After fast-tracking an assessment of two steelhead populations in the B.C. Interior, a government advisory committee says Interior steelhead are at "imminent" risk of extinction, and the federal government needs to increase legal protection for those populations.

Less than 200 steelhead returned to the Thompson River last year, and about 50 came back to the Chilcotin River  — an 80 per cent decline over the past three generations. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), a group of independent advisers to the federal government, said this is an all-time low for steelhead since records began in 1978.

"If this were to continue, the stock would be in trouble," said COSEWIC marine fish species specialist committee co-chair John Neilson.

Steelhead in B.C. have some legal protection as a catch and release species, but Neilson said it's not enough.

COSEWIC said the primary threats to these populations are bycatch and salmon net fisheries and warming ocean temperatures.

Not too late

Though he said the situation for B.C. Interior steelhead is dire, Neilson doesn't believe it's irreversible.

"This is an iconic species," Nielson told CBC's Sarah Penton. "With the news from COSEWIC concerning the dire situation for the steelhead, I'm certainly hoping the minister for environment and climate change acts quickly to adopt our advice and put additional protection in place."

Neilson believes the government will step up and increase legal protection, because a similar situation happened in 2012 where the committee identified a need to further protect three at-risk brown bat species and action was taken soon after.

"We've seen some remarkable rebuilding stories both in the Atlantic and the Pacific, and I think with strong intentions and strong interventions from government, I think we could effect a turnaround."

With files from Radio West