The number of steelhead returning to the Thompson and Chilcotin watersheds is the lowest ever recorded, according to a spawning population estimate by the provincial government. Both populations are classified as an Extreme Conservation Concern.
The 2022 Steelhead spawning population for the Chilcotin watershed is estimated to be just 19 individuals, down from 3,149 in 1985, putting it on the brink of extinction.
From a count of 3,510 in 1985, the Thompson River steelhead population is now estimated to be 104 individuals, according to the preliminary estimates conducted by the Ministry of Forests, Land, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development. Several sub-populations are near extirpation, including the Deadman River (20), Bonaparte River (20), and Nicola River (64).
Because the Interior Fraser steelhead spend part of their lives in salt water, they are routinely killed in federally regulated salmon fisheries.
However, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has refused to disclose scientific documents related to the looming extinction of B.C.’s Interior Fraser steelhead runs, even after a federal investigator was assigned to demand their release.
The B.C. Wildlife Federation filed an Access to Information request in 2019 to seek the release of an emergency assessment conducted in 2018 under the Species at Risk Act titled “Recovery Potential Assessment for Chilcotin River and Thompson River Steelhead Trout.”
The emergency assessment was triggered by a request from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) to list the Interior Fraser steelhead as endangered.
If the steelhead are officially protected under SARA, it becomes illegal to “kill, harm, harass, capture or take an individual” of the species. The federal government would be legally obligated to protect these fish, which would effectively shut down any salmon fishery that might intercept them. Further, the government would be forced to set recovery goals and pursue a recovery strategy.
“The federal government has a poor record of protecting fish deemed to be endangered, especially where it could interfere with commercial fisheries, but this is DFO engaging in a coverup to protect the status quo,” said BCWF executive director Jesse Zeman.
An investigator was assigned by the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada to force DFO to release the assessment. DFO responded by repeatedly sending the wrong documents.
“DFO has refused to disclose the assessment to the investigator,” said Zeman.
A second Access to Information request seeking records related to Interior Fraser steelhead conservation, bycatch, management, interception, and run timing, was refused outright.
“We were told by the investigator that we would need to go to federal court or wait another 512 business days,” said Zeman. “All we are seeking is honesty about the gauntlet of hazards facing the steelhead, many of which are in the power of DFO to fix.”
“DFO has been battling hard for years to avoid listing the Interior Fraser steelhead as a protected species, even though some of the runs have declined by more than 95 per cent,” said Zeman.
“The Recovery Potential Assessment is a scientific document, paid for by the public, that is being hidden from the public,” said Zeman. “It is outrageous that we should have to go to court to compel DFO to do the right thing.”
B.C.’s ministry of environment has also been pressing the federal minister for a steelhead SARA listing for years. In correspondence from the provincial ministry, DFO was accused of doctoring scientific analysis on the runs, which the B.C. deputy environment minister deemed “no longer scientifically defensible.”
WE ARE TAKING ACTION
To close the knowledge gap created by DFO’s refusal to disclose the details of scientific research on these endangered steelhead runs, the BCWF has obtained a grant to study solutions from the federal funding agency, Mitacs.
“We are funding a post-doctoral researcher to study the Interior Fraser steelhead, because we can’t trust the federal government to release the results of their own research,” said Zeman. “They either edit the science or just refuse to release the results.”
Our research will investigate tools for the recovery of the Interior Fraser steelhead.
Given the limited time available for this research, we will focus attention on the Thompson River steelhead population and use this as a case study to evaluate conservation measures and promote population recovery, including the potential risks and benefits of hatchery programs.
Interior Fraser River Steelhead (IFRS) spawn mainly in tributaries of the lower Thompson River and in the Chilcotin and Chilko Rivers with adults returning to spawn in the autumn (Levy and Parkinson 2014; Korman et al. 2018). These steelhead populations were once abundant with returning adults in the thousands of individuals until the early 2000s (Korman et al. 2018). In historic times, First Nations harvested these fish for food (Levy and Parkinson 2014). Since the 1960s, there have been economically valuable recreational fisheries. Steelhead in these populations were historically considered world class sport fish due to their spectacular size and fighting capabilities, and availability for capture using popular angling techniques.
Over the past few decades, interior Fraser River steelhead have declined to historic low abundances with the number of spawners in the dozens of fish in recent years (Korman et al. 2018). Due to the large declines in the past few decades, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in 2018 designated IFRS as endangered. The declines in returning adults have been hypothesized to have resulted from “physical habitat degradation (Thompson only), reduced water quantity and increased water temperature (Thompson only), mortality from First Nation fisheries targeting Steelhead Trout, fishing mortality due to bycatch in salmon fisheries, mortality from directed non-retention sport fishing, poor ocean rearing conditions (increased competition, reduced prey availability due oceanographic cycles or regime shifts), and increased predation from marine mammals in the ocean” (Korman et al. 2018). Anecdotal observations have flagged in particular marine mammal predation on steelhead in the Fraser River and its estuary.
It is urgent for conservation actions to be carefully formulated, coordinated and implemented to prevent extinction of Interior Fraser River steelhead and support their recovery.