For the first time ever in Canada the plight of steelhead is on the radar of our elected representatives in the nation’s capital. The cynics amongst us would never have believed it could happen but there it was in the House of Commons with a federal Minister having to answer questions about Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead. (For simplicity I’ll just refer to them as Interior Fraser Steelhead or IFS) Forgetting, for the moment, the deception in the Minister’s comments and the political gamesmanship lets look a little more carefully at the picture.
We know we’re not going to “fix” whatever ails steelhead out there in the ocean feeding grounds 4,000 km (2,500 miles) into the central north Pacific. Whatever nature serves up is what we have to manage when those fish enter our own coastal waters and rivers on the homeward journey. That is the one and only time and place where we have the ability to influence abundance.
The known migration routes for IFS are inside and outside Vancouver Island. Sockeye salmon originating from the Fraser system are the most studied in terms of which route they take from year to year. The phenomenon is referred to as the diversion rate. In 2017, for example, the experts reported that the rate was 85%. In other words, that proportion of the Fraser’s sockeye migrated home through the inside route, otherwise known as Johnstone Strait. In most recent years I understand that inside route has been preferred. It is not unreasonable to assume IFS follow a similar pattern. Those IFS that don’t go inside obviously come down the west side of the Island, around its southern tip, through the Strati of Juan de Fuca and on into the Fraser.
Commercial fisheries of particular consequence to IFS are those that target chum salmon (enhanced stocks). Chum and IFS run timing overlap almost completely. The ratio of chum to IFS in 2017 was about 8,000:1 so it is more than a little problematic when seine and gill net fisheries are straining chum out of the same water column as those precious, endangered steelhead. Consider it as one large funnel with Johnstone Strait at the entrance, the Thompson River at the outlet and all the water in-between being filtered repeatedly on its way through. The outside fisheries that occur off southwest Vancouver Island and operate on both sides of the Canaada/US border perform similarly if IFS bound steelhead choose that route.
The common perception is those commercial fisheries are the death knell of IFS. There can be no dispute they are a major problem. Remember though, the further away from the outlet of the funnel the gill nets and seines are and the less concentrated they are, the less likely they will catch IFS. The converse is true. When the fish are finally in the Fraser River itself, they are far more vulnerable. So, who fishes how much and where? This is where the public and political perceptions are sorely in need of adjustment.
I’ll be the last to defend any mixed stock commercial fishery influencing steelhead but, even if all the existing fisheries along the IFS migration corridors were eliminated, all that does is make the fishing more lucrative for the fisheries that occur beyond them. In the case of IFS, we’re talking about nets in the Fraser itself. And, no, it isn’t the conventional licensed commercial fishing vessel gill nets that DFO unleashes from time to time. By my count those boats fished only two days in the Fraser River in 2107, albeit at prime time in October, right on the peak of the IFS run timing. However, that other fishery no one wants to acknowledge dwarfed the commercial gill nets in time and space.
If one works through the various DFO outputs, here’s what emerges in terms of the extent of the First Nations fishery in the Fraser River in 2017. In September there were FN nets in the water in the Fraser on 25 of 30 days. Almost all those days involved beach seines rather than gill nets but do not be deluded. Just because a steelhead may have been released from a beach seine loaded with everything but steelhead does not translate to it being a spawner seven months later or to it not being caught again. Remember, there are 14 FNs fishing between Yale and Tsawwassen. The beach seines apparently targeted pink salmon which are not exactly a traditionally sought item of FNs. One might want to view a beach seine fishery with a request for release of steelhead because they are “a species of concern” (the language DFO uses repeatedly in its published fishery announcements) in the same context as a recreational fishery managed on a catch and release basis in the Thompson River. The difference is there are likely a lot more steelhead caught in the former fishery (the DFO reports say zero) and they do not get quite the same kid gloves treatment.
In October there were FN nets deployed on 21 of 31 days. Most of those days involved drifted gill nets and/or set gill nets but some also involved beach seines. There was no detectable pattern with respect to which area of the Fraser and which FN was mandated to use which type of gear. On some days there were commercial gill nets, FN gill nets and drift nets and FN beach seines operating coincidentally. Just keeping track of which FN was fishing which area which time and with what gear looks to have been impossible. The same circumstances prevailed again in November when FN nets were legally deployed on 16 of the first 19 days. Those are just the legal nets. It doesn’t take much investigation to reveal net fishing outside the days legally open. My questions to DFO would be how many patrols were made to assess the level of illegal netting, how many nets were observed, how many fish of what species were involved and what actions or consequences resulted?
For all fisheries combined in all the known migration corridors for IFS during the 80 during which those steelhead could reasonably be expected to be present (September 1 – November 19), there were nets of one description or another in the water for 67 of them. Only five of those days did not involve FN fishers. I didn’t even bother to add up the days fished on the outside route and through Juan de Fuca to see if they may have filled in on any of the 13 days when the inside and in-river nets did not operate. I also didn’t look for any added information on net fishing activity in the Fraser between Yale and the mouth of the Chilcotin although one must acknowledge fishing occurs through those areas as well.
If the government mandate is conservation first and the status of IFS is accepted to be as close to extirpation as all signals indicate, the only option to save them is to stop fishing. Who is going to sell that and who is going to deliver it? The recreational fishery is not exactly wholly on board with a complete angling closure of all the IFS migration corridors and terminal pre-spawning habitats but that sector is relatively easy to regulate off the water. The commercial sector is more difficult but still manageable, especially if conservation is the issue. The FN fishery is the big one. When all the chinook and sockeye stocks once targeted by FNs are deemed to be conservation concerns (8 of 24 individual sockeye stocks recently listed as endangered) and subject to fishing closures, the only option offered by DFO to the FN community is later returning chum. That is the worst case scenario for IFS whose run timing overlaps chum more than any other species.
Put all the components of this picture together and what we have is a burgeoning FN fishery targeting enhanced chum under what DFO terms “economic opportunity fisheries”. The only significant product of these fisheries is chum roe. There is no historic precedent for this fishery among FNs but who dares mention that? Gill netters who are already down to two days in a month in the river and recreational anglers are easy targets. Closing them down is great political optics but relatively meaningless for IFS. The seine fleet is more problematic but still comparatively manageable. Meanwhile, the FN fishery just keeps growing. The test is coming. In fact it is here and now. Are governments prepared to uphold their conservation mandate or will the pattern of escalating FN fishing trump all else? Today it is the Fraser and IFS. Where will it be tomorrow?