Over a dozen environmental and fishery groups are calling on the federal government to protect an iconic B.C. fish under Canada’s endangered species act before it’s too late.
Last fall, Interior Fraser River steelhead hit their lowest estimated spawning population size since records began half a century ago.
The fish now face an “imminent threat to their survival,” according to a Jan. 24 letter from the 15 organizations addressed to Minister Steven Guilbeault of Environment and Climate Change Canada and Minister Joyce Murray of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
“It’s pretty desperate. There’s only 68 fish, and that’s spread across four major spawning streams,” said Eric Taylor, a University of British Columbia fish biologist and former chair of the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
While 68 fish are the steelhead expected to return to the Thompson River watershed in 2022, in the Chilcotin, that number drops to 32, according to a December status update from the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
“The steelhead fishery they used to have on the Thompson River was world-renowned. People used to come from all around the world to fish,” said Taylor. “Particularly in small rural communities, that money went a long way.”
“You go to that area around Spences Bridge; it’s a ghost town now.”
According to the Ministry of Forests status update, both Interior populations have dropped into the realm of “extreme conservation concern.”
The latest projections are based on samples from a test fishing area near Fort Langley, B.C. When gillnetters catch chum salmon, sometimes they net steelhead. When that happens, the fish are supposed to be logged and thrown back immediately. From there, fishery experts can extrapolate the average run in a year.
During steelhead spawning season in the spring and early summer, others tracking the fish don masks and snorkels before wading into tributaries across the Interior to count juveniles.
Both indexes might be off by a few fish, but both tell a similar story, says Taylor. And that’s worrying should an extreme weather event or disturbance along a river’s shoreline trigger a landslide.
“When numbers are that low, any kind of random event that happens — say a flood in the spring or lots of sedimentation because of forest fires — it can have a pretty big impact,” said Taylor.
Interior Fraser River steelhead is not the only population suffering from drastically reduced returns this year. From northern B.C.’s rivers to the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon, Taylor says coast-wide, the numbers have plummeted. In the Skeena River, the steelhead fishery was finally closed in October after August returns dropped to around 5,280 adult fish, the lowest in 66 years of monitoring and less than a quarter of the historical average.
“They should have 25,000 to 45,000 fish,” said Taylor.
Genetically a trout, steelhead live a life cycle more often associated with Pacific salmon. They spend several years of their early life in rivers, migrate out to sea and then return thousands of kilometres upriver to spawn. The species, which can live up to 13 years old, can spawn multiple times throughout their lifetime.
Despite worrying signs the two species were disappearing, by July 2019, then-minister of Fisheries and Oceans Jonathan Wilkinson announced DFO would not list the species as endangered under the Species at Risk Act.
The decision cited “broader public interest,” including “social, economic, policy and other factors.”
List steelhead as endangered and policymakers will prevent boats from catching a variety of other fish that swim nearby, the argument goes.
“The response I’ve always got is that you’d have to close all the fisheries on the B.C. coast,” said Taylor.
At the same time, the federal government has already signalled its willingness to shut down fisheries to protect fish populations. In June 2021, it closed 60 per cent of the salmon fishery in B.C. in sweeping closures.
But so far, Ottawa remains reluctant to list steelhead as endangered, a status that would make it illegal to kill, harm or harass them or damage their habitat. Species listed under Schedule 1 of the Species and Risk Act also kick into action time-defined recovery plans, and everything must be posted in a public registry.
“It’s much more transparent, and it makes (DFO) accountable for what’s being done,” said Taylor. “There’s no difference between these fish and a lichen or caribou listed under Species and Risk Act.”
In 2020, COSEWIC reassessed the Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead populations and confirmed their status as endangered.
A spokesperson for DFO said it is currently working through a process to provide advice on whether or not to list the populations under SARA.
In an email to Glacier Media, a DFO spokesperson pointed to “substantial fisheries closures” in place during the majority of steelhead migration, including chum fishery closures announced in June 2021 in the Johnston Strait, Nitinat and Fraser River — all places where steelhead “could be encountered.”
SCIENTIFIC RECORD QUESTIONED
DFO’s track record of listening to scientific consensus has been increasingly questioned in recent years.
In one case, hundreds of pages of internal documents obtained by the BC Wildlife Federation in 2021 suggested DFO undermined a scientific report spelling out existential threats to the Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead.
The report, meant to inform the decision not to list steelhead under SARA in 2019, appears to have been watered down following edits by the Assistant Deputy Minister’s Office at DFO.
In one email sent Oct. 31, 2018, DFO head of aquatic ecosystem and marine mammal science section Sean MacConnachie wrote:
“The ongoing involvement by people who were not part of the process, who have not been involved in the development of the material or the advice, continues to compromise on our ability to meet the deadline as well as the scientific integrity of the process.”
WHY ARE STEELHEAD DECLINING?
The decimation of steelhead across the Pacific coast can be traced to a number of factors, according to a 2018 federal Recovery Potential Assessment looking at populations in the Thompson and Chilcotin rivers.
Inland, agriculture water drawdowns were found to reduce flows and raise river water temperatures, a lethal combination in the summer months.
Meanwhile, forestry practices and urban development lead to increased erosion, damaging water quality by dumping silt into the rivers and destroying fish habitat.
Taylor pointed to a 2021 mudslide on the Deadman River that triggered a log jam, blocking migrating fish.
“It took forever for authorities to show up,” he said.
And at sea, altered ocean conditions brought on by El Niño, climate change and the “Warm Blob” are all found to squeeze steelhead populations.
“You can get fish coming up from down south feeding on other fishes. They can be there for a while and chow down on steelhead,” explained Taylor.
The federal recovery assessment says harbour seals and sea lions are found to feed on up to 40 per cent of out-migrating salmon smolts. But it’s unclear how steelhead are directly impacted, and some scientists have argued the prey species are merely restoring a natural balance.
At the same time, warm waters set the stage for a decline in nutrients, which can lead to fewer concentrations of the small fish steelhead eat at sea.
While Taylor says ocean mortality appears to be a big factor leading to precipitous declines of steelhead populations across all west coast rivers, how it’s playing out is still “a bit of a black box.”
That may soon change. An unprecedented fleet of genetic researchers is on route to the North Pacific to trace salmon and steelhead to their home rivers across Canada, the U.S. and Asia. The Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition will also examine how the migrating fish survive at sea under a rapidly changing climate.
Under the scientific leadership of UBC biological oceanographer Evgeny Pakhomov, the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir John Franklin will participate in the expedition with the F/V Raw Spirit. They will be joined by a Russian vessel and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association ship Bell M. Shimada, scheduled to set sail from Port Angeles, Wash., Feb. 1.
In the meantime, it’s the threat of commercial and sport fishing by-catch — where nets and lines inadvertently pull in another species — that have scientists and conservation groups scratching their heads.
On average, by-catch has been found to impact 18 per cent of steelhead returns in the last 10 years. The fish can survive for several minutes out of water, but if they’re not separated from the rest of the catch for several hours, they die.
Losing the Fraser River populations would mean more than losing a chance to bounce back a historically important source of food and jobs.
The iconic fish is an important part of the land and waterscape of southern B.C., and economic comparisons aside, losing it would be like Eastern Canada losing its maple trees, says Taylor.
Given Ottawa’s track record, he says it’s not likely DFO will list Interior Fraser River steelhead as endangered under SARA. Still, he says he’s more hopeful now that Joyce Murray, a British Columbian, heads DFO as minister.
“If nothing else, she’ll pay more attention to it,” said Taylor. “I’m hoping (she) has the gumption to strike a new course.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated with a comment from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.