BCWF FOI Reveals Flawed Decision-Making Process for Endangered Steelhead

Surrey, B.C.  – The iconic Interior Fraser steelhead face imminent extinction, their population has declined from over 8,000 to only a few hundred.  On July 24, 2019, the Governor in Council decided not to list the Thompson and Chilcotin River Steelhead Trout under the Species At Risk Act (SARA).  The independent Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) had recommended a SARA listing for the species after conducting an emergency assessment in 2018. Federal and provincial governments are instead collaborating on a steelhead recovery plan for the two runs now classified as an “extreme conservation concern.”

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by the BC Wildlife Federation reveals the troubling correspondence between Fisheries and Oceans Canada and provincial Ministries of Environment, Forests and Agriculture before the final decision not to manage the steelhead under SARA.

According to internal documents, the provincial and federal teams “spent the last six months working in a collaborative fashion in the emergency Species At Risk process, and the science teams came to consensus.” A peer-reviewed joint research paper on the recovery potential of the steelhead was developed to inform the process. But the FOI reveals that wording in the final Scientific Advisory Report released to the public and government decision-makers did not reflect the consensus recommendations in the research document.

The research paper concluded that populations “have the potential of stabilizing, under a simulation where bycatch mortality and exploitation rates are zero.” COSEWIC had also identified eliminating bycatch as the major controllable factor for managing the threatened steelhead, concluding “the high levels of fisheries bycatch mortality are of particular concern in the context of persistently poor ocean survival.”

The correspondence showed that Jennifer Davis of the Fish and Aquatic Habitat Branch of the Forests Ministry disagreed with the wording changes in the final advisory report. She said, “moving off the transparent process has broken trust; the edits all boil down to two points – which appear to purposely marginalize the bycatch issue.”

President Bill Bosch said, “the BCWF is dismayed that the Government of Canada refused to list these fish despite the scientific evidence.” Bosch called the promise to protect steelhead without listing them “meaningless” considering that recent net-based fishery openings on the Fraser River are happening at the same time as the steelhead return. “Fisheries and Oceans Canada is knowingly pushing these fish to extinction by contradicting the science,” he said.

The BCWF calls for a move to selective fisheries to protect the steelhead and the 33 COSEWIC-assessed salmonid populations found to be at risk of extinction in B.C.

The Federation is deeply grateful to the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre for their assistance with analyzing the 1,600-page FOI. Find the Analysis of Evidence of Emergency Listing Process on Steelhead prepared by Alex McArdle JD here. 

“The process used to determine the fate of these fish on the brink of extinction is highly disturbing,” said Calvin Sandborn QC, Legal Director of the UVic Environmental Law Centre. “According to scientists involved, the only report made available to the public was skewed, and failed to reflect the consensus of the scientists.”

Sandborn said this incident is just the latest example of an ongoing problem. “The bigger problem is that the federal government routinely withholds protection for endangered fish species if real protection would affect non-selective net-based fisheries.  Protecting endangered species is not receiving the priority it deserves.”

You can read the full FOI here. 


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