Setting them free

Accurate estimates of steelhead populations in most of this province’s rivers weren't available until the late 1970s...

That steelhead are the least abundant species of Pacific salmon has been well known to fisheries scientists for almost as long as the creatures have been studied, but accurate estimates of steelhead populations in most of this province’s rivers wasn’t available until the late 1970s. When the censuses were complete it was clear that steelhead numbers were far lower than had previously been thought. This realization precipitated a management crisis in what was then known as the Fish and Wildlife Branch of the Ministry of the Environment.

The fisheries managers had several options, each of which was certain to be viewed unfavourably by a significant segment of the sport fishing community: all steelhead fishing could be closed; hatcheries programs could be instituted with a view to augmenting wild runs with hatchery fish; drastically reduced bag limits could be put in effect; gear restrictions could be implemented; and, catch and release fisheries could be encouraged and/or imposed by fiat.

Suspicions about the efficacy of hatchery programs fostered by troubling experiences in Washington State and Oregon,  the cost of artificial enhancement, as well as the resolute opposition to hatchery technology by the Steelhead Society of BC dampened the managerial appetite for wide spread adoption of such programs.

Reduced limits were established province wide. Bait bans were imposed on the majority of B.C.’s rivers, and non-retention regulations for steelhead became commonplace.

The fish and wildlife professionals in this province have a client group consisting of hunters and fishers. This is because the institution they work for evolved from a province-wide group of rod and gun clubs that eventually formed into the BC Wildlife Federation. In its modern incarnation, the fisheries professionals in charge of the care and feeding of provincial fish stocks have a mandate that insists they put the welfare of those fish above all else, which we hope they strive do in all cases, but they still have to be mindful of the fact that hunting and angling are an important part of the province’s cultural fabric.

Steelheaders have always been the most proactive and vocal group of anglers in B.C. Many of them had already opted for restrictive voluntary self regulations. They championed the adoption of catch and release fisheries. It is hardly surprising then that this lobby had resonance within government since it provided a way to keep steelhead fisheries open with minimal damage to the fish.

Now that catch and release is the norm in the provincial steelhead fishery, it’s easy to forget that when the technique was first promoted it was highly contentious, its opponents arguing that released steelhead died. In opposition to this argument, I often cited the experience  fisheries scientists and technicians had when doing ground breaking work in radio telemetry.

To learn more about the habits of steelhead, biologists like Mark Beere and Colin Spence ran programs that involved placing radio transmitters in steelhead then tracking them from the air. In the early days of these programs, the steelhead were angled with a rod and reel and bait, transmitters were shoved down their throats after scale samples were plucked from their hides, and tags were punched on either side of their dorsal fins. Of the many fish handled this way over the years, the only ones lost were those killed by anglers encouraged to return tagged fish for a reward. Surely, I argued, this documented experience showed that a steelhead released by an angler was unlikely to die later. Now I’m not so sure.

First, the fisheries professionals used heavy rods and lines and knew how to handle fish. The steelhead they caught were quickly brought to shore. They were kept in water as much as possible and handled with wet hands before careful release. In contrast, I have watched anglers with clearly no knowledge of proper fish handling play fish to the point of exhaustion before dragging them onto the beach then hoisting them aloft a number of times for a photo op. I’m sure these characters believe that their quarry will survive as they watch it swim away, but having had a few float past me dead after a manhandling over the years, I don’t share their confidence.

Even if a steelhead that has suffered this kind of abuse survives, there is a growing body of knowledge that indicates that there are sub-lethal effects to an animal that has experienced such trauma, notably its ability to spawn successfully. There is really no way of determining the spawning success of the aforementioned steelhead that endured the rigours of radio telemetry.

All this points to the need for even more draconian regulations for non-retention fisheries. There needs to be a stricter definition of what constitutes a fly, one that excludes trailing hooks. A regulation that prohibits the removal of fish from the water, as Washington State has done, is vital. Limits on how many steelhead can be caught then released is necessary. My personal self imposed limit is two fish, and it’s more than enough. And, importantly, all this must be accompanied by written educational material with links to demonstration videos on proper fish handling.