Against All Odds – The Future of Interior Fraser Steelhead in the Balance

Some of the most compelling reading I’ve ever been privy to regarding the Interior Fraser Steelhead circumstances showed up this week. It’s the product of a Freedom of Information request to the agency most people believe to be responsible for steelhead management in British Columbia. That would be the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD), headed by Minister Doug Donaldson. The request was for all records and correspondence between Jan 1, 2017 and Nov 15, 2017 related to the Marine Stewardship Council certification for the chum and/or pink salmon fisheries including steelhead interception. There is a companion request in to the Ministry of Agriculture (MAg) as well. I’m told the product of that one won’t be available for another month. In the meantime and before I try and summarize the most gripping parts of the first response to the FOI I think it appropriate for a bit of background to try and put this material into context. Bear with me.

In the early 1990s when the commercial fishery interception of Skeena steelhead became an issue that could no longer be ignored there was one and only one provincial government agency that carried the steelhead torch. It was the one I toiled in, the precursor (Ministry of the Environment or MOE) to that absurdly named FLNRORD agency of the present. At the time neither the commercial fishing industry or its lifelong bed partner, DFO, had much to worry about with only a few sport fishermen starting to harass them. But, those sport fishermen grew to become a force to be reckoned with. Anyone with the desire to know some of the detail is encouraged to look up the chapter on the Wild Steelhead Campaign and the Skeena Watershed Committee in my book, Skeena Steelhead – Unknown Past, Uncertain Future.

Well along in the campaign to address that commercial fishery interception problem a new kid on the block showed up. It was the provincial agency known today as the Ministry of Agriculture or MAg. I’ll be so bold as to suggest their appearance was a direct result of pressure exerted at the highest levels in the provincial government by the commercial fishing industry, its union and DFO, all of whom were beginning to appreciate those rabid recreational angler groups were not going to go away. The MAg people are the ones responsible for licensing the shore based fish processing industry as well as for marketing BC seafood products. I have no doubt they were under explicit direction from above to take over the lead role in all further consultations between the province and the salmon focused harvesters and processors on anything related to Skeena steelhead. For those of us at the operational level of MOE who had put the interception issue on the map and worked tirelessly with the recreational fishery representatives to finally begin to address the problem, it was a bit of a shocker to have MAg show up (unannounced to us) and seize the podium.

The MAg domination of the steelhead related interface with DFO was solidified in 1999 with a document signed off by the federal Minister of Fisheries at the time, David Anderson, and the provincial Minister of Fisheries (functionally the same organization as today’s MAg), Dennis Streifell. It is not a bad template for how the two governments would and should approach steelhead interception fisheries. However, the fact that it’s the licenser of the seafood processing industry and the provincial government’s seafood marketing agency that controls the agenda is a problem that will become evident in the revelations included in the FOI outputs of the present. Whereas the 1999 agreement has languished in obscurity for almost its entire existence it remains in effect. My experience is there is almost no one in today’s steelhead advocacy community that has ever heard of it. I say that because I asked a high ranking official in the FLNRORD office in Victoria last summer if they could provide me a copy. He didn’t know what I was talking about.

With steelhead interception in commercial fishing nets becoming a steadily growing concern through the 1990s and beyond, new constraints faced the commercial fishing industry, its managers and its marketers. Enter the London based Marine Stewardship Council or MSC. That group is now about 20 years old and its purpose is to assess various commercial fisheries around the world to see if their products meet consumer’s perceptions of “sustainability”. The organization that the MSC relied on for assessment of the BC salmon fisheries for sockeye, pink and chum salmon is known as Acoura. They are based in Edinburgh, Scotland. When Acoura gives the green light to the MSC the latter authorizes the product(s) of concern to bear its blue eco-label which consumers have been conditioned to recognize as one applied only to fisheries deemed to be sustainable. Both organizations have extensive web sites for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the marketing game.

What I find interesting about the MSC business is there is nothing on their web site or on the Acoura site that suggests any fishery they have been involved in assessing has ever failed to be certified. Of equal interest is the question of who pays for what is obviously an extensive process of data review, public consultation and report preparation? The MSC claims to be a non-profit organization trumpeting altruistic pronouncements about future generations being able to enjoy seafood and oceans full of life, forever. The Acoura site claims it “provides a range of specialist services and solutions aimed at protecting businesses who operate across the food and drink supply chain.” One last clip to illustrate what the certification is all about comes from the Executive Director of the BC Seafood Alliance, Christina Burridge. More on that group later but, for now, here’s the deal: “There was a very simple reason for seeking certification: we sell the same products into the same markets as Alaska. Once its salmon fishery was certified, we quickly found that our customers expected we would have the same certification.” 

With all the above as background, here’s some revealing points gleaned from the FOI request concerning the MSC certification process for the fisheries impacting IFS.

  • The records attributable to the players involved from government do not go beyond the rank of Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) for the province and Regional Director General (RDG) for the DFO. At the other end of the hierarchy, it was extremely rare to see any operational level person in the provincial ranks included. The same pattern prevailed within DFO. I find it strange that there is no record to indicate the most prominent wild steelhead conservation issue of our time never made it beyond an ADM or RDG level. Either that or any communication from a Deputy Minister or above is not subject to FOI rules.
  • The MAg clearly dominated the provincial input to the process as well as the interface with DFO. The all revealing record of what was occurring was an email from James Mack, ADM of Agriculture, Science and Policy for MAg to FLNRORD ADM Tom Ethier one day after a recreational fishery stakeholder (Rod Clapton) sent an email to one of Mack’s subordinates. Clapton had attended a meeting in Kamloops a month earlier when a MAg rep stated the MSC outputs indicated steelhead recruitment is not being impaired at this time and these fisheries (i.e net fisheries in the Fraser itself and its approaches during times when IFS are known to be present) are not having a substantial impact on the recovery potential of Thompson/Chilcotin steelhead. Clapton wanted to know what role MAg had played in such outputs. Mack’s email to Ethier:

“I’m a bit concerned that FLNRO is provoking stakeholder comments in a leading way on this. It’s totally appropriate for government experts to contribute their expertise, but we’ve had privileged access to the internal process, so it seems questionable to come around again like this during the public process.

I think the risk here is we end up having various government experts arguing about these issues in a public process.

Give me a call when you’re back next week and we can strategize next steps.”

The FOI records reveal no indication of what transpired between the two ADMs thereafter. Of course, phone calls would never be on record so it isn’t necessarily a surprise there is nothing traceable here. I’ll add that Clapton has no record of a response either.

  • All records of the interactions between DFO, Acoura and the province indicate the MAg served as the filter of any outputs related to the MSC process. By mid-February, 2017 ADM Mack was pressuring ADM Ethier to co-operate in preparation of a letter endorsing the MSC/Acoura outputs (specifically the material known as “Condition 14” which I’ll try to summarize below). Another clip from a Mack to Ethier email:

“Jim has been through drafts of this with FLNRO staff but we’ve had a hard time landing this and the timeline is approaching.

In the interests of time, we’ve cut the letter back to something higher level that I hope we can both agree to and provide comfort to MSC.

Let me know if you think we could sign this. We also need to revisit the steelhead file from a broader perspective as it’s been difficult to get everyone on the same page.

Let me know about the letter and then we can schedule some time on the longer term issues.”

  • The FOI records indicate there were several editions of the infamous MSC letter kicked back and forth between DFO, MAg, FLNRO and Christina Burridge, the aforementioned Executive Director of the BC Seafood Alliance. None of these are included in the FOI output. One can read between the lines though. Some examples:

Email from Jim Russell (at the time MAg’s Director of Strategic Seafoods Initiatives but no longer appearing in the MAg staff directory) to two of his subordinate staff:

“ I changed the letter to make it more consistent with the letter DFO is sending. What do you think? Not too much for FLNR to argue with. Still I’m not going to share with F&W until James and perhaps Tom have a chance to look at.

BTW……..I talked to Christina this afternoon. Apparently FLNR’s subterfuge behind the scenes has had an effect on Acoura and she is really worried that BC salmon may be decertified.”

Email from Christina Burridge to Jim Russel referencing a letter she had written to Acoura Marine on Feb 10. 2017.

“Please don’t distribute further at this point”. Of course the letter referenced doesn’t appear because it is protected under the FOI guidelines. One can only wonder.

Enough! The end point in all the MSC exchanges is MAg was the provincial lead in finalizing a four year agreement (commencing with the 2017 fisheries influencing those Interior Fraser River steelhead) that included a much tweaked piece labeled “Section 14” that identified a four year action plan outlining how DFO and “the Province of BC” will address the IFS issues. The Feb 24, 2017 letter that accompanied Section 14 and green lighted the MSC certification was co-signed by the ADMs of FLNORDRD and Mag (copied to Christina Burridge) but the FOI material told the story on who held the pen. The piece from that letter that is just a bit short of passing the red face test:

“Stabilizing and then rebuilding the Thompson-Chilcotin steelhead populations is critically important to BC. We are therefor pleased that we are able to agree on a four year action plan with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) aimed at identifying and addressing any impact the DFO managed chum fishery has on the recovery of steelhead populations.”

Section 14 states that year one (2017) was supposed to be all about forming a technical working group to undertake all sorts of computer modelling and simulation exercises. The FOI material indicates the FLNRORD bank account to address any of this was empty. Nothing happened.

The year two (2018) plan says the province and DFO will complete a social and economic analysis of whatever modelling approach arises out of year one. To quote: “This evaluation would include consultation with affected parties through existing fisheries advisory and consultative processes”. In other words, more of the same old same old. My question – how’s that been working? The year two plan concluded with: “The technical working group will identify research and/or data collection initiatives that could assist in addressing key uncertainties in the emerging management framework.” How’s that for a do nothing recipe?

In year three (we’re out to 2019 by then) the signatories to all of this will: “Report on implementation of the management measures developed in year 2 using defined performance indicators. Consider further refinements to the management measures and fishery timing/closures/methods as required to ensure that performance targets are achieved.”

The year four (2020) recipe is down to a one-liner: “Final report on implementation of the management plan and annual reporting on performance indicators.”

Step back for a moment and think about the 2017 IFS situation. We had, by far, the worst ever conservation crisis facing those fish. That situation was abundantly clear very early in the migration period. In fact it was entirely predictable and predicted (see “Situation Critical” I posted on August 10). The soon to be famous “Section 14” document accomplished nothing and the collective inertia of both governments that emerged from it sentenced yet another brood year to oblivion. I can’t remember ever reading a fisheries management document replete with such poorly defined processes and products so open to interpretation and debate that they constitute the perfect recipe for the status quo. Do you think that may have been the plan from the outset?

Two more observations on the MSC process and product. I can’t help but notice the letter of conveyance from the two Province of BC ADMs to the organization responsible for conducting the fishery assessment (i.e. Acoura) was addressed to a “fisheries technical officer” whose name cannot be found anywhere in the extensive list of on the Acoura web site. It struck me as a bit strange it wouldn’t have gone to someone higher in the Acoura food chain. Finally, and most importantly, I find no evidence in any of the FOI material that either the federal or provincial governments ever made mention of the First Nations fisheries that now dominate the IFS circumstances (see, for example, “The Elephant in the Room” posted on Dec 11). How can that glaring omission not be deliberate? How would the Acoura assessment of the fisheries of influence to steelhead exclude FN fisheries unless there were terms of reference to that effect?

Now for the rest of the revelations buried in that FOI package. Here’s a quick overview of the one and only FN fishery that showed up in those many pages. This was a stand alone issue that had no relationship to any of the MSC material described above.

One third of the FOI package deals with a Musqueam First Nations gill net fishery for chum in their traditional territory (mouth of the Fraser and its lower reaches) in the third week of October, 2017. The direct line of inter-governmental communication was between the province’s MAg and various middle managers within DFO and up to the RDG. The province’s FLNRORD was cc’d on most of the communications but it was obviously subservient. One of the FOI documents from MAg ADM James Mack to DFO’s RDG Rebecca Reid (October 17, 2017) stated: “Chief Wansbourough from Musqueam has a tentative meeting with my minister tomorrow. Topic is gill netting. Will let you know what comes out of it.” The message was copied to FLNRORD ADM Tom Ethier as a courtesy. Numerous other emails were traded back and forth on Oct 17, all of them geared toward satisfying requests (demands) by two Musqueam chiefs to conduct economic opportunity fisheries tailored to the best tides and times to harvest maximum numbers of chum salmon. What ultimately became of all the exchanges was not revealed in the FOI package. All I can determine is the DFO web site announcing all fisheries notices indicated the Musqueams went fishing on Oct 23.

Another question – what about all the other FN fisheries before and after this single much referenced Musqueam fishery (there were others before it)? If one goes to DFO’s Fishery Notices web site and wades through all the FN fishery openings listed therein, the Musqueam was only one of 14 FNs who fished the almost 200 km between Tsawwassen and Yale. For those masochistic enough, the web site is:

Patience please. There is just one more item that bears on all of the above and several balls that are in the air with respect to Interior Fraser Steelhead right now. It deals with a meeting held between three representatives of the BC Federation of Fly Fishers (myself among them) and Kenn McLaren whom we understood was the senior ministerial assistant to FLNRORD Minister Donaldson. We met Mr. McLaren and MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard in McLaren’s office in the legislative buildings in Victoria on Nov 9, 2017, right on the heels of all that is referenced in the FOI material above. Going into that meeting we were well aware of the aforementioned 1999 federal/provincial steelhead protocol and the fact it was the forerunner of today’s MAg that signed it off. What we wanted to know from McLaren was, all these years later, which ministry is now the voice of the province? He stated unequivocally it was his ministry, i.e. FLNRORD, not MAg!

Our BCFFF delegation was surprised to hear such an emphatic response and wanted to have evidence of it for future reference. In that regard we prepared a letter of confirmation from BCFFF President Jesse Blake (who was also present on Nov 9) to McLaren. The letter was dated Nov 10, 2017. No response has been received. The intervening period has seen volumes of material traded back and forth between the province, DFO and various stakeholders re the IFS situation. Nowhere do I detect a presence of MAg. The only indication that Minister of Agriculture Popham exists relates to fish farms. How’s that for a sad commentary on a new provincial administration that was supposed to be a breath of fresh air relative to its predecessor? Those revered IFS are up against it as never before……….for this:

Comments 10

  • Fantastic work Bob and crew…my mind spins reading this, I’d need a 30 ft dry erase board to connect the dots as you have.

    Soooooo…how does one hammer on the MSC certification when it’s obvious that they understand that is a target?


    • I don’t know (yet) Scott. The deception has to be the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture. I suspect the crosshairs will be focused on them first, although my digging through the FOI material left me with the impression there was evidence of complicity by FLNRORD as well (not the functional level people). More here if/when it happens.

  • I always found it ironic when numerous sports fishing associations would promote selective fishing method and then their members largely guides and store owners would then go and sell bouncing betties for flossing.

    I similary find it ironic that these same groups are now protesting the chum roe fishery yet most of there members use chum roe for float fishing or fishing for sturgeon.

    I hate to say it but what needed now is an out right ban on all steelhead fishing in bc. If the steelhead need protecting let’s protect them all. If grizzle bears can get a hunting ban then let’s get one for steelhead.

    I found my self in the most award conversations the other day. My friend who does not fish saw on Facebook a fishermen with a selfie of a dead hatchery steelhead from the c/v. He asked me what was the deal after he saw in the news that Fraser steelhead were on the verge of extinction.

    I then attempted to explain to him the difference between hatchery and wild. The difference between lower Fraser River steelhead vs the upper Fraser.

    I could tell mid way though the conversation that he was confused and what was good press he seen in protecting Thompson steelhead was completely loss by there being other fishery’s where people could go kill steelhead. That his concern for the species was completely loss by the fact that people go retain steelhead in other tributary of the Fraser.

    If steelhead in bc need protecting let’s try to protect them all. Fishermen understand the difference but then general public is completely losses and confused.

  • Keep after them, Bob. This web is woven very tightly and the bureaucrats are not going to help. So sad.

  • A more accurate label system for sea food sourced in BC?

    • Thumbs up Eric. All we have to do is climb the mountain known as MSC certification and the support it garners from our own Ministry of Agriculture and DFO and we’re good to go. As I said in the post, I can find no evidence any fishery “assessed” through the MSC process has ever been rejected. That covers a huge number of fisheries, world wide. The Fraser chum fishery is such a glaring example of unsustainable relative to steelhead it is quite remarkable it ever got a passing grade. Then again, if we look carefully at those four conditions for certification (Section 14) and all the weasel words embedded there, it isn’t hard to see the chicanery.

  • so , well not so glad to read this re: MSC…. Many have been saying this for years, yet got no ear, even push back from some conservation NGO’s.

  • Many thanks again Bob for the work and the product from it.
    At some time my hope is that the public will recognize the political expertise exerted so business can continue to screw the environment.
    I could have choked on the realization that FLNRO had no money in their budget to comply with MAg’s realignment of a responsibility. That’s passing the buck with no buck attached!!

  • Thanks for digging Bob. This follows the neoliberal pattern of screwing up Crown institutions so badly that privatization looks good in comparison (BC Hydro, ICBC, BC Rail for examples.)

  • Right on Greg, if they can prove to the public they don’t have the capability then it is an easy sell to privatize it. Gee look how much money we saved the taxpayer; HA.
    What scares me the most is the raping of the sea by uncontrolled deep sea netting and fish farming companies with license to fish herring to feed their farmed fish. Direct competition for the salmon and steelhead food sources.
    We are killing the ocean and every one with the authority to do something just wants to have another meeting to do another study. Everything is fubared.

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