OK, we’re staring at the end of October and it’s anything but a stretch to say the die is cast for Interior Fraser Steelhead for 2017. Lets step back and take a hard look at what we’re dealing with. I’m going to do my usual and refer to those IFS steelhead simply as Thompson fish. They are the only ones that anyone seems to acknowledge or relate to any more but please keep in mind I’m using them as a surrogate for the others.
The desperate state of affairs we’re staring at today was entirely predictable. The science community warned many months ago there were two major factors looming that would influence anadromous fish returns, especially chinook and steelhead, along the Pacific coast this year (and next). The first was the now infamous warm “blob” that created a massive area certain to have dire consequences in terms of survival and growth among stocks and species that typically passed through or pastured in that area. The second was the emerging understanding of how overloaded the North Pacific ecosystem has become as a result of enhancement of pink salmon in southeast Alaska and chum salmon on the western side of the Pacific. I spoke to this research in a Feb 1, 2017 piece I posted here. Stated simply, that overload was bad news for steelhead and chinook.
Next on the list of signals was confirmation of the science forebodings. Chinook abundance and size were down dramatically right from the earliest returns from the commercial trollers in Southeast Alaska and the now massive fleets of commercial recreational fishers on both sides of the Alaska/BC border. That pattern repeated everywhere from the Nass and Skeena to the Columbia and beyond. Then came the early steelhead returns to the Nass and Skeena. The Nass recovered somewhat in the very late going but the Skeena was a disaster from beginning to end. If that wasn’t enough, there were the upriver Columbia returns that have been all time record lows. Social media abounded with evidence. With such a consistent pattern evident over virtually the entire steelhead (and chinook) range and the Thompson fish already in a death spiral over the past several years, who could reasonably expect them to be the only exception in 2017?
With all of that right there in front of us, what was the management response for the Thompson fish? What did the people we pay to manage our steelhead do? Well, they sent out weekly bulletins reminding everyone on an exhaustive distribution list those revered Thompson fish were at record low abundance and so far down into their own definition of an “extreme conservation concern” zone there was no hope of being anywhere near their already ridiculously low estimate of a minimal spawning population. Those same people refused to take any action with respect to recreational fisheries from right there in the Thompson River itself all the way to tidewater. Oh, yes, its catch and release, single barbless hook and (decades after every other similar situation in BC) artificial lure only. Those are the same regulations that would have prevailed if there was an order of magnitude more steelhead than there is this year.
Recreational fisheries aside, did anyone hear a word of objection from our provincial managers about continuing commercial fisheries for chum salmon during the peak run timing of what remains of Thompson steelhead? Steelhead advocates are lighting their hair on fire as I type (finally) over a DFO announcement of an impending commercial fishery. Where have these now irate people been? Pull up that DFO Fishery Notices web site and review how many other commercial and exclusively First Nations fisheries have already occurred and are continuing all along the Thompson steelhead migration route. Get a calendar and mark up all the days when there have been seine openings, gill net openings, “assessment fisheries” and “economic opportunity fisheries between Johnstone Strait and Mission. I submit the odds on a Thompson steelhead that entered the top of the funnel in Johnstone Strait coming out the other end at Mission were awfully slim.
What is the angling community response? The four most vocal steelhead/recreational fishery advocacy groups are dithering among themselves over what to do. Write a letter? What should it say? Who should hold the pen? Who should it go to? DFO for its obvious recklessness with respect to the most serious anadromous fish conservation concern ever in the Fraser drainage? The Premier of BC who is supposedly in charge of three different ministries with overlapping responsibilities for steelhead related issues? A news release? Meetings? With whom, when? Who should set up something like that? Who would represent “us”? How long would any of these measures take? Dare I say the road to hell is paved with good intentions?
My point is it is too late to do anything meaningful to influence the pathetically low abundance of Thompson steelhead this year. Sure, the Thompson fishery will close on November 1. What in the world is that going to accomplish after the peak timing for whatever steelhead may have been out there is well past and the gauntlet of the combined commercial, First Nations and middle Fraser recreational fisheries, all targeting something other than steelhead, is over or nearly so? Am I alone in believing those Thompson steelhead were worse off by keeping recreational fisheries open and thereby weakening the conservation argument in the eyes of commercial fishers, their DFO masters and the FNs?
Perhaps lessons have been learned. Perhaps there can be enough co-operation between competing egos to actually develop a co-ordinated approach among the advocacy groups to get Thompson steelhead on the federal and provincial governments’ radars. Perhaps there can be enough of a public awareness campaign on behalf of Thompson fish to give them the priority they deserve. All I know is its too late for 2017.
Before I sign this one off, here are some things to help paint a picture. The first is the trailer from advertisements for a video. The trailer has been around for several days but has definitely attracted social media attention today. I encourage all to watch it and pay particular attention to the piece between minutes 2:24 and 2:30.
The other piece I’ll add here is a clip from a friend who messaged me following his annual pilgrimage to Skeena country and, following that, to his beloved Thompson. This is not your average steelhead enthusiast. He’s been at it a very long time, he is well informed and, as you will see from his words, he is an excellent communicator. Regardless of where the man lives and the fact there are those who have trouble listening to one of those evil aliens fly fishers, his message is gripping and one I deeply appreciate him for. I won’t name him and because I think he would prefer anonymity in this situation. I hope he won’t mind when he discovers this.
“As for the poor Thompson, it appears to be dying the death of a thousand cuts and a thousand rationalizations for withholding action to reverse the nearing extinction of the planet’s greatest steelhead strain. It’s just awful and especially so this year when there is no reason to believe that the Thompson won’t be impacted as severely as all of the other rivers have this year, and thereby receive less than, and perhaps significantly less than, 100 steelhead. I just don’t know what to say. I see no indication that the stewards of Region 3 have any will or passion to overcome the bureaucracy that’s killing the Thompson steelhead. I suppose it’s foolish to expect more from those whom for decades allowed the Thompson fish to be the only summer run steelhead in BC to be fished with bait.
It is so disappointing that the BC anglers (including we alien BC anglers) and the provincial environmental community have failed to find any means to have the provincial and federal governments take productive action to protect and rebuild the Thompson steelhead (TS) population. The TS stewards clearly haven’t been moved by the angling community and it appears that there is no national or provincial legal avenues to protect the TS from extinction. So it has now come to pass that the economic status of the TS is now virtually extinct. And its biological status, as a functioning migratory population, is numerically within a few score of being extinct. Those two facts are irrefutable, yet nothing is being done by any of the TS stewards in this 11th hour. I’ve given the matter a great deal of thought since your October 4th email and my opinion is that the best and perhaps the only means of rescuing the TS is to make them a “Cause Celebre” to the greater environmental community and those community members who are passionately protective of the BC and Canadian heritage treasurers. The context of this approach is the position that the TS are within a breath of extension due to bureaucratic disfunction and that this is occurring right now during their generation’s period of watch and care. I firmly believe the stewards would not be successful in fending off a broad cause celebre as they had succeeded with the repeated appeals from the various angling and Thompson community groups.
It would require an enormous amount of organization and effort to ignite the cause, and there may not be sufficient time remaining. Just assembling the historical material and presenting it in the context of the problem at hand, would be quite time consuming; though, regrettably someone may soon be spending about the same amount of time writing a comprehensive TS epitaph. It is regrettable that Canada doesn’t have a provision similar to the US Federal Endangered Species Act which provides a legal means to pierce special interests, bureaucracies and recalcitrant government officials. The current California Sacramento Delta Smelt case and the past Tennessee Snail Darter cases are fine examples of what can be accomplished.”