More Thompson Perspective

Here’s an interesting sidebar to the ongoing interior Fraser steelhead issues. This comes from a request I put in to the provincial fisheries staff in Surrey a couple of weeks ago. I’ve just got around to looking at it today. Mike Wilcox gets the nod for the assist here.

Most of the hard corps steelhead anglers out there know there are two distinct groups of summer steelhead in this province – coastal and interior. In the Fraser system we have examples of both. The coastal variety is present in the Coquihalla while the Thompson, Chilcotin and those other forgotten stocks in the Nahatlatch, Stein and Bridge represent the interior variety. Coastal summer fish come earlier in the summer than their interior counterparts. Those Coquihalla fish are moving through the lower Fraser well ahead of the timing for most of the salmon stocks that we’re told are still healthy enough to sustain some commercial and First Nations fisheries. In other words, Coquihalla fish enjoy a relatively unimpeded trip home. On the other hand, the run timing for those Thompson fish is several weeks later and overlaps numerous salmon stocks and species that are subjected to harvest by commercial and First Nations nets.

If we look at the data compiled through annual snorkel surveys conducted on the Coquihalla over the past many years it points to the fishery interception problem that is a big part of the status of the Thompson fish. Here are the data:

Contrast that with the estimated escapement of Thompson steelhead over a reasonably comparable time period. (This is the combined total for both the Thompson and Chilcotin and it represents the pre-fishing mortality, not the spawning population. The latter is about 20% lower than the figures shown.) The estimated 2018 spawing population of the combined Thompson and Chilcotin stocks as of this date is 195 steelhead, a figure almost off the bottom of the graph.



The most important feature of these two figures is the slope of the line in the latter. The Coquihalla stock obviously fluctuates over time but its abundance does not display the steady downward trend shown by the Thompson/Chilcotin stock. The past two or three years of Coquihalla data may well be minimized by a geological event that resulted in delay and blockage of some of the fish that might otherwise have been present and counted. Even still, there is no evidence of the same downward trend displayed by the later returning, upriver bound Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead.

Some would contend the Thompson scenario is not necessarily a direct result of commercial and First Nations harvest. What about those seals and sea lions or the fish farms or the warm water blob or high seas interception by foreign fleets or……….? Well, whichever of those issues is at play for the interior stocks can’t reasonably be held to differ for the coastal stock originating right next door. The only plausible explanation for the contrasting trends in abundance is the differential mortality rates exerted on them by nets during the late stages of their migration to their river of origin.

Comments 8

  • And it’s not a freshwater habitat issue either. The Chilcotin has some of the most pristine steelhead habitat on the planet.

    • Good point Poul. I should have highlighted that in the post. The productivity of a relatively small coastal stream like the Coquihalla compared with the richness of the same amount of habitat in the Chilcotin or Thompson drainages is black and white. Imagine there being more steelhead in the Coquihalla in recent years than in the Thompson and Chilcotin combined.

  • Agreed Bob, Poul makes a good point. I was once told, for example, that the spawning reach on the Docksteader Ranch property (now owned by the Skeetchestn First Nation), of the Thompson tributary Deadman River, is considered by some biologists to represent near perfect spawning and rearing habitat – substrate, water chemistry, all of it. Given that Thompson steelhead females are, by some accounts, the most fecund of any race, it is all the more tragic.

  • The site attached was forwarded by a long time out of province steelhead angler !
    If the details of this report are fact then why didn’t DFO become proactive and remain steadfast on conserving under a very watchful monitoring program of ALL species entering BC waters ??
    Is a matter of sacrificing various species to various parties of interest that squawk the loudest the longest so they go away. Maybe the events and results involving DFO at Bella Bella wasn’t a large enough wake up call !

    • Thanks for sharing Dave. The accumulation of evidence pointing squarely at our fisheries of the foreseeable future being a repeat of those of the most recent summer and fall is overwhelming. Too many people seem to think the infamous “blob” is gone and fish stocks are all going to rebound quickly. The fisheries managers need to be paying attention and figuring out how they are going to deal with that prospectively, not retroactively.

  • I am only a humble angler, and hasten to add that I am likely not the first to think of these ideas that follow. I am motivated by the memory that, as a counting fence volunteer, I once briefly cradled an immense Thompson River buck on the Deadman River – likely very close to where it was born. That indelible memory prompts my proposal here. I believe that to save the Thompson steelheads three things have to happen. Lest anyone think they are nonsensical, I urge them to read Bob’s revitalized post titled, “Inconvenient Truths,” and decide what is improbable or ineffectual.

    The first, and paramount, step is to curtail all interception or harasment in any manner of Thompson bound steelhead for, let’s say, five to ten years. The second step is to step up protection of some vital, natal streams, starting with the Deadman. Thirdly, we need to guarantee the genetic inheritance and strength of wild fish by rejecting any associated hatchery program. The first thing is the most daunting and plainly the most urgent.

    Our provincial government might somehow have to strong-arm the feds into such a startling measure. So, with that notion parked for the moment. Let’s consider the other two – mindful that this is a proposal built on three pillars. If one leg is missing, it will all collapse. I qualify this by stating that the first could stand alone, magnificently. Leave the fish alone; let them rebound if they will.

    I will mention the interests of a third party in my proposal, so let me first express my admiration for the Skeetchestn First Nation. They are a tight-knit and enterprising community who are, and have been, loggers, ranchers, cowpokes, fishermen and entrepreneurs of varied stripe. The Deadman flows through the arid valley that had been their home for countless ages. It is not my place to say what they should do with their land and their resources. I hope instead that they may find some value in these suggestions. My ideas also hinge on particular and long-standing threat to the Deadman and its riparian zone. The history of these aspects is amply described in a “Deadman River Channel Stability Analysis,” by M. Miles (195).

    Some brief background information is required. The Deadman has a history of degradation some natural and some mankind caused. From what I know, the Skeetchestn people have been responsible stewards and ranchers are coming round to appreciate the need to protect the river. There has been much work in planting streamside, putting in rip-rap and other measures, although this needs be ongoing. Notably, in recent times the Skeetchestn authority has acquired three of the historic ranches, including Docksteader Ranch. These are, I believe, all valley bottom ranches with the river meandering through them. The Docksteader reach is especially important to steelhead. I have heard there is some desire to put a fish hatchery in there. I can sense, in just mentioning this loaded word, that some readers will feel a temperature rising.

    Speaking about protection, I believe that a conservation agency like the Nature Conservancy could make an offer to the First Nation to purchase the eighty acres of the former Docksteader Ranch. Maybe they have or are considering this. This valuable, winding stretch has suffered a lot of streamside degradation and erosion. It was and could still be the one of the most productive reaches for steelhead spawning and fry development. Maybe it could be a model for stream recovery whist providing employment for some of the Skeetchestn members. Most importantly, it would protect and enhance the birthplace of some of the world’s most valued steelhead.

    Here comes the most audacious part of my proposal, and one sure to provoke heartburn in a few (a Monty Python imagery comes to mind with the old Colonel spluttering, “Hatchery! Scoundrels, dastardly….) I suggest that some unknown benefactor might provide a matching grant to the Skeetchestn authority for the express purpose of building a small-scale hatchery somewhere else on the Deadman. (One might refer to the 1985 “Assessment of 1983 Chinook Salmon Spawning in Selected Streams in the Thompson River Basin,” by R.N.J Stewart and P.L. Martin, for some orientation to the Deadman capability. There would have to be ironclad conditions that there be no steelhead production or even any experimentation in that regard and that there be no negative impact on wild steelhead from the hatchery activities.

    To sum up: if there is any hope of saving wild Deadman born steelhead (and thereby Thompson steelhead since the Deadman race has historically represented about thirty percent of the whole) then all interception or even potential interception must stop until recovery is assured. By that, I mean by everyone involved: sports anglers, elite fly fishers, First Nations all the way to the salt and specific chum salmon fisheries along the coast. No tinkering, no concessions and please, no new acronyms or round-table conferences. What the Deadman would get is a solid stream recovery plan and committment. The Skeetchestn people would benefit from the hatchery to assist their economy and, incidentaly, they might receive some of the recognition they deserve.

    The Thomson steelhead would have a chance of survival. The time is now for action over talk. Those who love this great fish, and this magnificent river, want nothing less. As Trey Combs states in his splenid book, “Steelhead Fly Fishing” … “If you could pick one river in the world to provide the very best fishing for Salmo and Oncorhynchus …. the river is the Thompson, the month is November, and the fish is, of course the steelhead.”

    As I write this, it is mid-November. The Kamloops valley bottom is shrouded in early-morning fog. Somewhere on the river, miles below us, in the quiet runs and boulder studded reaches, a few, a very few, great steelhead are there. They are waiting with resolute hearts and single purpose for the pulse and surge of rising late-winter water in Spius Creek, the Bonaparte, Cold Creek and the Deadman. They are there, great ghostly shapes, not so many, bound for their birthplaces. Even if they are vanished in years to come, when I am no longer spry enough to manage the rocky banks to survey the desolation, they will swim in my memory forever.

  • Correction, that is of course the Coldwater river, not Cold creek – the main tributary of the Nicola. And, Trey Comb’s book is indeed splendid. So here, while my pen is still dipped in fury, I publicly accuse the Government of Canada through its agency the Department of Fisheries and Oceans of genocide aimed, wilfully, indifferently or negligently at the Chilcotin and Thompson River steelhead races. The entomological origins of genocide are a bit murky, but one definition describes the word as causing the extinction of a tribe, race or family. It is only human arrogance that favours the word for crimes against people . This is a crime against nature. We should speak plainly.

    • I doubt there is anyone out there who pays any attention to this site that disagrees with you on that point Frank. I just hope that some of the legal sabre rattling that is now simmering behind the scenes puts enough of a scare into DFO to do something other than defend the status quo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *