BC Steelhead: a forgotten species?

Written By Tom Davis

British Columbia’s international reputation relies heavily on wild, remote and unspoiled imagery. The messaging promotes sparkling lakes, clean rivers, snow-capped peaks and diverse wildlife, of which abundant salmon and native trout, like steelhead, have important roles to play.

Since Europeans’ first contact with Indigenous peoples, B.C.’s riches have driven prosperity. Unfortunately prosperity came at a cost; and arguably, no species has epitomized the dark side of exploitation more than salmon. The false belief their abundance was beyond destruction disappeared long ago, but the magnitude of the damage has only come to public attention in recent decades. 

In the late 1970’s, the Salmonid Enhancement Program, which included community involvement in salmon recovery, shifted thinking from exploitation to restoration. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars and years of professional and volunteer work have gone into their recovery. Despite the many successes from these efforts, key salmon and steelhead runs are in decline. Although they belong to the same Salmonidae family and share similar ocean migration characteristics, steelhead are rainbow trout which return to the ocean after spawning, whereas salmon die.

The Province of B.C. has regulatory responsibility for steelhead through freshwater angling management. The Federal government oversees salmon in ocean and tidal recreational and commercial fisheries, as well as Indigenous in-river food, societal, and ceremonial fisheries. Steelhead are also recognized internationally, as Article IX of the Pacific Salmon Treaty notes:  “The Commission and Panels shall take into account the conservation of Steelhead.”

Given this degree of management, steelhead stocks should be stable. Not so. In recent years, some populations have declined precipitously. Many steelhead advocates now worry government agencies have simply forgotten about them.

Unfortunately, seine and gill net fisheries targeting abundant salmon runs experience significant steelhead by-catch – the incidental capture of non-targeted fish species – negatively impacting steelhead populations. However, as University of British Columbia’s Dr. Carl Walters noted, those fisheries aren’t solely to blame for recent declines, as they’ve recently experienced significant cuts in fishing opportunities. Walters suggested decade’s long increases in seal and sea lion populations have impacted steelhead. 

Steelhead are also caught incidentally in First Nations food, societal, and ceremonial net fisheries. 

A technical advisor for the Howard English Hatchery for several decades, Peter McCully used to fish for steelhead on the Goldstream River near Victoria as a teenager. Historically, the Goldstream supported a modest but healthy steelhead run, however, that is now almost extinct, he said. McCully believes small hatcheries can aid steelhead recovery, as he observed at the Tribal-managed hatcheries on Idaho’s Snake River. “The real head-scratcher is the provincial biologists’ complete distain for hatchery intervention,” McCully said.

Historically, the Goldstream River supported a modest but healthy steelhead run, however, that is now almost extinct, says Peter McCully. Goldstream River is shown. [Photo Tom Davis]

There remains considerable opposition to rearing steelhead in hatcheries, including from some anglers, which suggests the use of hatcheries for steelhead recovery might warrant further examination.

The federal government had jurisdiction for steelhead but passed it to the Province because steelhead “was never considered to be a valuable commercial fish,” said McCully. “That same dismissive attitude persists today… this duality of management creates intergovernmental head-butting, leading to the dreadful state of federal-provincial steelhead management.” 

It’s a common observation. 

Brian Braidwood, president of the Steelhead Society of BC, was blunt in his assessment.  “The Province has had staffing and funding cuts that crippled proper stock assessment and research” and “Fisheries and Oceans(DFO) continue soldiering on with by-catch fisheries and don’t give two (bleeps) about steelhead,” Braidwood said.

Skeena River anglers Alex Bussmann, Missy Moure, Jessea Grice and Tom Espersen are extremely concerned the world famous Skeena steelhead runs are on the same trajectory as the severely depressed Interior Fraser River steelhead stocks. 

They want the senior governments to jointly develop a Skeena River steelhead recovery plan with input from affected stakeholders. They’ve also identified the need for selective fishing implementation as the top priority for fisheries with known impacts on these stocks. 

Many anglers argue they have led the movement for selective fishing. When steelhead returns began showing signs of weakening, they pushed hard for the elimination of recreational “kill fisheries” in favor of the current “catch-and-release angling regulation.  

Without exception, anglers who contributed to this story expressed reverence for steelhead. They said the species is recognized worldwide as the pre-eminent symbol of angling in B.C., which brings significant economic benefits to small remote communities. Anglers also viewed the evolution of angling regulations, which reduce angler efficiency, as illustrative of their commitment to steelhead recovery.

Dave Moore works with the  Sts’ailes and Sq’éwlets First Nations on the lower Fraser River. A solutions-driven advocate for fish and properly managed fisheries, he brings a diverse forty-year fisheries background to the discussion table. 

Historically, First Nations used weirs, traps and spears to harvest salmon. These methods were considered obsolete before their conservation and selectivity characteristics were understood. (Photo Washington State Library Photograph Collection and Digital Archives)

At a time when gill net fishing times are increasingly restricted to reduce the mortality of steelhead and other stocks, Moore sees potential in selective fishing by First Nations’ food, societal, ceremonial, and commercial fisheries. Historically, First Nations used weirs, traps and spears to harvest salmon. These methods were considered obsolete before their conservation and selectivity characteristics were understood.

Things have come full circle. 

“The Sts’ailes and Sq’éwlets are collaborating with other Lower Fraser River first nations in developing selective fishing gear. This is to sustain their access to future fishing opportunities, when gill nets are prohibited,” Moore said. 

The concept of developing selective fishing technology within First Nations communities is a positive development. To be successful, new systems “must be easy to set up, function with small fishing crews, and have similar catching and economic efficiencies as the gill net,” he said, explaining the goal is to add fishing opportunities, under acceptable working conditions, that outweigh current gill net reliance. 

There are substantial large scale issues affecting steelhead:

  • Juvenile steelhead rear in fresh water one-to-three years before migrating to sea. Consequently, they are more susceptible to human and natural threats, compared to first-year ocean migrants. 
  • Steelhead adults can spawn more than once, multiplying the risk of exposure to threats.
  • Steelhead runs migrate to the mid-North Pacific Ocean where water temperatures have been rising. This reduces forage quality and abundance.
  • Asian and Alaskan hatcheries pump billions of pink and sockeye juveniles into the same north Pacific area, increasing the competition for food.

Steelhead advocates realize global climate issues affecting steelhead are not immediately solvable but tackling regional priorities can be done through the following:

  • Better senior government cooperation.
  • Adopting selective fishing.
  • Habitat restoration. 
  • Developing region-based recovery plans. 

The B.C. Government “is increasingly concerned with declines in steelhead populations” and has “identified low marine survival, pinniped predation and by-catch in salmon fisheries” as major issues, according to Paula Smith, senior public affairs officer with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources and Rural Development. The immediate solutions are “to reduce human caused impacts, prioritize steelhead habitat and population restoration, develop a run-specific steelhead action plan across the Province and include collaborative management with Fisheries and Oceans Canada,” she said.

Meanwhile, the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada is prepared to “work with the Province” and has “implemented a precautionary approach to fisheries that intercept steelhead, including closing some chum fisheries,” said fisheries department spokesperson Mike Allison.

Good stuff, but the messages don’t seem to be filtering down to those most affected by steelhead declines.