COSEWIC and Thompson Steelhead

The process surrounding the emergency review of the status of Interior Fraser Steelhead (IFS), most notably the Thompson stock, is not exactly well understood by anyone not intimately involved in the process. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the federal government agency ultimately in control of the fate of those fish, would seem to have recognized that point and prepared what I’d call an executive summary. Its a good piece to inform a broader audience eager to familiarize itself with the processes ahead. Here’s a cut and paste:


Interior Steelhead Trout – (Chilcotin and Thompson River populations)

Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) provides legal protection for wildlife species at risk to conserve biological diversity. It also acknowledges that all Canadians have a role to play in the conservation of wildlife species.

Steelhead Trout

Steelhead Trout (sometimes referred to as “Steelhead Salmon”) is the anadromous form (i.e. fish which migrate from marine to freshwater environments to spawn) form of Rainbow Trout (Onchorhynchus mykiss), which is a salmonid found in freshwater tributaries to the Pacific Ocean.

Steelhead populations face several diverse threats, including poor marine survival, habitat degradation, shifts in life history (anadromous versus non- anadromous forms), climate change and impacts from fishing (incidental mortality in the commercial salmon fishery and recreational freshwater catch and release steelhead fishery, and directed food, social and ceremonial fishing by Indigenous groups).

The Thompson and Chilcotin Steelhead populations in B.C.’s Fraser River watershed have been declining since 2005. With total spring 2018 spawning forecast estimates of 165 Thompson and 50 Chilcotin, the Province of British Columbia considers the populations to be in a “Critical Conservation Zone.”

Emergency Assessment – COSEWIC

In December 2017, the Chair of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) informed the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada (MECCC) that COSEWIC would conduct a threat assessment of Interior Steelhead Trout (Chilcotin and Thompson River populations) with a view to the species being emergency-listed as Endangered. The emergency assessment was premised on an application of supporting biological information indicating that there is an imminent threat to the survival of the species, and what appears to be a dramatic decline in the numbers of mature fish returning to spawn.

COSEWIC’s assessment results are expected to be released in February 2018. 

Figure 1: Fraser River Steelhead Trout stock groups
Source: MELP and DFO. 1998. Review of Fraser River steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss).

Emergency Listing Process under SARA

COSEWIC’s emergency assessment of Interior Steelhead Trout triggers the Government of Canada to consider whether to list the species on an emergency basis.

Prescriptive recommendation to Governor in Council

Under SARA (s. 29 – Emergency listing), the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada (MECC) must make a recommendation to the Governor in Council (Cabinet) that the species be added to the List of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (Schedule 1 of SARA) as Endangered if s/he is of the opinion that there is an imminent threat to the survival of a wildlife species based on a COSEWIC emergency assessment and/or based on other information. No additional factors may be considered by the MECC in making their recommendation to the Governor in Council. 

Other listing considerations

Although the MECC is required to make a recommendation to list Interior Steelhead Trout as Endangered if an imminent threat to the species is determined, the Governor in Council may consider other factors (e.g., socio-economic impacts, anticipated stakeholder positions) before issuing a listing decision via notice published in Canada Gazette II. However, all input from responsible Ministers must be prepared and provided in advance of the Governor in Council’s review of the listing decision. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is evaluating opportunities for Indigenous and public consultations on the emergency listing of Interior Steelhead Trout.

If listed, COSEWIC is required to prepare a status report on the species within one year, confirming or reclassifying the at-risk status of the species. DFO will undertake a regular listing process to confirm or reconsider the emergency listing, including thorough consultations with Indigenous groups and stakeholders.

Implications of Emergency Listing Decision

A decision by the Governor in Council to list Interior Steelhead Trout as Endangered may have immediate and significant impacts on a variety of activities which threaten the population, including fisheries, development, and other resource use.


Under SARA, immediate prohibitions against the killing, harming, harassment, capture and/or possession of Interior Steelhead Trout will come into effect. Such prohibitions may result in restrictions or closures of Fraser River Indigenous Food, Social, and Ceremonial (FSC) fisheries, the commercial sector, and recreational fisheries; and restrictions on or inability to pursue certain land-based activities.

Identification and Protection of Critical Habitat

Under SARA, Critical Habitat must be identified and protected for species listed as Threatened or Endangered. Critical Habitat is the habitat necessary for the survival and recovery of the species, and is protected against destruction.

SARA Exemptions

While it is possible to permit or exempt activities for certain purposes and provided certain preconditions are met, these activities must not jeopardize survival and recovery of the species. That is, the activities must not contribute to the species’ decline or impede its recovery.


Actions Underway

DFO is actively engaged in the Thompson Steelhead Working Group which is currently engaged in developing recovery strategy and management plan for Thompson Steelhead. In addition, the Department is advancing general salmonid habitat restoration initiatives (e.g. improving water flows, stabilizing stream banks, removing barriers to fish migration and planting streamside vegetation).

In April 2016, British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations produced a Provincial Framework for Steelhead Management in British Columbia, intended to provide provincial direction for steelhead management and to guide the implementation of regional management actions in British Columbia. Strategic actions in this plan relate to: regulation of fisheries, habitat restoration and protection, engagement of stakeholders, First Nations, and DFO, stock assessment, licensing improvements, partnership with DFO through the existing Integrated Fisheries Management Plan, development of a risk assessment framework, and hatchery assessment.


For more information:
Species at Risk Program, Pacific Region 200-401 Burrard Street
Vancouver, British Columbia, V6C 3S4


The bolded print is my own attempt to highlight a few points we might want to pay attention to. Watch out for that “threat” to the future of Thompson steelhead due to shifts in life history strategy. (Could that be the overwhelming negative force we’ve been missing lo these many years?!) Pay attention to the escape clauses in that “other listing considerations” piece. Beware the consultation trap. How many examples do we need where consultation is endless while the status quo prevails?

The Thompson Steelhead Working Group is classic. Five years in, a truckload of money spent, every level of government known to the Canadian landscape in the tent and the IFS abundance curve on a steep path to zero all the while. Process is the product.

About that Provincial Framework – can someone, anyone, please enlighten me on what influence that has had on IFS. Yes, I know it says 2016 but that document was around in an internal, essentially unpublished form for years and obviously had zero influence on the circumstances we find ourselves in today. Nice try though.

Finally, there’s that “hatchery assessment” reference again. How in the world does that re-surface at this late stage of broad recognition by the science community a hatchery program in a situation akin to the Thompson would never solve the interception fisheries problem and only hasten the elimination of anything resembling a wild steelhead. The Chilcotin would be even worse.

November 13, the day the COSEWIC recommendation is finally made public, holds the potential to be the most important day in the history of steelhead in British Columbia.


Comments 20

  • DFO sent the two PDF’s you referenced out to the SFAC’s. I beleive their will be fishing restrictions coming as I beleive the review will result in a SARA listing. What will this all Mean for mix stock fisheries is anyone’s guess. Will it end up like the cultus lake sockeye? Or could we see a complete closure window? Without any doubt commercial and recreational interception will be closed. However, how will they deal with the First Nations nets? Beach seines? Reconciliation is the federal governments top priority these days.

    All bets are off if the new fisheries act legislation is passed. Tho I’m being optimist, I’m young and new to this file

    The hatchery part is laughable where would they get the brood stock. Lol that was good for a chuckle thanks for that BOb

    This précis of what’s happening is very illuminating.
    Any possibility of seeing budget figures from the province devoted to their efforts to protect wild steelhead?

  • Much appreciated south of the border … Your last four paragraphs are universally applicable to endangered anadromous fish considerations in Canada, Europe, Russia, or the U.S. What you have written can be copied and pasted into comments for numerous management plans the public is invited to participate in internationally. It sums up the perceived value in process and money spent — and a rare history of effective recovery results. Funding for process, as much as anything, is considered the higher value for numerous management agencies leaving commitment to effective results little applied or funded. There is little stomach to rock the boat that has gotten us to where we are. We can hope with your last sentence for the Thompson/Chilcotin … a hope for altering the boat’s coarse in spite of history.

  • Bob,

    I don’t know how often you check this site, but its a good idea to get an idea of what is being presented to First Nations on the Fraser

    • Area E Fraser River Chum Fishery
      –two openings on October 24 and 27; harvest of 77,139 chum
      –retained bycatch of 1 pink and 68 hatchery coho
      –104 Chinook, 740 unmarked coho, 8 sockeye, 14 pink, 12 steelhead and 264 sturgeon were released
      –1 Atlantic salmon was caught

      FVW have 5 prosecution files related to the Fraser River commercial fishery. The majority are related to participating in a salmon fishery without operational revival tanks

    • Thanks Matt. I will take a tour through this when I can find the time. At a glance, the info presented by DFO’s Conservation and Protection staff gives some pretty good hints at that other fishery our management agencies are afraid to acknowledge as being anywhere near the force it has become.

  • 2018 Fisheries Planning

    4. Interior Fraser Steelhead
    • Significant concern about conservation of Interior Fraser steelhead
    given poor returns
    • DFO and B.C. working on technical tools available to support
    assessment and management of steelhead impacts in fisheries
    – DFO staff developing model to assess exposure of steelhead in commercial
    salmon fisheries to support fisheries planning; model intended to permit
    evaluation of exposure of IFR steelhead for alternative fishing plans
    • DFO and Province plan to explore options for potential adjustments
    to fisheries approaches considered for 2018 season
    – Includes fisheries in marine approach areas, Fraser River and tributaries.
    • Broad, comprehensive approach to management of fisheries that
    impact steelhead directly or via incidental interception required.

    • I hope people don’t actually believe there is anything different here, other than the date. All the planning, modelling, evaluations……..have done nothing to alter the downward spiral of Thompson and Chilcotin stocks over the past many years. The only potential for altering this annual status quo approach is a SARA listing for Interior Fraser Steelhead. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.

  • Bureaucracy will do anything to avoid the real underlying issue. In the Snake River case, it is mucking about with hatcheries and habitat measures that have almost nothing to do with the underlying main cause of wild fish decline: Four lower Snake River dams. On the Fraser, the interception fishery fills an analogous role.

  • I don’t even think a SARA listing will help Bob, If you read between the lines on their presentation it looks DFO is already planning on giving “Do not list advice” recommendation to keep the Abo fishery going. SAD indeed

    • DFO will advise the List be amended for a species as assessed by COSEWIC, unless there is a Compelling Rationale not to do so.

    • When providing Do Not List Advice, DFO must:
    o Provide Compelling Rationale
    o Create and implement work plan if DFO will undertake incremental activities
    o Report on work plan progress after 5 years.
    • Compelling Rationale must address:
    o Alternative recovery approach and expected outcomes in absence of listing
    o Net benefits to Canadians of Do Not List decision.
    • Compelling Rationale is developed in consideration of multiple sources of
    information including:
    o COSEWIC Assessment, Recovery Potential Assessment, consultation results,
    approved management scenarios and their impacts, analysis of costs and

    • We’re on the same page Matt. There may be a different angle this time though. The courts are likely to be involved if DFO doesn’t come through with a believable, deliverable recovery strategy. The COSEWIC/SARA history is not on our side here but there are enough people lined up to take action now that it will be hard for the feds to play the same game again. Forgive the repetition but this is the hill to die on.

      • I talked to the former head of C&P for Fraser Valley East. I was trying to get accurate numbers on steelhead interception in the First Nations fishery. He told me that while he was in charge First Nations were allowed to keep all intercepted species except sturgeon. I don’t no if they have changed it now but i doubt it.

        He also told me that “Lots of steelhead in abo fishery end up being added in Coho number, they are very poor in picking out steelhead”.

        Then I said ” well then we might as well right them off”

        He said “pretty well if they run during a fishery”

        Then he told me about how Chinook numbers crashed while being intercepted in sockeye fisheries. Also talked about how 200+ gill nets in the area are seized each year ect.. Talked about how there is a few corners in in the canyon where 1 net can capture 100% of the fish the way they are funneled through.

        I am trying to put some interception numbers together, I want to put together a letter showing how many from last year were intercepted. Anyways regardless I am going to write some letters again with some information I have learned and try to keep the pressure up! Your right with enough support their is definitely an angle to be worked.

        If the steelhead die here at least I will have died at the top fighting.

        • I’m all ears Matt. The sorts of inside information you are teasing out here needs to be in the public arena, regardless of the political sensitivities of the moment. Please continue to keep us informed on how life on the water contrasts with life in the boardrooms. After all, this is supposed to be all about sustainability and conservation rather than public perceptions about historic relationships with First Nations.

  • Wow! I’m baffled! It seems we need a separate NGO team to monitor DFO’s compliance with the ‘negotiated’ agreements with the natives.

  • The deplorable state in which British Columbia’s fisheries — especially those stocks of Steelhead trout which are destined for listing under Canada’s Species at Risk Act — find themselves in is not surprising. To date, everything we have done, or have failed to do, has lead us into this scenario. Why then, would we continue repeating those failed actions in an attempt to procure a different outcome?
    Case in point: the current move to formulate a “new” fisheries Act. To date, any of the previous versions of the Act could have proved more beneficial to fish and their habitat if its provisions had been prosecuted fully and in a timely manner.
    An example of this malingering is clearly evident in the bureaucratic mind-set that science based assessments must lead the way forward; ad infinitum. The pretext of science based assessments leads us along the winding loop of self-perpetuation and into the black hole of, for want of a better expression, career advancement. It has little to do with actual on the ground or in the water improvements for the betterment of fish. Nor for that matter, has it produced any “on paper” enforceable stipulations to be enacted for the betterment of fish. After all, it is humans who require governing, not fish. Humans, being a largely unruly lot, naturally resist compartmentalisation whether science based or otherwise. So, it is not surprising the non-committal endless loop of scientific research is appealing to many.
    Another example of side-stepping the whole fisheries mess is in how bureaucrats love trying to spin a new image onto the wart-faced toad the Fisheries Act has become. It’s much akin to that famous Roman and his fiddle amidst the flames, or the crew rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic while ankle deep in sea water. More time wasted by not tackling the real troubles.

    • I’d like to see just one situation where a fishery was closed, as per the precautionary principle, and remained closed until the science demanded was on the table to guide future decisions. Otherwise, as you say, its another example of a chubby Roman with a fiddle.

  • I encourage anyone interested to read into the causes of the Atlantic cod fishery collapse, which can be summed up in one sharp comment: the DFO assumed a role of managing the fishery into oblivion. Throughout, department scientists and officials consistently refused to listen to voices on the ground. By that, I mean the warnings sounded by in-shore fishers and other Newfoundlanders. There is plenty of post-mortem and strong parallels. Sadly, it might have been more effective to create a Ministry of Funny Stream Walks where Ottawa mandarins would have actually visited West coast rivers seeking wisdom from the seasoned locals.

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