A fisherman with a Thompson Steelhead. The precipitous decline in Steelhead returns has had a devastating effect on the region’s sport fishery. Photo: Fraser Basin Council.

Thompson, Chilcotin Steelhead Trout in danger of extinction

An emergency listing has been recommended to protect both species.

Concern about the declining populations of the Thompson and Chilcotin River Steelhead Trout has been ongoing for several years.

Now, following a seldom-used fast-track process, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has concluded that these two populations of sea-going Steelhead Trout, which breed in the Thompson and Chilcotin River systems, are at imminent risk of extinction.

Both populations were assessed as Endangered, and COSEWIC has recommended an emergency listing order under the federal Species at Risk Act.

A graph in the COSEWIC report shows the alarming reduction in the number of Thompson Steelhead returning to the river each year since 1978. In 1985, 3,510 fish returned to spawn, but since 2009, only three years show more than 1,000 returning. Since 2015, the return number has been below 500 each year.

In 2016, fewer than 400 fish returned to the Thompson, and only 177 fish returned from the ocean to the Thompson River and its tributaries, such as the Bonaparte and Deadman Rivers, in late fall 2017 — an all-time low since records began in 1978.

“If this rate of decline persists for three generations [one generation equals five years], we’ll see a decline to 37 spawning fish,” says Dr. John Neilson, co-chair of the Marine Fishes Subcommittee.

“Even now it’s a really desperate situation. With these returns we’re getting to the stage of fish finding it difficult to find a mate.”

Steve Rice — Thompson-Nicola Regional District Area I director and a longtime Spences Bridge resident — says the decline of the Thompson Steelhead is an emotional issue for him.

“I’ve done everything I feel I can. I’ve had ministers’ meetings, written letters, knocked on doors, discussed the issue with the province and sat on the Regional Advisory Committee. I’m on the Spences Bridge Steelhead Advisory Committee and the Fraser Basin Council, where I got the Thompson Steelhead on the radar.

“We have a resource [in the Thompson Steelhead] that’s the best of its class in the world. If it was in Vancouver or Victoria, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But we’re strangling in red tape and government roadblocks.”

COSEWIC has concluded the main threats to the Steelhead include the inadvertent bycatch of adults by net fisheries targeting Pacific salmon, and poor ocean conditions.

Dr. Neilson agrees that bycatch is a main threat, with marine survival rates of the fish in the Pacific Ocean not good. “They’re not doing as well in the ocean as they used to.”

He adds that with climate change, water temperature will get warmer.

“That’s another potential stress on top of a suite of other issues.”

Rice says he has raised concerns regarding the commercial interception of the Thompson Steelhead in the Pacific Ocean. “But conversations haven’t come to fruition about the federal government addressing the commercial fishery impact on the Steelhead.

“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has control over the chum salmon fishery. Where commercial fishermen who go out to catch chum put their nets down is where the Thompson Steelhead are. They say there is a 40 per cent mortality rate [of Thompson Steelhead], but they don’t give the number of fish.”

He notes people come from all over the world to fish for Thompson Steelhead, which can only be done on a catch-and-release basis (which has a mortality rate of one to three per cent).

“They’re not just any fish. The fishermen spend money all the way from Vancouver to Spences Bridge, but we see fewer and fewer fishermen come.”

Rice notes the Indigenous community has done a good job trying to manage the Steelhead.

“They’re backing off, but that’s not helping. The Steelhead is a traditional food and ceremonial fish for First Nations, and they’ve sacrificed that.”

Two recently submitted citizens’ applications to COSEWIC precipitated the emergency assessment of the Thompson and Chilcotin Steelhead.

COSEWIC only rarely decides that the gravity of a situation necessitates a fast-track process; the last time was in early 2012, when the committee recommended that three bat species decimated by fungal disease in Eastern Canada should be listed as Endangered under an emergency order. The bats eventually received legal protection in late 2014.

“Around the year 2000, things were ticking along quite well, with about 1,500 Thompson Steelhead returning,” says Dr. Neilson.

“Then it went downhill, with a gradual decrease in the number of spawners. The fast-track process taken by COSEWIC absolutely shows the gravity of the situation.”

Rice agrees the Steelhead situation is grave.

“Lots of people are trying, but funding should be a priority. The government looks for great new ideas, but maybe they need to fix what’s broken.

The chum fishery could be moved to another zone. It’s not going to be an easy fix, and would mean heavy lifting from the federal government, but it’s possible.”

The Steelhead fishery on the Thompson River is currently open from June 1 to October 1, with the provincial government having the option of keeping it open until October 31 if there are at least 850 fish in the annual run. Rice says that when returning numbers were higher, the Steelhead fishery went through to the end of March, and more recently went until the end of December.

“The Steelhead fishery brings a bundle of fishing tourist dollars. Those extra months were bread-and-butter for this community.

Now, we’re cut back to one extra month [October], and I’m guessing they won’t be opening the fishery in October this year. But we need that certainty. Fishermen need to know if the fishery will be open in October.

“When you have something that’s the best of its class in the world, you do what you can and don’t fool around. Once it’s gone, it’s not coming back.”

The new COSEWIC assessments have been forwarded to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna who will now make a decision on the recommendations for Emergency Listings of the two wildlife species.

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