Buyer Beware

Here we are staring at the beginning of yet another year of process intended to rationalize the multitude of fisheries now impacting salmon in British Columbia. The call is out from our Department of Fisheries and Oceans (I’ll leave out the part about the Coast Guard and just call it DFO) to line up for participation in its annual Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) development. In fact the process began in early December, 2017 with the backward glance at what happened following implementation of last years’ IFMPs. From there the agenda calls for various meetings of those with an interest in the 2018 plan at roughly two week intervals between early January and the end of April. Following that the draft plan(s) (one for the north coast and another for the south) disappear into the DFO woodwork for several more weeks before re-surfacing as public documents sometime in June. These are monumental documents replete with more acronyms, policy references and web site links than any normal person could possibly wrap their mind around. The northern plan for 2017 was 412 pages, its southern counterpart 536 pages.

 

How closely the in-season management decisions reflect the exhaustive IFMP process and product that preceded them really never matters. All that counts is DFO’s ability to demonstrate it invited everyone to its consultation forum, whether they showed up or not.

With that simplistic overview of what lies ahead, here’s some items of interest with respect to steelhead and how they might fare in the commercial and First Nations fisheries that they will encounter between tidewater and their freshwater destination. We’re talking summer steelhead here, at least for the most part. The principle stocks of concern are those returning to the interior Fraser tributaries, the Dean River and the upriver tributaries of the Skeena. No one seems to recognize there are still three more major Pacific drainages supporting interior summer steelhead north of the Skeena (i.e. Nass, Stikine and Taku) so I won’t bother with them here. In fact there is never any acknowledgement of either the Stikine or Taku and the Nass is essentially under Nisga’a control. Now, on with those steelhead related items.

 

  1. Commercial and First Nations (FN) fisheries are being progressively cut back to address conservation concerns for the preferred target species, sockeye and chinook. That is a good news, bad news scenario for steelhead. Less commercial fishing by seiners and gill netters during the overlap in run timing with steelhead means more of them get beyond traditional net gauntlets than would have in a year of average or better sockeye and chinook returns. The bad news is DFO offers up other salmon species as compensation for foregone opportunity on those primary targets. FNs are first in line in that respect. In the Skeena, coho and steelhead are the replacements. In the Fraser its pinks and, more importantly, chums. Most who are even vaguely familiar with the Fraser chum fishery understand that targeting them is a worst case scenario for Interior Fraser Steelhead (IFS) whose run timing overlaps those enhanced chum stocks completely. Fisheries targeting a million or two chums mixed up with and a couple of hundred steelhead does not make for a (steelhead) management success story.
  2. The public perception that it is the conventional commercial fishing gill netters and seiners that impact steelhead the most is just plain wrong. If one looks at those IFMP documents over the past several years it ought to be obvious the gill netters and seiners have been cut back steadily in terms of numbers of participating vessels as well as the times and places they can fish. The fishery of yesteryear is never going to return. Instead it is being replaced by FN fisheries that now dominate the IFS conservation scene. Shades of the same outcome are evident in the Skeena as well but that is out of sight, out of mind to the large majority of the BC population that lives in the southwest corner of the province.
  3. Those IFMP documents are replete with reference to a growing number of different types of FN fisheries. There are treaty fisheries, inland demonstration fisheries, harvest agreement fisheries, economic opportunity fisheries, ESSR (Escapement Surplus to Spawning Requirements) fisheries and, of course, FSC (Food, Social and Ceremonial) fisheries that are enshrined in Canada’s constitution. In the lower Fraser there are frequently two or three of those fisheries coincidentally harvesting chum (for roe) all through the IFS run timing window. I noted previously (“The Elephant in the Room”) that FN fisheries of one description or another occurred on 67 of the 80 days when IFS steelhead once navigated the lower Fraser. Contrast that with two days of commercial gill netting over the same period and the nature of the steelhead problem starts to emerge.
  4. If one believes the IFMP outputs, there are conditions applied with respect to non-target species (i.e. steelhead) and there are observers and catch reporting monitors attached to virtually every FN fishery that occurs. To that I say show me the data. The boardroom talk might be believable among those who have never been on the fishing grounds or those whose purpose is to put lipstick on the pig but I’m not one of them. In fact, just try and get any of the steelhead catch data out of DFO.

 

Am I making this up? Consider some questions I put to the DFO official responsible for all the fishery announcements for the Skeena area fisheries during the 2017 season. (One can reasonably assume the same questions and answers are applicable to the Fraser.) These questions came immediately following his August 8, 2017 bulletin. I quote:

“Note: Now that the Skeena sockeye Total Return to Canada estimate has eclipsed 625,000 (the trigger point Skeena Nations agreed to allow full FSC harvesting of sockeye in the Skeena River and in Area 4), Skeena First Nations are now fishing for sockeye in the Skeena River and in the marine approaches to the Skeena (Area 4).”

Remember, there had been an inordinate amount of time and effort dedicated to producing that 412 page IFMP document which was supposed to at least put goalposts around all the fisheries influencing “managed” species. And, lest we forget, the areas and times being thrown open here are those with the sorry history of seeing by far the greatest steelhead interception. Finally, steelhead abundance, as measured at DFO’s own test fishery on the lower Skeena, was seriously depressed in 2017. Thus my questions:

Q. What sub-areas are open/closed and what number and distribution of vessels do you anticipate? Are we talking about both seiners and gill netters?

 A. All of Area 4 is open to FSC harvesting. Most fishing will be by gillnet, though there are a couple seines which are fishing, as well.

 Q. What days will be open?

 A. 7 days a week

Q. What conditions exist with respect to net size and deployment times (i.e. are the conditions the same as would be expected for non-FN commercial fishermen)?

 A.There are no gear restrictions for a FSC fishery as they are allowed to harvest any fish that is not listed under SARA, though amounts, by species, are specified in each AFS agreement.

Q. What conditions of license exist with respect to catch reporting?

A. They have a reporting requirement under their AFS licence agreement. 

 Q. What monitoring of the fishery will be occurring and by whom?

 A. Monitoring will be as per any other season and is specific to each individual First Nation.

Well, all those responses raised additional questions that needed to be asked so that I could better judge the degree to which these steadily growing FN fisheries might be impacting steelhead. I was also curious about the attention accorded steelhead by DFO in these fisheries. Judge for yourselves.

Q. Does DFO keep track of the number of gill net and seine vessels fishing on each day as this fishery progresses?

 A. Each Organization is responsible for managing their food fisheries. This includes designating vessels to fish for food.  DFO does not require this information unless the vessels are fishing during a commercial fishery. 

Q. I note your reference to the AFS license agreement. Is that license/agreement available to an outsider like me?  Have their been similar license agreements in previous years?

 A. The AFS program was developed in 1992 as a result of the Sparrow decision and provides funding agreements for First Nation Organizations to participate in the management of the fishery.  Agreements and licences are negotiated/issued annually and licences are provided to all First Nation Organizations as a management tool in the food fishery whether or not there is an AFS agreement negotiated.  There is more information on the AFS program at http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fm-gp/aboriginal-autochtones/afs-srapa-eng.htm AFS agreements and food fish licences are not available online as there is protected information included in them.

Q. If the AFS license/agreement is not available, what can you tell me about the catch reporting requirements for this year or any previous years where agreements similar to 2017 were in place? How much faith can you put in the accuracy of any steelhead catch information that might be available?

 A. Catch reporting requirements are in every licence issued by the Department.  The frequency of reporting depends on the fishery.  In years such as this, weekly in-season catch reporting for salmon is provided to DFO.  This information is protected and cannot be distributed.  A summary of food fish harvest is provided in the post season review.  Steelhead is a Provincially managed species and is not included in the FSC licences issued by DFO.  Some steelhead information is provided with the catch reporting but it is not a DFO requirement.  I can say in a general sense it is likely that very few steelhead are harvested in the Skeena First Nation food fishery.

Q. I’m not familiar with what monitoring may have occurred in previous years so I would appreciate a bit more detail on that and for this year as well. When you say “specific to each individual First Nation” how many FNs are we talking about? Which ones? What are the specifics of their monitoring procedures?

A. Monitoring is conducted every year for each First Nation.  All First Nations are permitted to fish for food, so you can assume that every First Nation organization in proximity to a fishing area will have a licence and monitoring program. There are many variables to the different programs depending on area, species, time of year, etc.  The Department requests, at a bare minimum, the total harvest for each species  provided annually.  Species such as salmon would have more frequent reporting requirements and include effort, area, dates, etc. If you would like more information on specific catch monitoring programs, I would suggest contacting the specific First Nations fishery programs.  

Q. I see the estimate of the proportion of the sockeye run past Tyee stood at 86% as of August 7. That being the case the ratio of sockeye to other species whose run timing is slightly later (e.g. steelhead) would be expected to be significantly lower. That raises the issue of conservation in a year such as this when steelhead abundance is obviously low. Has anyone raised any concern about that?

A. Nope. As stated earlier, steelhead management is a provincial mandate.  Also stated earlier, steelhead harvesting by First Nations during FSC fisheries is not covered within AFS agreements and there is no reporting requirement under those agreements.  If there are conservation concerns identified, I would suggest the Province raise the issue with the various Skeena First Nations and the recreational sector and provide management alternatives to address the issue. 

So, there you go people. Does any of this give you comfort steelhead have a snowball in purgatory chance of being considered in FN fisheries or any others DFO gets its hands on? Does this do anything to build confidence that investing in IFMPs makes sense? Well meaning people should buy the DFO line and invest heart and soul in saving steelhead at one end of their migration funnel only to have the results of their efforts disappear at the other end? And, where is the province in any of this? MIA is too kind a term to apply to those we pay to “manage” steelhead on our behalf. Lastly, what do we suppose the chances are that any FN member who chooses to harvest as many steelhead as he/she likes by any regularly employed fishing method would ever be held accountable, no matter how grave the conservation concern? The recent pictures of harvested Thompson steelhead that showed up on social media will be one to watch in that regard. 

 

Comments 19

  • Here’s what I don’t get Bob. SARA is the only instrument that can curtail/constrain aboriginal FSC fisheries but with federally managed fish stocks, there are limits to harvest, developed exclusive of SARA. There are arbitrary thresholds that are not supposed to be exceeded.

    In contrast, there are no limits or thresholds for steelhead in FSC fisheries as evidenced in the last picture.

    This is extirpation by design.

    MFLNRORD says DFO is to manage FSC fisheries. DFO says MFLNRORD should consult with bands re steelhead conservation concerns. Meanwhile steelhead disappear from memory.

  • doesn’t anyone feel like they are pissing in the wind , huh ?

  • There is a point at which the intelligent individual citizen recognizes that their personal, and collective, needs are not being served by their governments, and that the only expedient way to address this shortfall is through direct action.
    It definitely worked in Clayoquot to deal with a similar situation. Its time to do it again!
    I regret not being at Clayoquot. I definitely won’t miss this!!

  • This is an issue that cries out for strategic thinking. One good reason is the complexity, the diverse players, acronyms and perverse bureaucracy. The public will have not have the patience to understand what’s going on. Plus steelhead, much as us relative few love them, do not have the symbolic appeal of old growth forest, grizzly bears or other iconic creatures. I suspect that to many they are just fish. All most folks in Kamloops know about the Thompson is rafting and sockeye runs. We need some high level thinking, as to what could actually work. Law, constitutional moves, boycotts, protests or even leakers who would give evidence of deliberate indifference or conscious extirpation.

  • How many grannies do we think there are who be willing to sit along side burning ties blockading the Hwy. No. 1 bridge at Spence and even go to jail? Answer – zero. We need to zoom above the convoluted trees and see beyond the forest to spy what might win the battle to save interior steelhead. While I mentioned boycott, protest and other public actions, I think they would barely fly and would only be distractions.

  • Who will take the lead (individuals or a group) in promoting an international boycott of steelhead fishing in British Columbia for 2018/19? We need I think to call on our American friends, who have contributed so much to our collective steelhead heritage. I have an original copy of John Fennelly’s “Steelhead Paradise.” If he lived still, what would he say about what has transpired over the past few decades? What could be more potent in arousing politicians than, “it’s the economy stupid”.

    • Hi Frank, I posed the question of a steelhead stamp boycott on flybc which is a little more interactive than this site. Suffice to say, no boycott support whatsoever.

      http://forum.flybc.ca/index.php?showtopic=60728

      • Thanks for the link Greg. I was not suggesting a steelhead stamp boycott. I used the phrase international boycott and American friends, meaning in my post to stir up ideas that would inform the deep-pocket, traveling international angler community about the crisis here (the ‘sports’ or potential clients). As recently as last year (or the previous) a slick annual steelhead publication was still urging affluent, traveling anglers to put the storied Thompson on their bucket lists. I know the idea will elicit controversy, and that brings attention. I take note that ‘trophy’ guiding interest often seem to have access to government power circles. As to the notion that the numbers of BC residents who buy steelhead stamps ‘speaks to the politicians’ and put eyes on the river, my answer is well, how’s that working?

  • Every time that I explore, just for old times sake the San Juan, the Gordon, the Nitinat and even the Klanawa I catch myself wandering up to the summer holding waters and looking for ghosts. On rare occasions I catch a glimpse. For that matter the Ash is still magical in that there are still a few there.
    Yes the situation is indeed that bleak and disheartening but the fish could care less as long as there is still water in the rivers.

    I fear that soon there will need to be an actively enforced ban on all sport fishing for all wild steelhead and all fin fish in many systems. Certainly the Thompson needs this drastic measure implemented immediately especially after seeing the greedy jerks out there slinging steelhead gear at “river rainbows” in the prime steelhead holding waters that were still open for “rainbows” in late October of this year!

    Perhaps banning all sport fishing on the Bulkley and commercial fishing in the waters directly off the confluence of the Skeena at Rupert might be the only way to wake the public up to the truth about what is really going on. If the first nations are then still allowed to murder fish then the guides and commercial fishers will finally wake up and scream bloody murder. Also if the license revenues collected from anglers suddenly dropped to a pittance just maybe the politicians, the Fresh Water Society and even the Native Elders would start to see the light.

    I am coming to the conclusion that temporary bans on fresh water and regional bans on all commercial fishing might be the only answer if we are really serious about saving a fishery that is based upon wild and hatchery fish that need some undisturbed fresh water habitat to exist.

    As Bob commented to one of my posts a while back.. “wild steelhead are hard to eradicate” but this does not mean that their extinction is not possible if we do not wake up and act now!

  • Unless you’re being sarcastic, the Thompson was open to steelhead fishing in October.

    • “Unless you’re being sarcastic, the Thompson was open to steelhead fishing in October.”

      With respect Greg:
      I am of the understanding that O. mykiss is one species and the diadromous variant has a penchant for swung leaded chickens and other so called flies, especially on the Thompson. In fact the “kokanee” once taken to New Zealand and successfully planted there turned out to be in reality Thompson/Fraser system sockeye.

      As crazy as it sounds, over exploitive angling for either wild anadromous fish, or the diadromous variant of the same race of fish may very well turn out to be even more damaging than we currently understand.

      We do not know everything there is to know about the resilience of Pacific Salmonidae and this in turn begs the question: as to why those who are making the call to close fisheries are failing miserably at the job when it comes to a critical river system like the Thompson?
      And especially why the Steelhead Society of British Columbia does not step in and advocate for an immediate ban on angling for Thompson steelhead?

      Ignorance is one thing, allowing a fishery when it is clearly an obscene abuse of an endangered race of fish is in my opinion a criminal act against nature and the environment that supports us all.

  • On the dashboard of the fisheries management vehicle the low fuel warning light is illuminated. Do they put just enough gas in the tank to get us by for the short term, or do they fill up the tank for a long haul?
    A SARA listing for certain stocks of steelhead, although long overdue and much needed, would get them through for the short term. It may also foster a further relaxed attitude within the fisheries departments to sit back and rely on SARA proponents to take the lead for change and remediation. That may not be a bad thing, but is not the optimum outcome the fish need from SARA. All factions, even remotely or peripherally advocating for, or impacting upon wild steelhead must become engaged in the SARA process for it to work at its best.
    At this point in time, I am a strong advocate for a SARA listing for the wild steelhead stocks as outlined in the recent e-petition to the Canadian Parliament. These stocks are the focal point as specific endangered stocks, after the fact. That is the nature of SARA, after the fact. What about the multitude of stocks nearing the same fate? Being proactive comes to mind.
    I am also a strong champion for granting personhood to wild-origin O. mykiss, of all Pacific drainages of British Columbia. Personhood is a progressive, overarching, holistic long-term approach to assuring steelhead have a voice and a seat at the table whenever any subject which might impact them is being discussed. This is for the long term and is proactive.
    Combining the two approaches; a SARA listing now as need be, and pursuing personhood for the long term, to help derail future predicaments, offers a full tank of fuel to get us through the long journey ahead.

  • It has been said, Steelhead are the recognized progenitor of all salmonids found along the Pacific coast of British Columbia. That is, they are the original species and all other salmon are evolutionary offshoots from this prime species. That fact alone should be impetus enough for seeking personhood for wild-origin steelhead. They were here first.
    A good question is; How to use personhood for the benefit of wild-origin steelhead?
    The answer to that is obscure at this point in time. The exact wording and parameters for implementation of such legislation is unknown, as it has not yet been scripted. So, to speculate on the hypothetical is an exercise in wheel spinning, it gets us nowhere.
    What can be said about personhood is; the Steelhead nation was the very first nation, with several salmon clans compounding their numbers. This was long before humans with their arrogant presumption of self-entitlement as the “first nation” came into being. Logic demonstrates that humans come in somewhere further down the nationhood pecking order, not at the lead position. With Steelhead Nation at the number one position, having knocked down human interlopers a peg or two, the whole dynamic changes.
    As previously mentioned elsewhere, what is needed is a major paradigm shift in how this wild-origin steelhead conundrum is tackled. As also mentioned, it might be difficult for some folks to get their heads wrapped around this concept. No one ever said it would be easy.

  • It’s Hard to believe that the government cares about Steelhead at all.

    How many lower mainland streams have the steelhead disappeared from over the last 100 years?

    Its hard to believe that is situation wont be any different.

  • Heres a response I got went I sent in my letter!

    December 21, 2017

    Dear Concerned Citizen,

    Thank you for your email regarding the state of the interior Fraser steelhead. The Province of British Columbia (BC) recognizes that steelhead is an iconic fish species of significant economic, social and ecological importance and thus is of high priority to the province.

    The provincial objective for steelhead management is to maintain and restore wild steelhead populations to maximize ecological, socio-economic and culture benefits for British Columbia. It is clear that the current status of these stocks is not in a desirable condition.

    In 2016, the province published the Provincial Framework for Steelhead Management in British Columbia, which guides the strategies and actions the province undertakes for the conservation and management of steelhead. This document is available for viewing at: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/fw/fish/docs/Provincial-Framework-for-Steelhead-Management-in-BC-April-2016.pdf

    Various factors influence wild steelhead during their freshwater and marine phases of their life cycle. Factors influencing steelhead in the marine environment include fisheries by-catch mortality, predation mortality and ocean conditions. These factors are under federal management authority and, to a large extent, difficult to manage.

    One area of the marine life cycle where there is the potential to influence adult abundance is by-catch management in salmon fisheries. The federal government’s salmon Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) process, undertaken annually for North and South BC coasts, provides an opportunity to incorporate steelhead management objectives within the broader planning process for the harvesting of salmon. The province endorses efforts to minimize exposure of summer-run steelhead to salmon fisheries in times and places of steelhead migration. Efforts might include limiting fisheries that are only modestly selective. In the short term, the province will continue to work with the federal government (i.e. Fisheries and Oceans Canada) to improve data and information for steelhead and to develop a joint steelhead management objective in federal IFMP.

    Administration of the recreational freshwater sport fishery is a provincial responsibility delegated from the Government of Canada. Therefore, fisheries management tools immediately available to support steelhead management include recreational angling regulations. Regulations can be implemented to alter mortalities associated with recreational angling via harvest restrictions, gear restrictions and time/area restrictions.

    The recreational freshwater fishery is already limited to a short time window and is catch and release. Changes may be considered to close the recreational opportunity completely.

    Habitat protection and restoration measures can influence the productive capacity of freshwater habitats to produce juvenile steelhead where habitat is limiting, degraded or fragmented. Currently, proposals for Fisheries Sensitive Watersheds and Temperature Sensitive Streams are being developed in the interior of the province.

    Improving steelhead management to maintain and restore wild populations of steelhead will undoubtedly depend on the effectiveness of our shared stewardship across governments, First Nations, industry, stakeholder and special interest groups, and the public at large. Thank you for your letter as raising your concerns continues to raise the profile of issues affecting these important stocks. We appreciate your desire to conserve interior Fraser steelhead stocks.

    Sincerely,

    Ward Trotter
    Executive Director
    Natural Resources

    pc: Honourable Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource
    Operations and Rural Development
    Honourable George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy

    • Thanks for sharing the response from Mr. Trotter Matt. I’ve seen a virtually identical letter sent to others. To me it is pathetic. I’d be embarrassed to have to sign such a nothing letter if I was still in service. Dear Mr. Trotter, just tell me what you intend to do. I don’t need any more planning forums, policy reviews, suggestions about what might or might not be a factor, etc. And, by the way, Mr. Trotter, your staff have virtually nothing to do with IFMPs or, more importantly, the First Nations fisheries that are far more significant and outside the IFMP arena. Grrrrr!

      • The provincial government is probably asking them selves how on earth they found them selves in charge of steelhead. It seems every time you email them they defer it off to the federal government. Yet when you email the feds they say it’s 100% the province responsibility. This is what we call passing the buck. Pathetic, as for the First Nations on avg over 200 gillnets are seized between mission bridge and the Fraser canyon by DFO annually. There corners in the Fraser canyon where you can set a net and literally nothing can get by.l the way the fish are funneled. The Provence has no way or will to tackle this. R u going to see CO’s fighting with First Nations on the news like DFO had to in the 1990’s not in a million years. This is absolutely extirpated by design. Just look at the cultus lake sockeye if you this a SARA recommendation will help.

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