Long before the Kispiox and Sustut, the Dean and the Thompson became the renowned fishing destinations they did the Stamp River, on the central west coast of Vancouver Island, near Port Alberni had a well established reputation among the steelhead angling elite. The area around the Ash/Stamp confluence was the favourite of General Noel Money for 30 years before the Kispiox had even been heard of. Roderick Haig-Brown, hardly a stranger to BC angling, dedicated his classic work, The Western Angler (1939) to Money. From the early 1920s until the 1940s Money frequented the Stamp along with guests that included British aristocracy, Canadian Governor Generals and Hollywood movie stars. All the productive fishing runs near the Stamp/Ash confluence were named by Money and hold those same names almost a century later. No other stream in British Columbia except, perhaps, the Capilano has a more storied steelhead fishing history than the Stamp.
Fast forward to the next century. Enhanced sockeye returning to Sproat and Great Central lakes have created intensive First Nations, commercial and recreational fisheries that entirely overlap the summer steelhead stocks returning to the system once famous for its remarkable steelhead sport fishery. The net fisheries from Bamfield at the top of the Barkely Sound funnel that narrows to Alberni Inlet and, eventually, the entrance to the Somass/Stamp system are “managed” exclusively for sockeye. There is no voice, not even a whimper, spoken about summer steelhead. There is no catch reporting, no enforcement of regulations that supposedly require non-target species like steelhead to be released safely and unharmed, no sport fishing fraternity crying foul, nothing!
For several years I have watched as the three fisheries sectors – commercial, First Nations and recreational – carve up the enhanced sockeye pie under the watchful eye of the federal government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) staff. The process is known as “Integrated Fisheries Management Planning” (IFMP). Once the sockeye return has run the gauntlet the focus shifts to enhanced chinook and, to a lesser extent coho. I’ll offer that there is no one present in those forums that knows anything about summer steelhead, much less advocates their protection.
On four occasions during the heat of the sockeye fishery in June and early July 2016 I sent e-mails to the DFO staff member who signed off broadly distributed weekly bulletins that spoke to sockeye escapement estimates and catches by the three sectors. Each time I asked for the data on steelhead catches, particularly by the commercial and First Nations fisheries. Catch reporting is a prescribed requirement for every one of those fishers according to DFO pronouncements. I received a response to my first inquiry. It stated the data had not yet been compiled but it would be forwarded as soon as it was. My repeated attempts to secure steelhead catch data that is supposed to be governed by mandatory reporting were met with one terse message received on July 8, 2016:“I haven’t forgotten, I’m waiting for a response !!” So am I.
Am I surprised? Hardly. DFO has a long history of ignoring steelhead catches by commercial and First Nations fisheries. Even in situations where steelhead advocacy is strong (e.g. Skeena, Dean, Fraser/Thompson) history proves how difficult it is to gain recognition for steelhead. In Alberni Inlet where steelhead have no voice it is smooth sailing for DFO. Recent but long overdue enforcement actions on the part of DFO in the approach waters to the Skeena illustrated just how systemic non-compliance by commercial fishers is. Regulations and conditions of license pertaining to handling, release and catch reporting for non-target species are simply ignored. If it is that bad in areas under the microscope, what do we think is happening where there isn’t even surveillance, let alone enforcement?
It isn’t just the Stamp/Ash summer steelhead in play here. Alberni Inlet and Barkley Sound have numerous smaller streams that once supported substantial summer steelhead populations. China Ck, Cous Ck, Nahmint, South Sarita, Toquart, Effingham……. How are they doing after a decade or two of ever escalating First Nations salmon net fishery concessions and the standard non-native seine and gill net fisheries?
Am I crying wolf? Consider a few pictures taken over the past three sockeye fishing seasons. Remember, sockeye and summer steelhead run timing overlapped extensively in the early years when the three sectors than now compete for those enhanced sockeye had yet to emerge. Look at the investment in custom built boats built specifically to fish the lower Somass River. Think about wave after wave of custom built nets designed to match the entire cross sectional area of the river and deployed between boats hugging opposite shores such that there is zero prospect of a fish passing whenever the fishery is open. then shed a tear for what little might still remain of the summer steelhead that created the Stamp River’s reputation almost a century ago