This is how extinction happens.
According to the provincial government’s latest numbers on Interior Fraser steelhead, last winter’s return was the second lowest on record, and the province has re-affirmed that these fish are of “extreme conservation concern.”
Two days later, the recovery of Fraser River steelhead was dealt a wicked blow by the federal government’s decision to not protect the Thompson and Chilcotin populations under Canada’s Species At Risk Act.
I was one of thousands of people who wrote to Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna asking them to protect these magnificent and iconic fish under the law designed for exactly this purpose. Last year, a federally-mandated panel of expert scientists—known as the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC)—recommended the very same thing. When the email from Fisheries and Oceans Canada arrived last week, explaining why these endangered fish are not being listed under the Species at Risk Act, I was disgusted. This line was the kicker:
“The Governor in Council (GiC) has decided that not listing Thompson River and Chilcotin River Steelhead Trout under the Species at Risk Act would result in the greatest overall benefits to current and future generations of Canadians and the conservation of these wildlife species.”
That’s right: they are claiming that species at risk will fare better without the protection of the Species At Risk Act. Clearly, our government has no intention of recovering these populations, only to hopefully oversee their persistence.
When salmon populations are deliberately managed to levels where they merely persist, as opposed to recovery as required by the Species at Risk Act, they lack the resilience to withstand abrupt habitat or ecosystem changes, as shown by the recent Big Bar slide on the Fraser River.
Unfortunately, no one should be surprised by this decision because rejecting fish for protection under the Species At Risk Act has been standard operating procedure since the act was created in 2002. Of the 23 marine fish in B.C. recommended for endangered status by COSEWIC, only one (the basking shark) was actually listed under the act. In all of Canada, protection under the Species At Risk Act has only been granted to three of the 44 marine fish recommended for listing by the federal science committee.
Why are at-risk marine species not being listed as species at risk?
Time after time, powerful fishing interests have convinced cabinet ministers that the impact of not being able to maintain their current fishing practices outweighs the benefits of protecting endangered fish. But these politicians have their math wrong. Polling data consistently show that British Columbians do not want their governments to let endangered salmon runs go extinct. Unfortunately, extinction of Thompson and Chilcotin River steelhead is exactly what has been served. The recovery plan offered up in lieu of protection under the Species At Risk Act is nothing more than a repackaging of the same half-measures that failed to reverse the decline of Fraser steelhead.
Corrupt from day 1
The entire process around this decision has been corrupt from the outset. It erupted into a public scandal back in February when a shocking letter from B.C.’s Deputy Minister of Environment to the federal Deputy Minister of Environment was leaked to media. The Deputy Minister’s letter detailed how federal bureaucrats (at DFO) altered the conclusions of a peer-reviewed scientific report on Fraser steelhead to downplay the significance of fishing as the “only substantial threat to Interior Fraser steelhead that can be immediately mitigated”, in order to “support status-quo commercial salmon harvesting.” This report was meant to be used by the federal Minister of Environment in her deliberations on whether to protect these fish under the Species At Risk Act, and the Deputy Minister’s letter explained how the doctored conclusions of the scientists’ report no longer accurately reflected what the report actually said.
Fishing vs. conservation is a red herring
Because endangered steelhead are caught as incidental bycatch in commercial and aboriginal fisheries targeting Fraser River chum salmon, this issue is being portrayed as one of fishing versus conservation. This is a false binary. There are ways to catch Fraser River chum salmon with far less impact on endangered steelhead. It involves using highly selective fishing gear and careful handling practices, along with strong monitoring and enforcement, to allow for steelhead to be released unharmed when they are encountered in the chum fisheries. Dropping the hammer by using the Species At Risk Act would have forced fishers to evolve if they wanted to keep fishing. And besides, should tens of thousands of people throughout the Fraser watershed have to say goodbye to their cherished wild steelhead runs because a relatively small number of fishers are refusing to embrace a win-win solution?
The odds may have just gotten worse, but I’m not giving up on Fraser steelhead. Public pressure can be every bit as strong as a weak law like the Species at Risk Act. So we will keep holding government responsible for rebuilding these iconic fish and bringing fishery management into the 21st century.
And the federal government’s big cop-out on steelhead has doubled my resolve to fight for the several populations of endangered Fraser sockeye and chinook salmon also being considered for listing under the Species At Risk Act. These are higher-profile salmon runs than steelhead, and there are more of them than have ever been considered for listing at the same time. It will not be so easy for government to condemn them all to slow death in one fell swoop, especially if we stand together and demand that our leaders do their job and serve the broad public interest. Game on.
Read: Decisions not to add the Steelhead Trout populations to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk
You mention a letter from the Prov. deputy minister to the Fed. deputy minister but don’t put any names on those titles. Past experience has taught me that only by holding people accountable can me effect any change. Put names on the titles. For myself I’ve been petitioning my MLA, Minister of Highways Claire Trevena to stand up for Steelhead Salmon, She has not done so and I am disappointed in her for that, she will hear about my feelings at the next provincial election.
Too bad the genius’ in B.C. haven’t learned anything from the mistakes made by the F&W services and that they continue to make here in the U.S. Politics & economics, even when the b/c ratio doesn’t add up are the environmentalist/conservationists nightmare. Having fished for 50 yrs. in B.C. I’ve seen all the detrimental effects that have and continue to have on the fisheries.
Wake up or else your fisheries are heading to extinction as so many of ours (read Rogue R. where I live) have.
The Thompson and Chillcotin Steelhead are doomed simply because the Fraser River Fishery is under DFO control.
The DFO are only concerned with the protection of Salmon not Steelhead –Steelhead are protected under BC Provincial fisheries departments.
DFO have no concerns about the rapidly disappearing Thompson and Chillcotin Steelhead –in fact they would be very happy to see these runs wiped out so they would not have to deal any restrictions to commercial and native fisheries on the Fraser.
We who fished the Thompson and Chillcotin Rivers during the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s know the majority of Steelhead making their way to their spawning grounds on these rivers must pass through the Fraser during the Months of October and November –exactly the same time the Chum are passing through the Fraser–So every year more returning Steelhead are being intercepted in the Gill Net fisheries.
Unfortunately the numbers of Chum returning have been greatly increased by hatcheries on the lower Fraser –the majority of these hatchery fish return during the months of October and November -same time as the Steelhead –so the Chum fishery intercepts more every year–now there are only a few hundred steelhead remaining to spawn in the Thompson and Chillcotin rivers.
What makes it particularly troubling is the Chum fishery can only be profitable if the Chum eggs are sold –the fishermen receive between $12- $15 per pound when sold to Asian buyers–The flesh is of little value in fact commercial fishermen have told me they couldn’t even cover their costs if they had to depend on sale of the flesh–there is something wrong with a fishery that has to depend on egg sales particularly when it means the elimination of another important species such as Steelhead.
I remember when The Thompson was so popular sports fishermen came from The US, Europe and other countries –and spent a lot of money here in Canada to fish these great steelhead–now recognized as the largest Steelhead in the world.
It has been over 30 years since retention of Thompson and Chillcotin Steelhead by sports fishermen has been allowed–yet the numbers of returning fish continues to go down–When I fished the Thompson in 1960’sthere were well over 7,000 returning to the Thompson to spawn (I took part in working with Provincial fisheries –counting reds on several tributaries including Nicola , Deadman and others) –now there are under 200 returning to the Chillcotin and slightly more to the Thompson.
Other rivers such as the Chilliwack / Vedder, Chehalis, have faired better simply because these Steelhead return during months of December to April –when there are no commercial gillnet fisheries on the Fraser– so very few are intercepted.
DFO have no interest in saving the Steelhead runs in fact they would rather see tgone