Extinction Files

A tragic tale of interior steelhead stocks

Myles Armstead

Juvenile Steelhead | Photo: John MacMillan/Oregon State University

Thompson and Chilcotin River steelhead are now on the verge of extinction, with 2017 seeing just 145 and 45 fish returning to the two river systems respectively. Both rivers have been monitored since the 1970s and past runs of 2000-5000 spawners have been achieved, in spite of a steady decline over the last four decades.

To quote Robert Hooton, a retired senior provincial fisheries biologist with extensive knowledge on steelhead, “This is the equivalent of being down to the last breeding pair of southern resident orcas.”

So why the decline?

As with many other conservation crises, there is no one simple answer. Over the last few years we have seen ocean conditions become increasingly challenging for salmonids such as steelhead. Temperature changes have impacted returns, and other issues such as acidification are taking place which we are only just beginning to understand. There has been an increase in predators such as seals, sea lions, Pacific mackerel, and pompano, all of which are known to target both steelhead smolts and returning adults. There has also been an increase in the number of other salmonids by run augmentation (pink salmon and chum), which compete at different stages of their life cycle for the same species that steelhead feed on.

Most of these challenges are almost impossible to control. However, the one area where government has the ability to protect these fish is also the greatest source of mortality – the domestic commercial, sport, and First Nations fisheries that take place along the returning steelhead’s path. In previous years it was estimated that over 50% of the steelhead run was killed as bycatch of the chum fisheries from Johnstone Strait through the Strait of Georgia and up the Fraser River as far as Yale.

“Up to a quarter of the returning steelhead are killed each year because they get caught in commercial fishing gillnets that target chum salmon.”

As fisheries such as chinook and sockeye have had conservation measures introduced, we’ve seen an increase in the harvest of chum salmon. While chum are less popular as a food product than sockeye or chinook, the roe has become increasingly popular in Asia and Europe and fetches a premium price. According to provincial estimates, up to a quarter of the returning steelhead are killed each year because they get caught in commercial fishing gillnets that target chum salmon.

Today, with over fourteen separate First Nations that fish (predominantly for chum) between Tsawwassen and Yale for ceremonial, cultural, and economic reasons, combined with commercial opportunities for non-native fisheries, Interior steelhead are simply being netted to extinction. In 2017, during the Interior steelhead migration period between September and November, nets were in the Fraser River for 66 days with only one two-day opening for commercial fishing – the rest were First Nations fisheries.

To be clear, this is not an allocation dispute, it is a conservation issue. The priorities for the species as outlined by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) are, in order: conservation, then First Nations uses, and then recreational and commercial fisheries.

Steelhead fall into a grey area in terms of management because of their genetic make-up and anadromous life-cycle (which sees them returning from the ocean up rivers to spawn). They were once considered a trout species, but biologists have since discovered that they are more closely related to Pacific salmon than to other trout. While the above-mentioned salmon fisheries are managed federally by DFO, freshwater fisheries in BC (including, as per the former “trout” classification, steelhead) are managed provincially. Under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding made in the late nineties, every year DFO communicates with the Province through the Ministry of Agriculture about the steelhead fishery, including its aims to limit bycatch where steelhead exist. Yet we know that this fall, in spite of a clear impending extinction disaster, it was business as usual for the Fraser River fisheries.

Solutions for saving a species

On February 13, 2018, following a fast-tracked emergency threat assessment, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recommended listing the Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead populations as endangered. The independent advisory committee says Interior steelhead are at “imminent” risk of extinction, and the federal government needs to increase legal protection for those populations.

This announcement is just the beginning of the process of actually getting protections in place, and some are calling the decision a “litmus test” of COSEWIC’s effectiveness in the face of a true extinction emergency. The Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada (MECC) must now accept COSEWIC’s recommendation and then take it to cabinet, after which the federal government has to come up with a recovery plan (which may include directives to the Province to then come up with and enact protections) under the Species at Risk Act.

Meanwhile, the record-low numbers of overwintering BC Interior steelhead trout begin to lay their eggs later this spring. Interior steelhead are running out of time, and swift, concrete action is needed if the species is to survive. We need to:

  • Close all other fisheries on the Fraser when Interior steelhead stocks are present, including recreational fisheries and the increasing number of commercial sports fishing guides.
  • Eliminate gillnet fisheries in the main stem of the Fraser River and create non-lethal selective fisheries in terminal areas (this could provide First Nations with a tremendous opportunity to create long-term sustainable fishing jobs).
  • Create a credible surveillance program by non-invested third parties to ensure compliance with fishing regulations and better understand the impact that fisheries have on interior steelhead stocks.

Recently a number of NGOs have been working together to save this fish. The BC Federation of Fly Fishers, Steelhead Society of BC, BC Federation of Drift Fishers, and the BC Wildlife Federation have come together to form a working group, and both the Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia (ORC) and Watershed Watch have lent their support to what has become a critical issue.

Hooten has described the situation as “the perfect storm brewing,” in terms of DFO and the province’s management of fisheries. With chinook and sockeye stocks on the verge of extinction and the number of southern resident orcas rapidly diminishing, the government will need to act quickly in order to save what very little is left.

As Hooten says, “this is the hill to die on.”


Myles Armstead lives in the Comox Valley, BC and is first vice president of the BC Federation of Fly Fishers.

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