Photo credit: Laura Lefurgey

BCWF Investigation Reveals Flawed Process for Steelhead

DFO Rejects Science, Risk Extinction of Steelhead Runs 

The B.C. Wildlife Federation has received disturbing information about the collapse of two endangered steelhead runs in the Thompson and Chilcotin watersheds 

The stocks, which must pass through net fisheries on the Fraser River, are on the brink of extinction, with only an estimated 180 Thompson and 81 Chilcotin steelhead returning to spawn last year, marking a population decline of about 80 per cent over the past 15 years. 

“Thousands of pages of federal government documents obtained under Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) reveal that scientific advice on these endangered steelhead populations was undermined, edited and hidden from Canadians by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans,” said Jesse Zeman, BCWF director of fish and wildlife restoration. 

“Canada’s Species At Risk Act is supposed to prevent wildlife species in Canada from disappearing,” said Zeman. “The Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat has a formal, transparent process for providing peer-reviewed science advice to DFO and the public. But government documents show officials sought to suppress and downplay the threats to endangered steelhead populations.” 

Zeman said it took 1,5 years to get access to some 2,800 pages of government documents, and in the end, hundreds of pages were redacted. “I’d like to know what they are still hiding,” he said. “But from what we did obtain, it is clear DFO sought to undermine the process, conceal the findings from the public and edit peer-reviewed advice,” said Zeman. “I believe that doctored information was passed on to the minister to decide whether we should list endangered species or not.” 

Zeman said that during the peer-review process, DFO management attempted to introduce its model of run timing which was rejected because it was fundamentally flawed. Despite being rejected by the peer-review process, DFO continued to use the model to justify unsustainable fisheries in the Fraser River. “Last year 3-4 steelhead were caught and killed in the Mid-Fraser in August when DFO’s model says there aren’t even any steelhead in the Fraser. 

“It should come as no surprise that DFO has run our wild salmon and steelhead populations into the ground. This ATIP illustrates DFO’s affinity for ensuring the status quo at the peril of endangered species,” Zeman said. “DFO needs to be torn down to its foundation and rebuilt with scientists, not managers, because DFO has lost the public’s fish – and the public’s trust.” 

The Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) correspondence shows DFO, independent and provincial scientists were all concerned about how the Science Advisory Report (SAR) was being watered down.  In a strongly worded letter, Jennifer Davis, of the provincial Fish and Aquatic Habitat Branch, warns DFO, “the Province will likely need to rescind support for the SAR and process.”  The Province’s science team informs DFO that the SAR “document’s summary finds are altered such that the report, as published, downplays the threats associated with salmon fisheries bycatch mortality.” 

In October 2018, DFO Assistant Deputy Minister’s Office gave a directive to modify some key points related to allowable harm for Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead.  

The joint science team said that “given the very low numbers and decreasing trends in escapement for both the Thompson and Chilcotin River Steelhead populations, any harm will inhibit or delay potential recovery. The lowest possible allowable harm should be permitted at this time, habitat destruction prevented or mitigated, and exploitation be reduced below current levels of exploitation wherever possible.”  But DFO changed this summary to: “Allowable harm should not be permitted to exceed current levels.” 

In other words, DFO sought to maintain the status quo  even as steelhead stocks near extinction. 

For more information and general media questions please contact BCWF Communications at

Background Information

The following links will take you to the ATIP.  Hundreds of pages have been redacted: 

Part 1Part 2Part 3

Important Excerpts from Part 3: 

Pg 128 where the Chair of the CSAS states the ADMO office would like to make further edits.  The Chair of the steelhead CSAS process indicates they were cut out of the process and expresses serious concerns about the “scientific integrity of the process”.  This is followed by a redacted sentence.   

Pg 211-212 where a “big change” in the SAR document is discussed by DFO and others re allowable harm 

Pg 227 where the Chair of the process states “there are some things that happened to the SAR after I signed it off (redaction)” 

Pg 610-612 where DFO Scientist clearly states the problems with the changes made to the SAR and how it changes the interpretation. 

Pg 645-649 which outlines how the process should have happened 

Pg 628-630 where the Provincial Director of Fisheries explains the Province’s concerns to DFO and how the wording changed. 

Interior Fraser Steelhead Management 

Interior Fraser Steelhead (IFS) natal to the Thompson and Chilcotin Rivers are on the brink of extinction. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spend several years in freshwater, then in the ocean, before returning to their home rivers to spawn. In 2020, the Albion Test Fishery estimated spawning returns to be a mere 180 for the Thompson and 81 for the Chilcotin populations. 

The independent Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife (COSEWIC) conducted an emergency threat assessment of the crashing IFS populations. In January 2018, COSEWIC recommended the IFS be designated as Endangered and that an Emergency Order should be issued placing these wildlife species on Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). 

Instead, the federal government chose to manage the IFS through “The Steelhead Action Plan” process as a collaboration between the Government of Canada and the Province of British Columbia in 2019.  The rationale for not managing the IFS under SARA includes, “an emergency listing would necessitate very broad restrictions and fisheries closures along the Fraser River that would have highly significant impacts on Indigenous communities and on recreational and commercial salmon fisheries.”  Shortly after the Steelhead Action Plan was announced DFO opened fisheries using the same model which was thrown out at the peer-review meeting.  It has been nearly two years and neither government has published an update or annual report.   

Canada Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) 

Governments reassured concerned conservationists that the process to guide the collaborative Steelhead Action Plan would be informed by peer-reviewed scientific assessments. It is the responsibility of the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat to ensure that government decisions are informed by sound science advice, using the Principals for the Effective Use of Science and Technology Advice in Government Decision Making, referred to as the SAGE principles. 

The SAGE principles are:  

  1. Early Identification: The government needs to anticipate, as early as possible, those issues for which science advice will be required, in order to facilitate timely and informed decision making. 
  1. Inclusiveness: Advice should be drawn from a variety of scientific sources and from experts in relevant disciplines, in order to capture the full diversity of scientific schools of thought and opinion. 
  1. Sound Science and Science Advice: The government should employ measures to ensure the quality, integrity and objectivity of the science and science advice it uses, and ensure that science advice is considered in decision making. 
  1. Uncertainty and Risk: Science in public policy always contains uncertainty that must be assessed, communicated and managed. Government should develop a risk management framework that includes guidance on how and when precautionary approaches should be applied.  
  1. Transparency and Openness: The government is expected to employ decision-making processes that are open as well as transparent to stakeholders and the public.  
  1. Review: Subsequent review of science-based decisions is required to determine whether recent advances in scientific knowledge have an impact on the science advice used to reach the decision.  

Update: B.C. politician poses similar questions of DFO leader as BCWF’s Steelhead Investigation, May 2021

B.C. MP Mel Arnold asks the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and Canadian Coast Guard (the person ultimately responsible for DFO fisheries decisions) 3 key questions that are highly similar to BCWF’s investigative report on the flawed management of steelhead fisheries and the imminent risk of extinction of steelhead in the Fraser River.


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