Well, Maybe Next Year

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.

https://vimeo.com/ondemand/ourtwohands/219398886

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.”

Comments 12

  • Thank you.
    Beyond sad!

  • Today I am remembering how some twenty-five years ago I volunteered to help Dave, the fisheries technician employed by the Skeetchestn First Nations to man the Deadman counting fence on the Docksteader’s Ranch (spelling ? – my apology if mispelled) on this tributary of the Thompson. I recall cradling a buck of twenty-seven pounds in order to set him gently in the cradle for measuring, I learned that the females are believed to be the most fecund of all steelheads (what irony that). On my night watch, maybe five am, I bravely ventured out on the fence structure, with my boot tips providing a tentative security. Hanging there, in a pool of artificial light, I could look straight down and watch four or five great steelhead swimming strongly against the fence, driven, resolute and beautiful. It was all an thrilling experience. They will swim forever in my mind. This is a tragedy and a river lost.

  • Bob what is the state of the resident rainbow population on the Thompson? I would say that the only hope the river has is that some of the resident fish migrate at smolt age once some of the other problems are fixed. (( I know big if) My concern there is that driving from Spences to Merrit every lawn is lush and green in the middle of July as people extract water from the Nicola and I am sure Bonaparte and Deadmans are the same. I wish I had more hope for the river but as you say people to busy arguing about the shape of the table well the battle rages on.

    • There seems to be emerging concern over the resident rainbow too, at least in the opinion of some of the knowledgeable anglers with any experience with that fishery. Of course we can’t forget the “safety valve” those resident rainbow provide as the genetic refugia for their anadromous brothers and sisters when they are not longer detectable in the river. That issue becomes an excuse for doing nothing. From the pure science perspective, the perception is there is no steelhead conservation problem as long as we have some resident rainbow still swimming. Those who push that angle obviously never owned a steelhead fishing license. And yes, the habitat related issues in the Thompson basin are huge. People and politicians are going to be faced with ugly choices in days ahead.

      • What does the “pure science” say about trout populations in the Nahatlach, Stein, Seton, Bridge and Chilcotin? Guessing not much.

      • The resident rainbow population has fared very well in the mainstem Thompson up until 2014. When the huge return of sockeye came through the trout went with them. The fishery has had its moments but in much lower numbers. I was involved in the trout tagging program of the early 80s and the results were nothing short of astounding. We were expecting to see movements within the river ,did we ever get an education on the movements of these fish!!!!! We had tag recoveries from the north thompson above Little Fort , out in the Shuswap,as well as up and down the mainstem Thompson. The strangest recapture was on a sexually maturing male fish that i tagged above Ashcroft in late September that was caught in the bar fishery at Mission 3 weeks later. The tagging study was very well documented but nobody has a copy anymore,it is buried in the Fish and Wildlife records in Kamloops somewhere. We determined the rainbows followed the salmon in the fall and dropped back with the fry/smolts in the spring. There was also a very defined 7 year cycle in the size of fish and last year was good sized fish,this year we were lucky to see fish over 15 inch. Recapture info showed a growth rate of about an inch a year. Cheers Trevor

  • The federal Liberals have demonstrated they are susceptible to public pressure.

    Do sporties have any gas left in the tank?

  • It has been thirty years since I last fished for Thompson steelhead and thirty-two years, nearly to the day, when I first landed a TS at Martel. Yesterday, for nostalgia reasons, I went back to the river and bravely (I am 76 now) waded the length of the same run. I was all heart and no fish (I did briefly have a mighty head shaker on). I recite this because the Thompson, and its splendid fish, remain an ideal of sorts. Recently I read the record of a forum, on TS from last year I think. Well, if the cure of countless words and myriad small ideas would work, that might be fruitful. No, what must happen is a total ban on all fishing impacts. We need to stop talking (I think that the DFO predication for inviting stakeholders to endless round tables and talkfests is some diabolical way of spining out the inevitable). We have the opportunity for a grand experiment to see if we save a world class sportfish. We cannot though ignore the big picture. As I pointed out earlier, there are myriad other threats to the Thompson and all its life. There is more water extraction in what is destined to be dryer times. I have heard that increasingly pink redds are being dewatered during winter low flows. Main-stem Springs, below the lake outlet, may be vanishing. Putting aside our impassioned, and often diverse, beliefs, based on anecdote and impressions, we need critical science and we need an immediate and broad ban on all fishing that has potential to drive a stake into the heart of the Thompson steelhead race. I mean the ocean chum fishing, all of the lower Fraser stuff and, yes, the TS catch and release – all of it for a time. One last day was enough to remind this old guy of how beautiful the river is and how precious its fish, especiall the legendary steelhead.

  • I very much agree with Frank and Bob, sad that it has come to this, and is almost criminal on how this fishery has been managed. IM less than HO.,they could not have managed the demise or near demise of this fishery any better had they engineered it ( maybe some will argue that ) .Many of the obvious signs have been ignored and many seemed more interested in finding reasons to keep angling, yet in fairness, when you see the inaction of the Government or actions that are obviously detrimental to the Steelhead… Much could have been done, despite the natural ocean phenomenon taking place. I 100% agree on pure science guiding the regulation and management being mandated to react accordingly.

  • Unbelievably sad, are we at the living gene banks stage here? The government needs to stand up to those that that are causing this to save this population. I’m Pretty sure that Weirs were used in the past to harvest fish in BC??? Why can’t they try a difrent salmon harvest method. Gill nets in river kill fish! Anyone with half a brain could see this. Drawing down the spawning tribs kills smolts. Wow really. I caught and released one Thompson Steelhead in my life. I guess that’s all I will get, I should have savoured such a beautiful fish even more……

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