The summer steelhead of the Thompson River are world renowned. Given this global esteem, you’d think that some extraordinary measures might have been taken to protect them, but no.
Important spawning tributaries like Spius and Deadman Creeks and Nicola River, have been compromised due to over grazing and water extraction. For years Thompson River steelhead were killed in a welfare salmon fishery off the coast of Vancouver Island.
Gill nets should be an historical artifact by now, but, sadly, they are not. A gill net fleet fishing for roe to be exported to Japan still fishes the Fraser near Port Mann where it intercepts endangered Cultus Lake Sockeye salmon as well as summer run steelhead bound for the Thompson River. The fact that this travesty exists is a monument to the ineptitude of the managers at Fed Fish who put the needs of industry above those of fish.
A number of First Nations exercise their aboriginal right to fish the Fraser. They too take a toll on the up river steelhead bound for the Chilcotin, Stein, and the Thompson. And, there are the Thompson River sport fishermen who for year after year killed far too many fish, most of them baiting their prey.
With the Thompson run down to less than a thousand fish, the regional fisheries staff of FLNRO charged with their protection has been using some strange science to justify giving sports fishers a chance at them.
Bob Hooton, the former regional bio for Skeena, a professional who always put fish first, eloquently laid out the problem in an open letter to the latest minister of the environment.
Dear Minister Thompson:
Today your Ministry announced the Thompson River steelhead fishery would open on Saturday, Oct. 12 . I’m instructed the opening is based on 21 steelhead caught at the DFO [federal department of Fisheries and Oceans] test fishery site on the lower Fraser. Your technical gurus somehow translate this to an expectation of a required spawning escapement (850 fish) six months hence that will magically seed the productive steelhead habitat of one of the largest steelhead systems in British Columbia. I’ll offer that, at present, there might be a maximum of 500 steelhead currently in the Thompson River. For perspective, consider that a number of tiny summer steelhead rivers on Vancouver Island support steelhead populations not far off that number. Because the populations supported by those rivers are so vulnerable and because their conservation has been led by forward thinking managers, all of them have been either closed to fishing or regulated on the basis of single, barbless hook, artificial lure only and catch and release since the mid to late 1970s. Call it enlightened. In fact every summer steelhead stream in the province except the Thompson has been managed similarly for almost that long.
A shotgun opening on a holiday weekend and the unconscionable measure of allowing the use of the most lethal terminal gear known in the summer steelhead world is the perfect storm for the obviously threatened, world renowned Thompson steelhead. I’ve seen all the numbers and the pathetic Ministry statement of 2012 that “the population has stabilized at a lower level of productivity” and I’m sure I’ll witness the same lame defense again this year. What your people fail to understand is this is 2013, not the 1970s. The Kamloops Ministry staff have been completely out of touch and out of synch with the rest of the steelhead management world for that long. There is much room for debate on whether or not the Thompson should open at all but there is no informed opinion that the perfect storm about to unfold on those fish again this year is defensible.
Conservation was once defined as wise use. The current regime in your regional office in Kamloops needs a major refresher on what that is in the world of the present. I can assure you it isn’t a concept based on the output of a computer model developed for some Alaska sockeye stock and adapted by people who, if they ever did spend any time on the Thompson River during steelhead season, must have been willfully blind. For many years the anadromous fisheries specialists in your own Ministry, exclusive of Kamloops, have been openly critical of the “management” approach on the Thompson. It is high time the isolationists are brought into line. At the very least you need to abandon the opening day syndrome and the use of bait. The smarter approach is to begin the season with the fishery open, not closed. Monitor the activity through a properly designed creel survey until it becomes clear whether or not there are sufficient fish present to maintain fishing opportunity. If there aren’t, no one will object to closing the fishery. Everyone except a handful of numbers focused bait slingers gets something out of that – the business community far more certainty, the anglers more opportunity, the fish more protection and, not the least, the Ministry a touch of much needed credibility and respect.