According to the dictionary, abundance is a noun that means “a very large quantity of something.” That’s easy to understand. Used as an adjective, as in, “Skeena steelhead are abundant,” the term means those creatures are “existing and available in large quantities.” That’s straightforward too. When the regional BCWF president, Mr. Mike Langegger makes this claim to argue that sports fishers should be allowed to kill Skeena steelhead, things get complex.
Are Skeena steelhead abundant now? Were they ever abundant?
In his book, Skeena Steelhead: Unknown Past, Uncertain Future, Bob Hooton, winner of the conservation award trifecta – the Steelhead Society’s Cal Woods award, The Totem Fly Fishers’ Roderick Haig-Brown award, and the B.C. Federation of Flyfishers’ Gilley award – fisheries manager for 37 years, and former Regional Biologist in Skeena Region, estimates that the historic steelhead return to the Skeena drainage was something in the order of 100,000 fish.
This may seem like a lot of fish at first blush, but considering that the Skeena drains a land mass the size of Washington and Oregon combined, the number starts to seems small. When you learn that the historic returns to California’s Eel river alone rivalled that of the entire Skeena drainage, the figure looks downright paltry.
One reason for this is the Skeena is at the outer edge of the steelhead’s range, its epicentre being the formerly fecund rivers of the Columbia and Northern California. Sadly, dams, overfishing, ill-considered hatchery programs and urban sprawl have greatly diminished those great American steelhead runs, which is why so many dedicated anglers from there come here, at the edge of the range, to fish wild steelhead.
Is “abundant” really an accurate descriptor of the steelhead runs into the American rivers in the steelhead heartland? Not when compared to the other five species of salmon, which are genetically programmed to succeed by being numerous. Chinook, chum, pink, coho, and sockeye arrive in greater aggregate numbers than steelhead. Consider our local rivers. There are over a million pink in the Lakelse River alone on good years. The Kispiox has an even larger run, and humpies fill up almost every river and creek in the Skeena Valley, spawning throughout the Skeena River itself.
The coho, chinook, and sockeye runs dwarf the steelhead returns. Chum would too, given half a chance. The explanation for this is that the other salmon have evolved a strategy to maximize their spawning potential by returning in large numbers. But Steelhead enter the rivers in much smaller numbers. They arrive throughout the year and hang around for up to 10 months before they spawn in the spring. The long stay in fresh water makes them much more vulnerable to angler predation, especially in the shrunken rivers of winter.
Unlike their cousins, about five per cent of Skeena’s steelhead go back to the ocean then return to spawn a second, sometimes a third time. The importance of those multiple spawners is disproportionately large. Maintaining as large a number of these animals within individual populations is critical to the maintenance of diversity and sustainability. Today, as Bob Hooton points out, a second spawner is required to run the gauntlet of nets at the mouth of the Skeena three times. A third-time spawner has to make that perilous trip no fewer than five times. There is no way to tell a repeat spawner from a one-trick steelhead. If Mike Langegger and his pals have their way and a kill fishery is inflicted on Skeena steelhead, some of those vitally important repeat spawners will get a blow to the skull and head for the table in a plastic bag.
In comparison to other salmon, Skeena’s steelhead are sparse. When compared to the historic (and even the hatchery augmented) steelhead runs in the steelhead heartland of the western United States, Skeena steelhead populations are low. And we mustn’t forget that our Skeena steelhead runs have been subject (and continue to be subject) to indiscriminate net fisheries on the high seas as well as off the shores of Alaska and off our own shores. Of those fisheries, our domestic commercial fisheries have demonstrably inflicted the heaviest casualties and have been doing so since the end of the century before last. As a result, our current returns are much smaller in comparison to historic levels.
So, you can see, when the proponents of a kill fishery for steelhead use the adjective abundant to describe steelhead, they are playing fast and loose with the term.
….more next week….