Supply and Demand or Demand and Supply?

This year in Skeena country will be one to remember. The infamous Tyee test fishery results published by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been bandied about relentlessly. Early results prompted talk of a record run. Bookings were made and plans set. Then, as the season was upon us and unprecedented numbers of anglers began flogging the water, the real story emerged. Fish were not there in anywhere near the numbers anticipated. It didn’t help that the best month of the year was pockmarked with successive bouts of brown water.

A retrospective glance at the test fishery confirms what I suspected and stated two months ago. Beware those numbers. The water conditions through at least the first half of the steelhead return, extremely low but highly turbid, were rare to say the least. That combination of flow and color is just what every gill netter dreams about. Net efficiency is maximized. An unusually high proportion of the fish passing the Skeena test net zone were caught and the estimate of the number of steelhead passing inflated accordinly.

Insiders tell me the sockeye run was overestimated by 30-40%. It isn’t unreasonable to assume the co-migrating front half of the steelhead run was similarly overestimated. Getting DFO to admit that formally is mission impossible but it really doesn’t take a corps of scientists to figure it out. Remember, this is DFO, the organization that consistently refused to acknowledge their test fishery could ever do anything but underestimate the strength of the steelhead return. One of the oft touted excuses was the test net was saturated with sockeye and, later in the season, pinks, which caused the steelhead to avoid the net. I wonder if any of those who used to throw that in my face remember those days. Do you suppose they would ever acknowledge the flip side of that was the case this year?

Anyone who wants to dig deeper into the 2016 test fishery will recognize it was only that front half of the steelhead return that appeared to be unusually strong. The back half came after more normal flow conditions prevailed in the lower Skeena. The steelhead numbers were average at best over that period.

Test fishery accuracy aside, there is no doubt the inflated test fishery numbers were a large part of the reason for the invasion of anglers, mostly from afar. Therein lies the issue. How many is too many, regardless of where they came from? How many boats is too many? It wasn’t that long ago there were more bank anglers than boat anglers and there was no such thing as triple digit horsepower outboards on the rivers. Now we have the first of the 200 HP inboards on the Bulkley. The Skeena has been there for years.

What about the pressure exerted by guides? They’ll argue strenuously their effort hasn’t increased in recent times because their rod days are capped in regulation. I’ll suggest that isn’t entirely true. Yes, the rod days are prescribed but their distribution and overall use is greater today than I have witnessed over 26 years of those prescriptions. There are ever more innovative ways of sub-contracting or brokering rod days to ensure none go unused. Those days are now spread over virtually every piece of productive fishing water from one end of the September/October classified water season to the other and even beyond. There can be no argument the guides are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the total steelhead catch. After all, they’ve become very good at what they do.

More of all of us with better information streamed instantaneously and tremendously enhanced equipment and technology leaves no quiet times or places for steelhead. They’ll only produce so much catching when nary a fish gets a chance for a breather. All the best, reasonably accessible, classified rivers in the Skeena watershed are now experiencing that scenario. The so called quality fishing the Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resource Operations purports to be providing is long gone according to the benchmarks established at the outset. The fisheries management people now hidden away under that FLNRO umbrella appear to be oblivious to trends every veteran of the waters sees so clearly. Does anyone see any prospect for turning the clock back to restore a piece of “the commons”? What are we prepared to sacrifice even if we can wake the sleeping government dog?

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Bulkley River, September 14/16. Is it time to do something?!?

Comments 10

  • how about a drift boat only section?

  • Well said,as always! The big jets were rampart on the Babine last year. It was crazy dangerous and they come down from the weir before the fog sets in. I always stopped at halfway to take a look before proceeding. There is no channel for them they make their own. Billy has one too only not a monster.

  • Bob you could not have said it any better.Where will it end? The size of jet boats on the Bulkley is out of hand.It is time to act.

  • It would be nice to see the bulkley and other rivers adopt an even week odd week schedule of no key boats certain weeks. Also one thing that the Americans have definitely done completely right Is managing the amount of boat traffic on the deschuttes. Although it’s still a busy river they do weeks of no jets and there are limited passes to drift on any given day. Just a thought

    • Yes, there are solutions Adam. The Deschutes is an excellent example. We just need advocates for progressive measures in government office instead of out here in the blogosphere.

  • Well said Bob! If they have to do a test fishery maybe it could evolve a little! Fish wheel at Kitselas canyon might be a start ,instead of a gillnet kill fishery to count steelhead! A fish wheel at that location would still give the numbers for the enhanced Babine sockeye run, the release an counting of steelhead with minimal trauma and mortality! Plus it could employ 1st nations, an maybe all 1st nations upstream could do their food fishery without setting nets! I also agree that some guiding operations are empire building an the family run operations cannot compete with big money from the lower 49th! The family operations care about the fish an rivers but when 1 company has rod days on every river in British Columbia it’s all about numbers! On the kispiox there are 384 allocated guided rod days between 3 outfitters , so between the 3 if they take 10 anglers per day , they can fish for 38 days! That’s 3 an 1/3 anglers a day per outfitter for 38 days! Every creel survey done on the kispiox states 75 to 80 percent of angler effort is non resident non guided! So I don’t think the guides are the big problem, especially on the Kispiox! Thanks Bob, once again you’ve hit the nail on head the with DFO an i respect your knowledge! Wish you were still with F/W, maybe we wouldn’t still be running a test fishery that hasn’t changed since the 50s! Keep up the fight! Gene.

  • Boat transportation was brought up inQWS, but oddly enough “was not in the tool box”. Every river which allows power boats are getting ridiculous with size an numbers! It’s a total zoo. So much for quality angling!

  • Thanks Gene and well said. The veterans of the Skeena’s quality waters have some very useful ideas on what could and should be done to sustain the values people look for when they visit those places. My hope is there are some government people out there who are listening and prepared to actually do something instead of presiding over the demise of once great fisheries.

  • Yep you nailed it – fudging numbers to guide monopolies and in the end the fish suffer!
    The high powered boat issue on the Bulkley is of great concern! The structure in most stretches can’t handle the wash. George Wall, now passed on, advocated that and predicted this issue 15 years ago. Twenty five or thirty years ago if you seen two guys on the river between the airport run and trout creek it was a surprize! Now you fight for a spot!
    This new guiding outfit buying up all the little operations, hiring the previous owner as guide to carry the licence and subcontracting out the days has become big business. I hear say there are perks being offered to be put into a enhancement program etc. Most of that can be used to send their guides to river manners school. The regs state while operating the boats to be more aware of the speeds they in sensative areas and going by guys wading!
    It’s taken just over 25 years with the catch and release program to get a good gene pool of close historical size steelhead. It will likely only take a few years to destroy or have it decline with amount of guiding pressure the Bulkley receives!
    This has to change !

  • Simple answer is to put the entire Skeena system under the control of the Highways Dept. It would be better served than having it run by the current crop of clowns making the decisions in the environment portfolios. That way the guides would require a taxi license because that is all they are these days.
    I am deeply ashamed and disgusted with what we are doing to our piece of heaven.
    No power boats above Smithers at a minimum, seeing sled loads of so called anglers whizzing past Houston is a travesty. Even the once quite Maurice is turning into a gong show because of the lack of sensible management of the rivers.

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