Column: Thompson River steelhead swimming toward extinction

Great Outdoors by James Murray

We worked the river hard for two days in a row, putting in long hours, holding pool after holding pool, riffle after riffle, without so much as a single hit between the two of us.

Last year it was the same thing.

There just aren’t many steelhead left in the Coquihalla River. I’m not at all sure there are that many steelhead to be found in any of B.C.’s once legendary steelhead rivers.

Driving home a few days later on Highway 1 through the Fraser Canyon, I passed the small town of Spences Bridge.

As I glanced out my side window I noticed the once familiar, now faded sign outside the old Sportsman Motel.

A rusted open sign in the office window still invited anglers in vain to come in and enjoy the amenities while fishing for late-run summer steelhead on the once famous stretch of water between Lytton and Spences Bridge.

Now standing alone and abandoned among the dry and arid landscape of the B.C. Interior, it looked forlorn and forgotten.

That stretch of the Thompson River once attracted anglers from around the world. Back then, steelhead came through in the thousands.

It was not uncommon to see anglers lined up along the banks on both sides of the river.

Steelhead are anadromous rainbow trout, which means they spend part of their lives in the ocean and part in fresh waters where they spawn.

The Thompson River strain of steelhead are considered by many ardent anglers to be larger, stronger and faster than other wild steelhead.

Read more: B.C. steelhead fishery faces extinction

Read more: Thompson, Chilcotin Steelhead Trout in danger of extinction

Read more: Angling closed on two B.C. rivers because of low steelhead returns

By the 1980s it became evident the numbers of returning steelhead were in decline.

Up until 1989, the Thompson River had had a one-wild-fish-per-day harvest limit.

That year, because of declining steelhead numbers, the provincial government instituted a province-wide catch and release policy for wild steelhead; 2008 and 2010 saw total closures of the river with no fishing allowed.

In 2018, after pressure from a number of concerned conservation groups and angling organizations, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada conducted a threat assessment of Thompson River steelhead and determined them to be “endangered and at imminent risk of extinction.

A recommendation was made to the Federal Minster of Environment and Climate Change for the Thompson River steelhead to be listed under the Federal Species at Risk Act. Provincial government data would indicate that fewer than 200 steelhead returned to the Thompson River in 2018 – similar to the previous year’s figures when 177 fish returned. No decision has yet to be made.

There are a number of factors thought to be responsible for the decline of steelhead in the Fraser River system including global warming, changing ocean conditions and fish habitat destruction.

However, the greatest obstacle faced by steelhead is likely interception by commercial salmon fishing of steelhead making their way up the Fraser River to spawning grounds in the Interior.

Adding to the problem are the sport and aboriginal fisheries which also remove valuable fish from the surviving population.

Steelhead are only slightly smaller than chum and according to (provincial government) estimates, because Fraser River steelhead and chum salmon returns coincide each fall, each year an estimated one-quarter of the returning steelhead in the Fraser River system die because they become caught in commercial gillnets set up to catch chum, sockeye and other species of salmon.

A number of conservation groups and angling organizations are now calling for either major changes or a complete closure of the chum fishery, saying the steelhead need time to recover.

In a letter dated Oct. 16, 2019, the Steelhead Society of British Columbia say they are “challenging the federal fisheries department (DFO) to do the right thing and restore independent monitoring of Fraser River chum fisheries. Interceptions of Thompson River steelhead in Fraser chum gillnet fisheries are a major culprit in the decline of these prized sport fish.”

“The Thompson River steelhead used to provide one of the most famous sport fisheries on the planet,” said Brian Braidwood, president of the Steelhead Society of BC. “If we don’t take strong action over the next couple of years, we will lose it forever.”

All any of us can do now is wait and see what the government decides.

Meanwhile, the Thompson River steelhead are swimming ever closer toward extinction.

James Murray is an avid outdoors enthusiast and former Black Press photographer.

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