Bob phoned. I returned his call.
How’s your season going? he asked.
Slow, I said.
It’s been fair here, said Bob.
Here, to Bob is the Kispiox. His house is set high on a bank above the river. The shop where Bob crafts bamboo rods is a short cast away.
There’s a rumour that the Ministry folks may open the Thompson to fishing and bait, I said.
Bait? from the tone of his voice, I sensed he couldn’t believe it.
My friend Pete went down and fished Date Creek yesterday, Bob said.
He fished hard and lost one fish. At the end of the day an Indian carrying a casting rod and a bucket of bait showed up and asked Pete if he could fish through. Pete said he was done and told the guy to go ahead. On his first cast the Indian hooked a steelhead and killed it. On his next cast he hooked another but lost it. Two casts later he lost another.
Yeah, I said, recalling the time when I watched as Mike Whelpley use bait to land 70 steelhead in two days.
None of the salmon rivers in the rest of Canada allow bait, I added. Why, in the name of conservation and common sense do we allow it here?
Not long after my conversation with Bob, I opened my e-box and learned the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) had indeed opened the Thompson River to steelheaders allowing them to use bait. Thompson steelhead are legendary. Until three years ago it was the preferred destination of resident steelheaders and steelheaders the world over. The historic abundance of those hard fighting Thompson fish is unknown, but it was probably considerably more than the figure of 10 thousand that was bandied about.
Salmon eggs were the preferred lure for Thompson River steelhead through most of the river’s angling history. The fact that there is a significant mortality associated with the use of roe wasn’t an issue during the 50s, 60, and 70s since anglers killed their catches within the legal limits. The fishing managers then were under the impression that there were far more steelhead in all the province’s streams than they later discovered there was. The latter realization led to catch and release restrictions and bait bans on many streams. Curiously, the Thompson was one of the last steelhead streams to be declared a catch and release fishery. Stranger still, the use of bait continued.
The imposition of a catch and release fishery dramatically reduced angler impact on Thompson steelhead, but for over a hundred years the net fisheries in the Fraser and at sea and hundreds of years of exposure to the native fisheries were taking their toll on Thompson steelhead. While this was happening, critical spawning habit was under pressure from cattle and the demand for water by ranchers. Not surprisingly, the steelhead population collapsed. Estimates of under a thousand fish surfaced.
The Ministry of the Environment, operating under the management strategy it had adopted in 1996 that established a hierarchy of managerial principles with an emphasis on the precautionary approach to fish management – one that placed the maintenance of a fish populations over social and economic benefits – closed the Thompson to steelhead angling. The managers promised to open the fishery again if the run size estimate reached 1250 fish. Considering that there used to be in excess of ten times as many steelhead returning to the river, this benchmark seemed far too low to many of us who believe that the only sensible way to manage fish is to err heavily on the side of caution to have a better chance of protecting wild fish populations.
For two years the fishery was closed. This year a few steelhead showing up in the test fishery at Albion and in a chum fishery somehow led Robert Bison of the Ministry of Forest Lands and Natural Resources Operations to conclude there is a 50 per cent chance that the 1250 target figure may be reached. Based on this wildly optimistic and scientifically inexact conclusion, FLNRO opened the fishery, ignoring the fact that if there was a 50 per cent chance the steelhead would reach the target figure, there was a 50 per cent chance they wouldn’t.
At the end of the day, the people charged with reducing the harm to Thompson Steelhead presided over a bait fishery on an endangered species. The ramifications of this decision will be far reaching and of no help to Thompson steelhead, and will do considerable damage to the credibility of fisheries management staff.