ll guess that about half live in the Lower Mainland area or otherwise close enough to the Thompson to be included in the population who might have been active anglers on that water in any recent year. That gets us down to 5,000 people.

If experience from across the province over the past many decades is any guide, not more than 10 – 15% of all steelhead angler licensees belong to any organization that is actively engaged in steelhead advocacy or conservation. That would mean there are between 1500 and 2250 so called “organized” steelhead anglers out there. Yes, I know the BC Wildlife Federation will reel in horror at this remark but the fact is that organization’s habit of signing letters as 50,000 strong disguises the reality its membership is heavily weighted toward hunters and target shooters. If the illusion they’re all steelhead anglers works from a political perspective, I’ll take it though. Meanwhile, there are a lot more steelhead anglers and advocates belonging to the three other groups directly engaged in steelhead issues (i.e. the BC Federation of Fly Fishers, the BC Federation of Drift Fishers and the Steelhead Society of BC). The combined membership of those three primary steelhead focused groups (accounting for members who belong to more than one of these three) falls within my estimated steelhead advocacy population (i.e. 1500 – 2250). The point is there just aren’t that many people out there on the BC landscape that know enough or are willing to support efforts to conserve the dwindling Thompson steelhead population. That is clearly not the case for orcas.

All this begs the question – how do we change that? How do we get sufficient information out there to a broader public such that those in political office will pay attention to what we are losing at an alarming rate?

As we speak, there are heroic efforts underway by a handful of very knowledgeable and dedicated steelhead advocates hoping to get the Thompson steelhead scenario into the public and political arena. They are up against a very high and steep mountain. There are major issues here with respect to competing jurisdictions. The federal government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans is the big kid on the block. DFO “manages” both the commercial and First Nations fisheries that are first in line along the Thompson steelhead migration corridor. The long history of commercial fisheries for salmon trumping steelhead concerns is hardly unknown and infinitely unlikely to change any time soon. In fact, with all available evidence pointing squarely at a critical conservation problem for Thompson steelhead, DFO announced on October 16 an impending commercial gill net opening for chum salmon in the lower Fraser. That would be the fishery whose only value is the eggs of females which are sold as a high priced luxury product in a far western Pacific market. Of course each week of any commercial fishing activity counts toward employment insurance benefits for participants. Make no mistake, that is part of the rationale for commercial fishing openings.

Similarly problematic is the First Nations fishery. The FNs are an entity unto themselves. If anyone believes the FNs with a history of fishing their traditional territory along the lower Fraser steelhead migration route are about to compromise their constitutionally guaranteed rights to harvest salmon just to save a few steelhead so anglers can play with them further upstream they are mistaken. DFO is not about to even try to address steelhead in FN fisheries. There is no such thing as any credible catch monitoring program so it is impossible to quantify how many Thompson bound steelhead are removed by FN nets. The conventional interpretation of that is no data = no problem.

If DFO shows no concern for steelhead, either through curtailment of commercial fisheries or somehow dealing more effectively with the FN fisheries, that leaves only the province to step up. How are we doing on that front? Lets just say the report card is dismal. If conservation is really top of mind and the latest projection of the current year escapement and spawning population (165 steelhead for the entire Thompson watershed!!!) is receiving the priority it should, every fishery under provincial control would have been closed already. That means the lower Fraser and Thompson recreational fisheries, both of which remain open (albeit on a catch and release only basis). The fact those fisheries have not been closed does nothing to advance the conservation argument with DFO and, especially, the FNs involved. We are past the point where even one fish is expendable through catch and release mortality or angling related sub-lethal effects that compromise reproductive performance. The politics and economics of keeping intercepting sport fisheries open parallel the commercial and FN fisheries. How can the province make a conservation case when it lives in a glass house?

On the strictly political front we must recognize British Columbia has just come through an election and the seemingly endless process of getting a new government up and running. I’ll spare the details for readers who may not be familiar with that scene. All we really have to understand is an entirely new list of political figures, most of whom have little or no experience with anything to do with the environment, are now faced with a long list of priorities that doesn’t include steelhead. The foremost issue they find themselves confronted with is the unprecedented wildfire season that consumed more merchantable timber and firefighting dollars than anyone could have imagined when the incoming government took office. Jobs threatened by lost timber supply win out over recreational fisheries big time. If that wasn’t enough we might consider the fentanyl crisis, housing costs, massive education expenses related to bad decisions by the dethroned government, more of the same regarding the Site C power project on the Peace River, the Kinder Morgan pipeline, various natural gas extraction issues, escalating automobile insurance costs, Lower Mainland transportation conflicts and consequences, fish farming…………. Again, where do we think Thompson steelhead rank among these high profile and constantly publicized issues? The circumstances confronting orcas are no less contorted and even controversial but at least those magnificent creatures are on the map.

Thompson steelhead is the proverbial hill to die on as far as steelhead and steelhead fishing in this province is concerned. If we can’t get public and political attention dialled in on the significance of that stock locally, provincially and internationally, how can we possibly expect the out of sight, out of mind steelhead in rivers such as the Dean and the Skeena to not become additions to a steadily growing list of once upon a time fisheries? Does anyone remember Vancouver Island’s steelhead rivers of less than half a human lifetime ago? Get organized people. Make noise. If you need some inspiration, have a look at the clip of recently departed warrior Rafe Mair’s message on the occasion of his 80th birthday celebration.


Comments 21

  • Bob, you fail to point out that the freshwater fisheries model enacted by the liberals in BC is one where fishing licence revenues support farmed fish production. The solution is simple; start farming genetically modified Thompson steelhead, sluice them out of the back of a truck at the start of the season. This would be entirely consistent with how the province manages its stillwater fisheries.

    • Forgive my oversight Red and thanks for the recommendation. No doubt at least a couple of the Freshwater Fisheries Society folk will see this and take your message to heart.

  • Red, the problem is not genetic with what the FWFS is doing. The problems largely come from managers overstocking lakes to satisfy local interest. This has disrupted the traveler sedge cycles of quite a few of the best lakes in the province. Neutering fish so that they can live without reproductive stress in systems where they cannot reproduce is not done by genetic manipulation FYI.
    One thing positive that the stocking program has done is to reduce somewhat the fishing pressure on wild streams.
    To our great misfortune the anadromous fish are politically challenged and don’t know the difference between the DFO and the Ministry of whatever it is that oversees fresh water in BC. For that matter neither do I when it comes right down to the politics of the environment of BC.

    As Bob has so eloquently stated the Killer Whales are the meme de jour with the public of BC and the demise of the southern pods is getting all the attention. It really pains me to wonder how many of the arm chair environmentalists in British Columbia realize, that the loss of our anadromous fish runs in the Fraser is in no small extent responsible for the ongoing decline of the southern Orcas?

    The very last time I fished sockeye in Juan De Fuca straight in 1996 with my father before he passed an alpha male came right up and practically begged me to give it one of the fish in our boat. It came right up to within a few feet of where I was quickly reeling up the lines to avoid a whale of a catch and looked me straight in the eye for at least 20 seconds. Then with a blast from the blow hole the magnificent creature took a breath and went on to try to get dinner without my help. I swear this actually occurred and the incident certainly was one of the most enlightening ones of my entire life!

  • Bob Thank you! What you speek of many of us have been felling for years. But yes there are not mamy of us…sadly!
    Bob keep fighting the good fight…and keep sharing.
    Best Tegatds

  • The situation with the Thompson tragedy begs for a different approach. From this old angler’s thirty-some-year observation, it is intractable. While endless studies, reviews and high-meetings sputter on, the river continues to decline. Here is a thought. As described in my recent postings (Tears for the Thompson), I believe that the upper Thompson River eco-system is in peril. We should take a wider view. Someone has to act for all of the life dependent on the river. If we focus on steelhead alone, we are stuck with the usual remedies (the ones proven as unworkable, such as mixed stock management, off-shore holding tanks and gear fiddles), but if we expand our view to include invertebrates, riparian wildlife of all sorts and other aquatic species who live in the upper River (the Thompson itself) we may find an answer. It is not only the steelhead that are being decimated by the ocean assault and the Fraser bar fisheries, the netting but also the other salmonids who might get past the Thompson canyon and so through their egg laying and death, for many, nourish and enrich all of the life in and around the river. We need to find a method in law or by constitutional means to achieve guardian ship for the Thompson River. I think it obvious that all of the methods and counsultations over many decades have failed. There are now models in New Zealand and South America where rivers or other ecosystems now have a form of personhood. We need to prove that the Thompson River ecosystem broadly is breaking down or on a trajectory to decimation. I think we need an urgent science based assessment of the health – that is broadly – of the main stem Thompson. We need to take the baby, the river if you will, away from the near infantile care provided by the parents (Federal and Provincial agencies, the First Nations governance) and give it, and all the surrounding life, a chance to heal.

  • Hey Bob,
    Great as always. A couple of things on this…was on the T this year and the creel guy mentioned the significant poaching that occurred while the river was closed in November and December last year. He believed that this was much greater than usual without the eyes and ears on the water from us sporties. Likely leaving the opening to December would offset the downside impacts on mortality (.01%???) from the rec fishery…likewise as is now finally being conveyed by the PSF research and gaining some media attention are impacts from seal predation. The rec sector needs to move full-on on this issue as the mortality of up 50% on smolts is too incredible to ignore.

    • Always the dilemma Tom. Do you shut down a fishery and assume everyone complies or do you keep it open and run the risk that those who continue on are not all good guys? The enforcement fraternity has generally preferred the former because they know if they see anyone on the water, they’ve got an undesirable in the crosshairs. When its catch and release its much more of a cat and mouse game, or so I’m told. Personally I think an angler presence is important. Vancouver Island is a good example. With all the formerly popular east coast streams shut down, or nearly so, for coming on 20 years we have lost the people who used to be the eyes and ears of a management agency that has neither any more. I submit there is virtually nothing left of the once strong steelhead advocacy on Vancouver Island. Who wins under that scenario? The other side of leaving the Thompson open when the stock is desperately low is the case for restricting the other fisheries, especially by the First Nations people, pretty much evaporates. Sadly, all in all its hard to see the angling community winning on anything here.

      • For the enforcement personnel to be able to line up their crosshairs on an undesirable, they have to have line of sight. That is hard to accomplish whilst sitting at a desk in their office. Leave the streams open to the good guys, with well reasoned restrictions on quotas, type of fishing gear allowed and water craft restrictions. And get the officers off their asses and onto the waters.
        On Vancouver Island, and everywhere else for that matter, and often exacerbated by the workings of man, Mother Nature has the upper hand when it comes to re-sculpting water courses. Often, a prime example of why steelhead have been extirpated from their home is; the home has been renovated and rendered unliveable. Check out this e-link to a coupe of water level graphs which demonstrate this point for the Gold river.
        The upshot being; I want to go fishing on our rivers, throughout the seasons, as an extra incentive to further champion the plight of wild steelhead. To be that pair of eyes and ears which observe, record and report. To bear witness to the comings and goings of fish and man. To rule me off the water may be to rule me obsolete.

        • Excellent points Rory.

          Interestingly, I spent a few hours yesterday trying to recall historic freshet information for Gold River and compare it with the figure you have posted for last week’s flood. The critical feature of all of that is the rate at which water levels rise (and fall) today relative to what they did when I first started spending a lot of time on that river in the early 1970s. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the data I wanted to illustrate what I’m convinced is the case. Too much logging of high elevation timber and too much of the forest canopy of the watershed removed and the 2017 hydrograph becomes the norm. Juvenile steelhead toughing it out in 5 cubic meters per second of river at 20C water temperature is one thing but when those poor fish that did get through the summer drought get hit with a rise from less than 10 cms to 1300 cms in the space of 12 hours, what does anyone think their survival is?

    • Oh, and I should have added I agree 100% there needs to be at least a site specific cull of the seals and sea lions whose impact on a chinook and steelhead is now sufficiently documented that the problem can no longer be ignored.

  • Well, I accept that I may be naive and do not fully appreciate the dreadful complexities of jurisdiction, authority and stances that date back to confederation. I am mindful after reading the Auditor Generals response to a long-ago-now petition that the DFO was failing in its duties to protect west coast fish stocks The departmental responses are a litany of excuses, platitudes and distractions. I appreciate that dramatic developments elsewhere, in granting rivers and lands personhood, may have no application here. But my Lord, something needs doing. I am at least grateful that Bob is so convincing. He does us all a huge service in documenting what has gone wrong and where the blame lies.

    • You’re right again Frank. The picture is bigger than just the actual number of adults of any species that get back to their river of origin. I tend to focus more on the more controllable aspects of that picture (who gets to fish with what gear, when and where, etc.) and leave the broader habitat issues for another time and place. We can’t ever forget, though, if we don’t look after the habitat these gifts of nature come from, nothing else matters. Thanks for the reminder.

  • I appreciate your acknowledging the wider view Bob. Leaving the metaphorical forest and venturing into the regulatory trees, I would get 90% of what I seek on a West coast stream by having a bulbous end rather than a lethal point on my size 6 telkwa stone or a blunt rounded end instead of spear on my size 4 Alec Jackson inland skunk. What I seek does not depend so much on the take. As always, I would be pleased to know that I rose just the one on an outing astream. Now that’s something for the trophy seeking, jet boat hoards to ponder.

  • Heat or pressure shocking fertilized eggs to induce triploidy is genetic modification, it is not “neutering”. Neutering involves the removal of reproductive organs.

  • “Heat or pressure shocking fertilized eggs to induce triploidy is genetic modification, it is not “neutering”. Neutering involves the removal of reproductive organs.”

    Red, Fair enough, in as much as it produces fish that cannot reproduce and pass on genetic information. However I still strongly believe that without the lake stocking program the poaching, snagging, sticky sharp hook with a piece of yarn to help it float away from their lead on the bottom crowd, would be helping decimate our wild streams to a much greater extent.

    Indeed there are two crowds who fish the triploid lakes. The ones who are there to do nothing but eat. And the ones who are there for some angling time in the wild and the fact that there is a possibility of shaking hands with a decent O. mykiss without harming the already endangered future of what is left in the wild rivers.

    Wild anadromous O. mykiss are, in my opinion a highly endangered species and I see a day within the next few years that we all must come to this conclusion and completely stop angling for them. I see no other outcome possible because the DFO and the Province of British Columbia, therefore we as a peoples, have as stewards of our resources completely failed the native fish of the of our piece of paradise.

    Our greed and stupidity has not abated even though we are finally starting to see the importance of protecting wild fish we are at best paying the concept lip service.

    In response all we do is overstock some of our best freshwater lakes in some places at the peril of other species. But then again let us certainly not think that stocking fresh water lakes is the answer to the decline of anadromous fish.

    At one time in BC you could easily see the forest for the trees, now not so much. The causes of the extinction of individual races of wild anadromous Oncorhynchus have become far too much for us to fix or even admit that we created and this is what is at the core of the issue. Our children will hang their heads in shame over what their ancestors did to this paradise.

  • Thankfully, Eric’s powerful statement pulled my back from my pointless musing about hook preferences. Eric points out that we are witness to the extinction of magnificent steelheads because of the failure of government stewardship. This has some parallels with the tragedy of the commons (where if no one owns the forest, it will be threatened – if not destroyed). With regard to fish, I think it is a tragedy of divisions (where if the stewardship of a resource is shared by two levels of government, the outcome will be the same as in the commons scenario). Eric seems pessimistic that anything can be done, a thought many of us might share, and rightfully states that this is shameful. There may though be a remedy of sorts – or at least a way to draw attention to this tragedy. While normally a province cannot bring a lawsuit against senior government, there is a little known avenue. Article 19 of the Federal Court Act provides that controversies between the senior government and the provinces may be submitted to the Federal Court for resolution. See the book “Reconsidering the Institution of Canadian Federalism by Lazar and Telford, pp. 446 in the chapter Intergovernmental Agreement in Canada. I think it is time for the province to take on the Ottawa mandarins whose long-standing neglect of stewardship around wild steelhead populations is bringing about the imminent extinction of a provincial resource – the magnificent Thompson River steelhead. I hope that Article 19 might offer an avenue to do this. Consider that we now have a provincial government that has so far demonstrated some willingness to challenge decisions made in Ottawa. I know little about the law, and the only constitution I am much informed of is my own, but I sincerely hope someone might consider this possibility. This tragedy begs for a fight. Otherwise, shame is our only legacy.

  • Here is an act of the parliament of Canada which just might provide a mechanism to, hopefully, thwart D.F.O. actions which, even if inadvertently, lead to the extincition of steelhead races and so irretrievably harm the rivers and resources of the province. Just saying….

    Federal Courts Act R.S.C., 1985, c. F-7 An Act respecting the Federal Court of Appeal and the Federal Court
    (Concerning [inserted by F.D.]) Intergovernmental disputes
    (Section) 19.
    “If the legislature of a province has passed an Act agreeing that the Federal Court, the Federal Court of Canada or the Exchequer Court of Canada has jurisdiction in cases of controversies between Canada and that province, or between that province and any other province or provinces that have passed a like Act, the Federal Court has jurisdiction to determine the controversies.”

    ps I’m not sure if our province has passed the act mentioned. But, hey, it could still be done one assumes. Given the current political climate it may prove rather useful.

  • Glad to provide it Bob. Note that third parties can not make use of this process. It is inter-governmental only. Victoria would need to launch a action with the Federal Court. Hamish Telford and Harvey Lazar are academics – in intergovernmental relations and political science respectively. Both distinguished I am sure. The reference mentioned is a good introduction to this little known quasi-legal avenue – starts about five lines down. It is a bit heavy going for persons unfamiliar with the judicial and governmental language. It will take learned minds to even fathom if the province could or would use this. Hope so.

  • Sorry, I meant to say about four paragraphs down. The book is published McGill – Queens Press. The remedy sought would be a ruling that the Federal government has failed in its duty of care – or some such. The hoped for outcome: something like a five year ban on all fishing activities that threaten what is left of the storied Thompson River steelhead race. Sweeping, including all Fraser bar fisheries, sport fishing on the Thompson, the ocean chum harvest and the First Nations – food, ceremonial, the whole package. As the cliché goes, drastic times, drastic measures. Three or four quiet, pensive autumns while we wait and see if there is a chance of rescue. It would sure be one heck of a grand experiment.

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