An iconic fish could soon disappear from British Columbian waters, according to the province's fisheries manager, who worries Thompson River steelhead may be on the brink of collapse. 

Mike Ramsay, assistant director of B.C's Fish and Game branch, said if management practices in the federally regulated commercial salmon fishery don't change, Thompson steelhead may not be able to recover from low returns.

Officials estimate a record low number of steelhead — just 240 — will return from the ocean to the Fraser River and eventually into the Thompson watershed this year.

Each year, up to a quarter of the returning fish are killed because they get caught in commercial fishing gillnets that target chum salmon, according to provincial estimates.

'Every steelhead now is critically important'

Thompson River

The steelhead in the Thompson River are some of the most prized in the world, but numbers are declining rapidly and conservationists fear they could soon be lost forever. (Sean Mahar)

Steelhead are anadromous rainbow trout, which means they spend much of their lives at sea. British Columbia has over 30 wild steelhead stocks, but likely none so famous as the Thompson run.

Thompson steelhead are, on average, larger, stronger and faster than other wild steelhead. Anglers come to B.C to fish the Skeena River and other famous steelhead rivers but fishing for elusive Thomspon steelhead has long been considered a superior angling experience.

"With their slim bodies and large tails, they're perfectly designed for angling. That, combined with their aggressive behaviour, makes them the perfect sport fish," said Trevor Welton, vice president of the Steelhead Society of B.C.

Up to two-thirds of the economic value of the steelhead fishery in communities along the Thompson has been lost because of closures of the recreational fishery, according to estimates by the Fraser Basin Council, a non-profit conservation group. There is no commercial steelhead food fishery in B.C.. Steelhead in restaurants and grocery stores are a farmed variety.

"While Thompson River steelhead do not hold a specific commercial food value, they are the heart and soul of Interior communities, businesses and anglers from all around the world," said Cody Sojka, a director with the Steelhead Society of B.C. 

Caught in nets

Scientists warn warming oceans have become an increasingly hostile place for salmon and steelhead, which have seen record low returns in a number of fisheries this year.

The province, anglers and the DFO all said warming oceans are the biggest threat facing steelhead.

But the next biggest challenge is getting past the commercial gillnets that target salmon along the Fraser River which the fish must do to get to their spawning grounds. 

Because Fraser River steelhead and chum salmon returns coincide each fall, the DFO is tasked with reducing the bycatch of steelhead in commercial nets.

Steelhead are only slightly smaller than chum and many are caught in gill nets which can fatally injure the fish even when they are released.

Conservationists and anglers are calling for either major changes or complete closure of the chum fishery, saying the steelhead need time to recover.

They've written to both levels of government urging the government to either amend, delay or close the chum fishery.

For its part, the provincial ministry has worked on habitat restoration and already closed the historically lucrative recreational steelhead fishery along the Thompson River.

The Cook Ferry First Nation voluntarily did not participate in the economic chum fishery on the Fraser this year out of concern for steelhead.

British Columbia 'icon'

Thompson steelhead vert

Anglers often remind each other to 'keep 'em wet,' or keep the fish in the water while removing the hook to protect steelhead from injury and stress. (Matt Joyce)

The province is in charge of steelhead management, but the DFO manages salmon through their entire lifecycle, including when they are in freshwater returning to spawn.

Each season, the province advises the DFO on the state of steelhead, and the federal department is supposed to take that advice into account when creating a fisheries management plan for salmon.

Dean Allan, the manager of the Fraser Interior region for the DFO, said the province's recommendations were taken into account when the decision was made to open gillnet chum fisheries along the Fraser.

The DFO has made a number of changes to the chum fishery since the 1980s, including regulating net sizes, restricting opening times and even delaying the chum opening to reduce overlap of the fishery with steelhead returns. 

But Ramsay said the DFO isn't doing enough. 

He's concerned the mortality rate of Thompson steelhead is too high for the stock to sustain itself.

"The fishing plan was probably appropriate when there were thousands of Thompson steelhead coming," he said.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story included a provincial estimate of a return of 290 steelhead to the Fraser River. In fact, the province updated the number the same day the story was published and reduced the estimate to 240 fish.
    Nov 08, 2017 12:23 PM PT