British Columbia

'Hurtling towards extinction': B.C. steelhead returns critically low according to new report

Just-released numbers show two populations of B.C. Interior steelhead are on the brink of total collapse.

'It's clear that we have a severe conservation crisis on our hands'

Only 45 steelhead are expected to return to the Chilcotin watershed spawning grounds this year. (Matt Joyce)

Just-released numbers show two populations of B.C. Interior steelhead are on the brink of total collapse. 

According to the data, only 45  steelhead are expected to reach spawning grounds in the Chilcotin watershed this year and only 145 in the Thomspon watershed. 

"It's clear that we have a severe conservation crisis on our hands," said  Aaron Hill, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. 

"The run in the Thompson River is the most glaring example of an iconic steelhead run that's now hurtling towards extinction."

The numbers were released by Fish and Wildlife Branch biologist Robert Bison, who said test fisheries confirmed stocks were at "extremely low levels of abundance and in a state of Extreme Conservation Concern."

"These forecasts represent record low spawning abundances for Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead over monitoring time frames of 41 and 47 years, respectively," said Bison.

Challenges to survival

Hill says a combination of factors is devastating steelhead stocks, including changing ocean conditions and habitat damage. 

But, he says, interception is the biggest issue facing steelhead survival. Steelhead swimming up the Fraser River to spawning grounds in the Interior are frequently "incidental bycatch" of commercial salmon fishing.

Adding to the problem are the sport and aboriginal fisheries which also remove valuable fish from the surviving population.

An angler delicately holds an elusive Thompson steelhead caught during a past opening of the limited recreational fishery. (Matt Joyce)

"Everybody can legitimately say our fishery only takes a small percentage but the cumulative effect is significant, and we need to address it if we are going to prevent these fish from going extinct," he said.

The Steelhead Society of B.C. is also sounding the alarm. 

"Thompson River steelhead used to provide one of the most famous sport fisheries on the planet," said Brian Braidwood, president of the Steelhead Society of B.C. "If we don't take strong action over the next couple of years, we will lose it forever."

A number of groups say a quick and coordinated approach from both the federal and provincial government is needed to save the steelhead. 

"We need both levels of government to step up and deal with the problem instead of both trying to pass the buck, which is what's happening now," said Hill.

"I think we can recover these fish. They are resilient animals, and if you protect their habitat and get more of them onto the spawing grounds you can get them back."