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.
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.