Steelhead are the fish falling through the cracks

By Sean Brady, Kamloops This Week

The future doesn’t look good for the steelhead trout that traverse the Thompson and Chilcotin rivers.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the stocks have dramatically declined over the last three generations and are down approximately 80 per cent, to the lowest levels on record.

On Feb. 13, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (an advisory body to the government), assessed the Thompson River and Chilcotin steelhead as endangered and recommended an emergency order to place the fish on the endangered list under the federally controlled Species at Risk Act.

Prior to that recommendation, however, B.C. Federation of Fly Fishers secretary Greg Gordon started an online petition in December to do the same thing.

Once it has run its course, Gordon is hoping its sponsor, Coquitlam MP Fin Donnelly, will present it in the House of Commons and prompt Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna to respond.

The dwindling steelhead numbers are a result of a number of issues that have been compounding for more than a decade.

One of the issues is bycatch – the incidental catching of one type of fish while targeting another. In this case, steelhead are caught in the ocean or rivers while commercial and First Nations fisheries target Pacific salmon.

Another issue is climate change – stream water levels fall while temperatures rise and we see more droughts and flooding, so the environment for the fish who do make it back to the Interior isn’t one in which they are easily able to survive.

Mike Simpson, Thompson region senior manager with the Fraser Basin Council, told KTW that steelhead is “the fish that has fallen between the cracks.”

The Fraser Basin Council facilitates discussion on sustainability issues between stakeholders like government, First Nations and private groups.

In this case, Simpson has put himself in the middle of a complex issue in which multiple levels of government and multiple First Nations are involved trying to find a solution.

Simpson said Fisheries and Oceans Canada gave responsibility of steelhead to the provincial government, but Victoria only manages the freshwater aspects of the fish.

However, because steelhead behave like salmon and swim to the ocean, they are vulnerable there.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada normally manages fish in the ocean, but Simpson said they aren’t a primary species on which the department focuses.

Simpson has been working on steelhead since 2014, but there’s been concern about the fish for decades.

In the 1980s, each of the two stocks peaked at more than 3,000 fish – what the provincial government classified as an abundance – but each of the stocks has spent much of the last 10 years at the “conservation concern” level.

The situation is now even more dire, with both the Thompson steelhead and Chilcotin steelhead listed as “extreme conservation concern” by the province, with fewer than 200 Thompson steelhead and fewer than 50 Chilcotin steelhead returning.

“Collectively, we’ve done this to steelhead,” Simpson said.

“We should think about the cumulative effects of a lot of our other management decisions and figure out if we value them and what we can do to bring them back.”

Other groups have stepped in to take action.

Earlier this month, the Tsilhqot’in First Nation announced a full closure of the steelhead fisheries “due to immediate threat.”

The Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C. also put steelhead rivers at the top of its biennial endangered rivers list.

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