Gold River Lament

You need to understand the past to navigate the future.

I moved to Vancouver Island too late to see the best it ever had to offer a steelhead fisherman. Major systems such as the Cowichan, San Juan and Salmon had already slipped badly from where they once stood but there was one that was still relatively intact. That was the Gold River. My first excursions there as an Island resident in the early 1970s allowed me to catch a glimpse of what I’d missed. Today the Gold has joined the same sorry list as those that went before.

My next book, Days of Rivers Past due out later this month, delves into the history of the Gold in some detail. All I’ll talk about here is what a snapshot in 2017 looks like. I’m inspired to do this after recent conversations with a couple of people, one outside government and one within. Those conversations were pursued after hearing about studies soon to be undertaken on that once magnificent river and its steelhead. It didn’t take much to see that an eleventh hour, light your hair on fire approach stemmed from a snorkel survey undertaken earlier this year when only one steelhead was observed by veteran snorkelers conducting their standard annual assessment. No one will assume (I hope) that one fish is a population estimate but it is certainly a barometer of the present versus the past. I no longer have access to the survey reports documenting what we saw while conducting similar index counts in the early 1980s but I recall one of those efforts came up with about 2,000 steelhead. I can still visualize several of the major holding areas where there were so many steelhead milling about it was impossible to get an accurate count.

What concerns me about the proposed multi year study proposal whose proponents are now seeking funding support is how no one is paying attention to the obvious. I’ll explain.

The first stop on recognizing the Gold River’s issues today is Google Earth. I encourage people to call it up and take a tour of the watershed. It has been logged extensively and intensively ever since the early 1960s. As has been the case for every major timber rich watershed on Vancouver Island, the logging started at tidewater and moved progressively upstream and upslope. Eventually there is enough tree cover removed that the capacity for the landscape to buffer the heavy rainfall events common to such places is destroyed. Rain on snow events typical of the November through January period are the worst. Fish habitat unravels as water gushes off unprotected hillsides carrying massive amounts of sediment and debris down engineered drainage routes and depositing everything in motion in what used to be prime steelhead rearing habitat.

At the other end of the annual hydrological cycle, summer, there are equally severe post canopy removal consequences. With no timber and root systems to retain moisture and soften temperature extremes, there is no protection from drought like conditions that inevitably occur. Critical late summer flows become lower and water temperatures rise. Low flows reduce space that territorial steelhead require and high temperatures constrain their metabolic performance and growth.

Reference to the Water Survey of Canada flow records helps illustrate the flow related problems. The 2015 records are the most instructive in terms of the summer flow circumstances.

Water Survey of Canada data on the 2015 flow records for Gold River. The blue line is not the historic low flow line as implied. It stems from using all winter flow records, including several in the early years when winter flows were not measured. The calculated blue line in the figure incorporates those years as zero winter flow. The low flow line of import is the mid summer period when the 2015 records reveal June through August flows as the real all time low.

 

The summer flows that year were the lowest ever in records dating back to 1956. That level was reached earlier than ever and persisted longer. My guess is the WSC gauge was installed in preparation for the soon to be built pulp mill at the mouth of the river. Pulp mills need assurance of adequate water supplies so it seems logical that was the rationale for gauging the stream, especially during the summer. The water intake for the mill is (was) very near tidewater and about a kilometer downstream from the gauge site. An important point with respect to flow measurements is they are taken downstream of all the major tributaries of the Gold – the Ucona, Upana, Heber and Muchalat rivers. Those familiar with that area will likely appreciate that less than 3 cubic meters of flow recorded at that point means much of the accessible steelhead rearing habitat in the Gold system is little more than wet pavement.

Another point to contemplate is the next two summers (2016 and 2017) saw flows at almost the same level as 2015, although not for as long. Three successive years of such conditions is not a recipe for a depressed steelhead population to even begin to recover. Comparison with the long term records indicates the low summer flows in recent years are roughly half of what they once were. I’ll be so bold as to suggest those late summer low flows are the single greatest factor constraining steelhead smolt production in the Gold system today.

On the high water side the WSC flow records are equally instructive. With the forest canopy removal as advanced as it now is, the buffering influence of an undisturbed landscape is gone. Anglers who have frequented the Gold and similarly treated watersheds are quick to recognize that rainfall and rain on snow events now see the river rise at a rates never before experienced. The drop in flow when rainfall stops is equally sharp. Peak flows may or may not be as high as historical records suggest but the rate of rise and fall is unprecedented and underscores the volatility and instability of the watershed.

Recent WSC data emphasizes the rate of rise and fall. The spike in flow in the figure below is the result of a rainfall event that was nowhere near a record for the area at that time of year. The hydrograph, however, displayed the highest ever flow recorded for the Gold River that early in the fall. The rate of increase and decline was remarkable and, to me, emphasizes the lost capacity of a landscape denuded of mature timber to buffer climatic events. The rise from 8-10 cms to more than 1300 cms in a matter of hours borders on unbelievable. The subsequent rate of decline is equally revealing. Had it not been for another round of rain 36 hrs after the event that produced the peak on Oct 16/17, the decline would have been more complete.

 

Water Survey of Canada data demonstrating the inability of the Gold River watershed to buffer rainfall events. These sorts of rates of rise and fall of stream discharge are now commonplace for the heavily logged Gold River watershed.

 

When all the signals are assembled they’re telling us the impacts of the devastating low flows of 2015 and the partial repeats in 2016 and 2017 are going to be with us for several more years. Smolt crops will undoubtedly have been poor in 2016 and 2017 and probably will be for one or two more years. We better pray for improved ocean survival in the near term or that one fish observation in 2017 will not be unique.

Of course, everyone is looking for the silver bullet here. There isn’t one. No one is going to restore anything approaching the natural hydrology of the Gold watershed. Nature could do that for us in 70 or 80 years if we downed tools today. And the chances are? There are probably lots of isolated little make work projects that could be undertaken but it just isn’t realistic to postulate that will make a detectable difference to steelhead production. Fixing broken habitat is orders of magnitude more difficult and costly than protecting it ever would have been. That isn’t a condemnation of those whose job it was in past to protect and conserve fish habitat in areas proposed for logging, nor is it one for those whose missionary zeal is now focused on “studies”. Everyone gets to play the cards they are dealt. Just don’t bet on anyone holding a winning hand. Go ahead, do those snorkel counts, do those juvenile abundance surveys, and scratch you head over the logging impacts if you ever get around to looking at them. Do all that for several years. But, before you do, think about how the results of any of those undertakings can be applied to improve the steelhead stock status.

One last word. I understand someone has flagged seal predation as an issue to be investigated. In my now 46 years of experience with Gold River steelhead, most of it involving boats on the lowermost river reaches, I have never seen a seal. If there is money to address seal predation on steelhead, I suggest it be directed at several well known and well documented situations of seal impacts on steelhead stocks on the east coast of Vancouver Island.

 

Comments 17

  • This may not pertain to the Gold River situation. Yet it’s worthy to note that flows through BC have seen similar over the past 3-4 years. Allot of the lower flows can be related to climate change as well as landscape disturbances such as logging of watersheds.
    Which at the time of permitting timber removal likely had no proactive prescription in managing the unknowns Mother Nature or Climate alterations may ocurr !
    This past fall on the Skeena Watershed there was a early fall heavy rainfall which drenched the snow capped mountains well above tree line. Hence the entire shed was under flood warnings. Not a common occurrence in late fall.
    The interesting part of the dramatic rise was that it came just as steelhead ( what numbers that did enter the system) were gathering in front of there spawning streams. Banks were eroded, roads washed out and culverts blocked with float debris.
    High water lasted far longer than normal and put a end to the tail end of the steelhead angling season.
    As November neared the waters and clarity was not altering much as it had historical. It was actually the first time in my time in the Bulkley valley where the Telkwa and Copper River was actually lower, clarity good and fishable. Yet the Bulkley was still high and off coloured with grey slate brownish colour which has decreased as of today to a light slate colour. A month has past sign that heavy rain occurred and the Bulkley has receded to mid July spring run off levels.
    Not a official report but hear say noted that a major slide took place on the Morice River along with a few along the upper Bulkley.
    I attached the graph of the flow levels back to last week taken at Smithers.
    This will likely effect the number of returning steelhead numbers in conjunction with that of science reported in your last blog!
    https://wateroffice.ec.gc.ca/report/real_time_e.html?stn=08EE005

    • Thanks very much Dave. I keep track of the WSC info on a regular basis so I appreciate everything you’ve said here. There was a somewhat similar event in 1988, although not quite as severe, that I talk about a bit in my upcoming book. The difference between then and now is there were a lot more fish in the Skeena tribs in 1988 than there were/are this year. The river I really worry about it the Copper. It took an unprecedented beating from two separate floods this season. There will be a cost to its steelhead down the line. Do you suppose the managers are paying any attention?

  • Thanks for posting. Dire indeed. The logging industry on the island is out of control. However, on a frigid day late December 2016 I went for a walk from pump station to the triangle pool (indicating tidal boundary). I witnessed over half a dozen seals swimming around in said pool. I saw at least three steelhead captured. Take it as you wish….

    • Thanks for the added info Ryan. I haven’t been on the lower Gold as early as December in recent times because a December steelhead has become about as common as unicorns. Can you be sure the fish captured were steelhead as opposed to coho or?

      • My Friend had got a lovely chrome steelhead a couple days earlier…..,that is why I went for a walk. As I watched the fish being taken by the seals I was at the transition between the tailout and the head. The water was extremely low with the frigid temps. I didn’t see any fish make it past the seals. Could they be coho? Possibly. I do believe I would have seen some make it past the seals if they were in fact coho. Just because of sheer numbers that one usually sees when coho are migrating. To a completely different point….. with all the drought situations on the island could it have been a late summer run my friend caught? It was past December 21 though😊. In recent years i have found some very fine specimens on various flows that are open for fishing pretty close to salt in late fall that I imagine are summers? I don’t know for sure. Thanks to all who contribute to the dialogue on this site.

        • Unanswerable questions here Ryan but thanks for the additional information. “Back in the days” we commonly caught Robertson Creek hatchery summer steelhead in the lower Gold right through the winter. Those fish had coded wire tags so we knew for certain where they originated (we obviously killed them). My whole point about the seals is I don’t want to see them become a distraction when there are so few steelhead left any seal trying to make a living off them would starve to death. The 2017 snorkel survey results that seem to have inspired the current study initiatives had their origin years before. That the one fish observation had nothing to do with seals in my opinion.

  • Gold river, where do I start?
    I too, first came to know the Gold in early 1970. A transplant from the East, out on the coast for a summertime job. Here it is, 47 years later and still have a summertime job on the coast. My first ever steelhead was caught on the Gold in June of that first year – an early running summer fish of about six pounds. I presume now it was destined for Gold lake in the upper watershed since it was encountered well above the Gold/Heber confluence.
    The Gold river today is just another sad example of why steelhead, Oncorhynchus mykiss, that naturally occurring anadromous marvel of B.C.s Pacific drainages, needs to have its own representative at the table(s) where any matters which may impact upon it are being contemplated. Steelhead must have legal standing in their own right and their “right to being” entrenched in Canadian law. For sure, this is a lot to get your head wrapped around; granting legal status to steelhead equal to any other person in Canada. It calls for a precedent setting paradigm shift of magnificent proportion. One that will be an historic act in BC and Canada. One that has not occurred… yet.

  • The notion of granting personhood to animals or even to rivers is getting some recognition as a means of conferring legal protection. (Consider that the granting of personhood status, by incorporation, to companies or clubs is also seemingly nonsensical, and yet we are all used to it.) Any progress though on that front will be much argued and a long time coming, if ever. In the current emergency, such musings (I am guilty of it) is a distraction. We need political will to do something right now. If Regina v Jack has enshrined the principle that conservation needs can override even First Nation rights, then government has all the authority it needs to immediately shut down net fishing on the lower Fraser in order to protect Thompson bound steelhead. Longer term, it might be that the designation of entire rivers as national parks is the way to go. That is the river and all its life including a riparian zone. I know little enough about the Gold, but other storied rivers come to mind. If land can be a park, with all the protection that offers, why not a river? We need to think differently, because most of the public is indifferent to the mass extinction underway let alone a more esoteric species like steelhead and the small band of, sometimes seeming obsessives, who love them and their epic life stories.

    • More thought provoking and valued comment Frank. Thank you again. One of the points I make in my impending book is surely there is one river in the vastness of British Columbia where fish should take precedence over all else. The closest example I can come up with is the Adams River legacy of Haig-Brown but even there we’re talking about decades after the fact. There isn’t much, perhaps nothing, left in terms of a steelhead river candidate in any sort of natural state but I’d take anything at this late stage of history. I’m quite convinced the general public would buy the notion if the messaging and packaging could be generated but the concept of no one gets to fish would probably be a stone wall if the in-fighting between various factions of even the recreational fishery, let alone the issues around First Nations and their constitutionally protected rights are any indication.

    • “The notion of granting personhood to animals or even to rivers is getting some recognition as a means of conferring legal protection. (Consider that the granting of personhood status, by incorporation, to companies or clubs is also seemingly nonsensical, and yet we are all used to it.) Any progress though on that front will be much argued and a long time coming, if ever. In the current emergency, such musings (I am guilty of it) is a distraction.” Thanks for the intro…
      Granting personhood to rivers has taken place in other jurisdictions, so one might argue, that notion has gained a wee bit more than “some recognition”. Remember, the longest journey begins with the first step. On the matter of granting personhood to wild BC steelhead; that first step has already been taken. At least one accredited legal organization in BC has reviewed the rulings and ramifications of making such a move to grant personhood to natural entities and has compiled a lengthy document on their findings. Reading that document leads me to believe that steelhead fit well within the realm of being embraced as a legal entity. And that a solid case can be made for making the move.
      The fact is; everything that has been done to date to try and manage/mitigate the situation, has brought us to the dire straits steelhead are in today. More of the same is a waste of time and energy, and that is the distraction. As was said, it may be difficult to wrap your head around such a paradigm shift, but, it is in no way nonsensical.

      • Rory, Frank, if you haven’t already done so you might want to check out David Boyd of UBC. If you Google him you’ll find a lot of gripping information around exactly what you are talking about.

  • Thanks for that Bob. Yes, the time is right for a monumental shift in the way we accept and embrace steelhead as a bona fide player at the table. To do so may well be the only way out of this circuitous quagmire of inaction. The sooner done the better.

  • In my recent comment about granting the legal rights of personhood to rivers or steelhead, I did not state that the notion was nonsensical. I said that the granting of legal personhood rights to clubs or companies was seemingly nonsensical and by extension, for many, that extends to animals. I cannot ignore the fact that many people find the idea foolish. I am not one of them. I think it is sensible. However, I believe any progress will be slow and arduous. New Zealand by recently granting legal right to the Whanginui River settled the longest running litigation ever – 140 years. That’s right; the Ngati Hau Maori tribe began the process one hundred and forty years ago. Recently, on appeal, the New York state supreme court rejected Chimpanzees as legal persons. The ruling dashed earnest hopes raised by the Nonhuman Rights Legal Project. The only other significant legal success was a New Zealand (again) 1999 decision granting legal rights to five great ape species, specifically banning their use in research or testing. The time may be right Rory, but having it sooner is problematic for steelhead let alone most animals. I have an interim suggestion. In the spirit of the 2016 changes to the Governor in Council Process, I call on the Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau P.M. to create a National Wildlife Steward as a Governor in Council. Meanwhile, the listing of steelhead should proceed with uncommon haste under the Species at Risk Act. Under SARA, the newly named National Wildlife Steward could issue an Emergency Order using 80(1) of the act to provide for protection of steelhead. That order would compel the DFO to live up to its mandate of protecting steelhead in tidal (or fresh) waters. As one part, and for an extended time, no individual, company or First Nations shoud be allowed to net salmon during the windows of steelhead spawning migrations.

  • To clarify; what I am suggesting is a kind of wildlife Tsar as a response to the crisis of mass species extinction. Even if steelhead, or specific races, were listed as endangered, the existing system of protection does not work. On the contrary, it is slow and often compromised or ineffectual. The National Wildlife Steward – someone with eminent qualification and not a political hack – could overrule or override most of the current dysfunction and indifference. Mass extinction is a hurtling train, with our agencies standing befuddled at the station or on a handcart trying to catch up. The loss of steelhead races, while personally painful, is only part of a large tragedy.

  • The Gold was the first river I ever fished in BC back in 2002 and at that time I stayed at the hotel across from the gas station. That hotel is now a high end lodge that never seems open. If you did not have a reservation you did not get in. I was back in 03 and despite low water had great fishing. In 04 the bottom dropped out and over 8 days between 2 of us only hooked 7 fish compared to the previous year when we hooked almost 40 between 3 of us. My last trip to the Gold was 2016 all the hotels and restaurants were empty I was one of only 2 angler parties staying there. One other party of 3 gear guys made up the whole of the angling effort on the river. A drive up the road past the number 2 bridge and the area had been so heavily logged I could not tell where the access point was for cardiac anymore. Many of my favorite runs had filled in with fines or were in the process of filling in. The loss was complete and total and if I have seen this 15 year I can’t imagine what those who have been around for 40-50 have seen.

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