The Western Working Group (WWG) of the recently concluded Quality Waters Process had to deal with the summer steelhead rivers west of Kitwanga. The rivers upstream of Kitwanga – the fabled Kispiox, the Babine, the Sustut, the Bulkley and the Morice – have longer histories and older, well established, guiding operations than do the lower tributaries of the Skeena. The absence of such historic use made our job more complicated, and decidedly more contentious.
Guiding on the Kalum, for example, is a mere three decades old, and for the first decade of those three only two guides worked the river in earnest. Dustin Kovacvich, representing the Skeena Angling Guides Association, has the lion’s share of those guiding days. A sizeable chunk of that tenure falls in the spring when the majority of the steelhead in the section above the canyon – which is almost the entire river – are darkening summer/fall fish. To ease pressure on those fish, Dustin proposed taking the spring allocation of guide days and transferring it to the fall, thus extending the fall guiding season. Since I’ve had a concern about pressure on those holdover steelhead since Dustin’s predecessor, Noel Gyger, began guiding the Kalum, I thought his proposition made sense. Still, after much debate, the WWG couldn’t reach a consensus on the idea.
As early as the first meeting, we did reach consensus on the suggestion that the Kalum should be closed to everyone but residents during the winter months. I’m one of the local anglers willing to strap on the snowshoes, tramp into the Kalum and endure the subzero temperatures for a chance at a bright winter steelhead. There aren’t many of us, but when the weather is tolerable, there is something unique and exhilarating about winter steelheading that keeps us coming back. I actually look forward to it. Despite the unanimity in the committee, that recommendation did not make the final cut. So now, I can still make my way into the Kalum in the dead of winter, as can the foreigners who bought a chunk of prime wetland habitat (land, whose wildlife values should have prohibited its sale) and built a huge lodge on it.
Meanwhile, local guides, who are resident businessmen, are forbidden the opportunity to guide on the river during that time. Dustin admitted to me that the guiding opportunities on the Kalum in the dead of winter are slim (but not non-existent) but he justifiably rails against the fact that the government has once again restricted the activity of local businessmen while allowing unrestricted access to non resident alien anglers in contravention of the fundamental principle of the QWS process that states guides should receive priority over non resident anglers on our rivers.
In the end, the Ministry of the Environment fisheries division (now called FLNRO) squandered a golden opportunity – and more tax dough than they’ve spent on any other initiative to date – to bring order to the chaotic Skeena steelhead fishery. Gone is an opportunity to put an end to illegal guiding by requiring guides for non-residents or bringing an economic control zone system like the one operating in Quebec to the rivers where such a regime was suitable. Gone is a chance to turn the local guiding industry into a secure and powerful economic entity by instituting the aforementioned measure and thereby forcing bed and breakfast operations to refer their angling clients to guides. Gone too is the chance to curb the crowding and the inevitable loss of angling quality that attends it.
How do you create such a mess? It’s simple. First, hire a consultant who doesn’t know BS from breakfast cereal when it comes to Skeena steelhead, give him vague objectives and no clear definition of angling quality or a strong indication of how it might best be preserved, no guidance in the form of robust data on the angling use and projections on the carrying capacity of the rivers under review.
Next, assemble a group comprised of almost all the most knowledgeable guides and resident anglers in the Skeena Valley, but instead of dividing them into groups and instructing them to roll up their sleeves and come up with recommendations in a healthy environment of adversarial negotiating (which they certainly would have done), haul out chart paper and smiley stickers and attempt to manage their energies toward a predefined goal. That done, further complicate matters by reducing the options set out on day one and by adding new, uniformed and inexperienced members to the original committees. Now ask if you got the biggest bang for you taxbuck.