Thompson and Chilcotin Rivers steelhead at risk of extinction

Only 177 steelhead trout returned to the Thompson River in 2017 and only 58 to Chilcotin

Thompson and Chilcotin Rivers steelhead trout in danger of extinction.

Due to the extreme decline of mature spawning Thompson and Chilcotin River steelhead trout, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has conducted an emergency threat assessment.

COSEWIC concluded Tuesday that the two populations of sea-going steelhead trout are at imminent risk of extinction. Both populations were assessed as endangered following the seldom-used fast-track emergency process.

The BC Wildlife Federation, and other angling groups, have all been sounding the alarm about the decline of the iconic Interior Fraser Steelhead (Onchorhynchus mykiss).

A mere 177 fish returned from the sea to the Thompson River in late fall 2017, and only 58 returned to the Chilcotin River. This is an all-time low since records began in 1978, and the endpoints of downward trends that started over a decade ago. The main threats include inadvertent bycatch of adults by net fisheries targeting Pacific salmon and poor ocean conditions.

Steelhead trout are a form of rainbow trout that are born in fresh water, but migrate to the ocean as juveniles, much like salmon. Also like salmon, they return as adults to their natal streams to spawn. Steelhead generally grow much larger than their freshwater rainbow trout counterparts, and contribute to highly valued catch-and-release sport fisheries.

BCWF President Harvey Andrusak said, “We fully support the call for emergency listing of the Thompson-Chilcotin River system’s breeding steelhead under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA). We are pleased that an independent committee has confirmed that the species need to have all the protection afforded by the SARA in order to save these fish from extinction.”

Under SARA, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada (MECC) must make a recommendation to the Governor in Council (Cabinet) that the species be added to the List of Endangered Wildlife in Canada as a Species At Risk.

Once the Interior Fraser steelhead trout are recommended for listing, COSEWIC is required to prepare a status report on the species within one year, confirming or reclassifying the at-risk status of the species. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) will undertake a regular listing process to confirm or reconsider the emergency listing, including thorough consultations with Indigenous groups and stakeholders.

A decision by the Governor in Council to list Interior steelhead trout as endangered may have immediate and significant impacts on a variety of activities, which threaten the population, including fisheries, development, and other resource use. The main threats include inadvertent by-catch of adults by net fisheries targeting Pacific salmon and poor ocean conditions.

The record small numbers of overwintering BC Interior steelhead trout begin to lay their eggs later this spring.