Steelhead fishing on the Thompson River. Photo Credit: Contributed

B.C. steelhead fishery faces extinction

Steelhead angling groups demand government response

Steelhead anglers may have to start looking for another fish to catch.

Four groups have released a joint statement sounding the alarm about the decline of steelhead numbers returning to B.C. rivers.

The focal point of that concern is the Thompson River, a major tributary of the Fraser River.

Where it once supported a thriving recreational steelhead fishery of 4,000 spawners in the mid-1980s, today the Thompson River has about 250 spawners projected for 2018.

The four groups—B.C. Wildlife Federation, Steelhead Society of B.C., B.C. Federation of Fly Fishers and B.C. Federation of Drift Fishers—are calling on Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the provincial government, which is directly responsible for steelhead stocks management, to recognize the crisis and develop an action plan in response.

“If we don’t take strong action over the next couple of years, we will lose it forever,” said Brian Braidwood, president of the Steelhead Society of B.C.

The main causes of the steelhead decline, the groups say, are inhospitable ocean conditions related to climate change, habitat degradation and fishing mortality.

Steelhead are ocean-going rainbow trout that can reach up to 40 pounds and are highly prized by recreational anglers for their size and strength.

Unlike Pacific salmon, which die after spawning once, steelhead can spawn multiple times during their lives, each time returning to the ocean and back to their home rivers.

The four organizations want the province to invest $7.5 million in funding for Interior Fraser steelhead on a four-year action plan that addresses stock recovery in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans, First Nations and recreation fishing stakeholders.

“Minister Dominic LeBlanc in Ottawa and Minister Doug Donaldson in Victoria need to hear us loud and clear: The time for discussions and studies is over, the time for action is now, and you need to step up and do your jobs in protecting this national treasure,” said Bob Hooton, with the BC Federation of Fly Fishers and a retired senior fisheries biologist with the provincial fish and wildlife branch.

Nick Pace, a fishing guide in Kelowna and co-owner of Trout Waters Fly and Tackle, said he respects Hooton’s voice in this debate because he has seen this issue from both sides, as a fisheries biologist for 37 years and as a recreational angler.

Pace said he has stopped fishing the Thompson this year because of the low spawning returns, something he said all anglers should do.

“It’s been an ongoing thing going back to the mid-80s, where there were years the river should have been closed to steelhead fishing and it was opened up,” Pace said.

He said there is a myriad of conflicting river use issues compounding the declining steelhead numbers, and proponents of each are pointing the finger at others as the source of the problem.

“The commercial fishery (where steelhead get caught up in salmon nets), sports fishing poaching and First Nations all share in the guilt for this happening and need to work together to find a solution,” Pace said.

“My optimistic side says yes everyone wants to see a nearly extinct fishery be saved, but my realistic side says it will be an uphill battle.”

Pace said the Thompson River is the mecca for steelhead anglers, calling it the “world series” of fishing.

“Thompson steelhead are kind of like the unicorn, not everyone can catch them, so that is the challenge. Steelheading is referred to as the fish of a thousand casts. The appeal to a Thompson angler is not the quantity, but the quality,” he added.

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