Misunderstood fish 2

Our columnist Rob Brown discusses the history of Dolly Varden and Bull Trout – and why a precautionary approach is the only way

When first I heard of Dolly Varden Char, and their larger cousins, Bull Trout, both were in disrepute.

It was a time when fishermen punched cards to record how many steelhead they killed annually. We were kids then. Men told us that those damn Dollies – a name by which they referred to both species – were vermin. They eat the eggs and fry of salmon, they told us. If you’re not going to keep them, kill them and chuck them back in the bush.

How salmon and char survived so well prior to the arrival of European settlers, failed to trouble these vigilantes.

Years later I learned that char loathing was widespread. Believing the myth that Dollies were bad for salmon stocks, the Alaska Fish and Game Department put a bounty on them of 2 cents to a nickel a tail, depending on the size of the fish. The bounty was in force from 1921 to 1939. During that time 6 million tails were turned in for the reward.

Because Dollies were to sport fishers what seals are to commercial fishers, they had no advocates and earned no respect. Fishers were allowed to kill as many as they wanted and more. This unchecked slaughter went on in this province for years until some fish manager with a conscience suggested a limit of 30 char a day might be a good idea.

More was learned about char. The bag limit was reduced to 12. Later, this was reduced to 8, and so it went.

These ludicrous bag limits with no connection to reality lagged behind the scientific understanding of the abundance and habitat requirements of the fish they were designed to protect, and as a result of this reactive management approach, char populations plummeted.

Twenty years ago, fisheries researchers wrote papers openly acknowledging that Dolly Varden Char and Bull Trout were depleted throughout most of their range. There were almost no Dollies in the Lower Mainland. Dollies had been reduced to the point of invisibility on Vancouver Island. The populations in the Kootenays had crashed.

Scientists learned that char were slow to grow, carried few eggs in comparison to salmon, and were extremely sensitive to temperature changes and soil disturbances in their native streams.

Enter the fisheries staff of Skeena Region with all of these factors – and more – to consider. They have good reason to suspect that the Dollies in accessible streams are greatly diminished from their own experience and because fishers who fish them  throughout the Region are constantly complaining about declining catches.

Moreover, scientists with enough funds to study the problem in greater depth are singing the same song. Added to these critical factors is the fact that a number of pipelines are about to be threaded through Skeena.

Why is this a big concern? As proposed, these pipelines will cross streams thousands of times. Every crossing means some measure of disturbance. All industrial projects come with infrastructure.

In the case of linear development this means roads – lots of roads. An increased number of roads means that all those formerly inaccessible streams will be accessible. Where this has scored in the past, such access has all too often led the extirpation of char and trout in the affected area.

It is possible – though given their fragility and lack of fecundity unlikely – that some stream populations of Dollies can withstand a measure of angling predation and habitat destruction and survive in viable numbers.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to properly manage a fishery if you haven’t a decent idea of how many fish there are. And the trouble is, there isn’t the money to do adequate population estimates.

The government biologists working for fisheries have the responsibility to do the right thing by fish, not fisherman. So they must do something. After two decades of cutbacks by governments who see their function as an obstacle to unfettered growth, the fisheries bios haven’t enough staff or resources to do the comprehensive kind of data gathering and long term monitoring, and overall planning, required.

As professional biologists they are members of the global professional body of scientists. This body has embraced the principle of biodiversity, the overarching axiom that embraces the abiding truth that maintaining all species in an ecosystem is critical to its overall health and its survival. Any decision you make must be consistent with that principle, and consistent with the precautionary principle.

So, when the Fisheries staff of FLNRO decided to propose a non retention for all char and trout in streams in Skeena Region, they had no option. They had to err on the side of caution and do their best to ensure there will be Dollies in the future.


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