Photo: Jessica VanIerland

Thompson & Chilcotin Steelhead

Ottawa continues to resist emergency Species at Risk listing for Interior Fraser River steelhead

The number of steelhead returning to the Thompson and Chilcotin watersheds is the lowest ever recorded, according to a Spring 2022 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. Predation by booming seal and sea lion populations may also be contributing to steelhead mortality.

An emergency threat assessment by the Committee on Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) concluded four years ago that the Interior Fraser steelhead should be listed under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).

The B.C. Wildlife Federation (BCWF) supports immediate implementation of the emergency COSEWIC listing for Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead to save this iconic species from extinction. Fisheries and Oceans Canada has instead  employed “rolling closures” of salmon fisheries timed to suspend fishing as the steelhead move to and up the Fraser River on their way to spawn. This strategy has failed.

B.C.’s ministry of environment has also been pressing the federal minister for a SARA listing. 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.”


DFO is actively suppressing the release of science that supports the SARA listing, 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.

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.

A second Access to Information request seeking records related to Interior Fraser steelhead conservation, bycatch, management, interception, and run timing, was refused outright.

BCWF was told by the investigator that we would need to go to federal court or wait another 512 business days.

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.


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.

You can help the Interior Fraser River steelhead by supporting our research with a donation. Visit our Donation page, and select the designation of “Steelhead Research Project” to contribute to this important work.

Photo: Alexandra Scott

The need for SARA

The approach of using IFMPs instead of SARA protections for Pacific salmon fails to protect imperiled species as outlined by the UVIC Environmental Law School. IFMPs can include many elements of SARA recovery strategies and action plans; however, they have not been shown to be an effective alternative. The IFMPs have not resulted in the effective and efficient management of these stocks, or protection of the fish.

Species at risk

A call for immediate action

The emergency threat assessment by the Committee on Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) concluded that the Interior Fraser steelhead should be listed under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). The B.C. Wildlife Federation (BCWF) fully supports the January 10, 2018 call for an emergency endangered listing for these steelhead.

The BCWF wants goals set for steelhead and salmon stocks on the Pacific Coast to ensure that their genetic diversity and habitats are preserved. Government must support immediate implementation of the recommended COSEWIC listing for Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead and follow the Species at Risk Act SARA regulations to save this iconic species from extinction.

The BCWF believes receiving proper protection under SARA will be more effective than the current approach. Steelhead and other many at-risk marine fish species are managed by DFO through the Fisheries Act. Scientists have found this alternative approach to be flawed and concluded that it provides inadequate protection for the endangered fish. DFO developed the 2009 Sustainable Fisheries Framework to manage commercial fisheries using what is described as a precautionary and ecosystem-based approach.

The listing of steelhead will have short-term economic social and cultural consequences in terms of the availability of fish from an economic perspective including loss of Marine Stewardship Council Certification and access to international markets for salmon particularly chum. However, not listing steelhead (and other salmon stocks) will result in the long-term erosion of the diversity and resilience of fish stocks and the fisheries upon which they depend.

Photo: Alexandra Scott

Bringing stakeholders together

The protection and enhancement of wild salmon must include First Nations, local government, industry and stakeholders. Protection and restoration of key habitats and development of selective fishing could provide economic social and cultural benefits in key watersheds in rural BC. Working shoulder to shoulder with indigenous groups on these habitat and sustainability issues would provide a major step towards recognition and reconciliation.

Long-term benefits

The re-establishment of an effective and coordinated Federal Fisheries Protection Program will provide great economic benefits to current and future generations as it always cost more to repair than protect habitat and stocks particularly when coordinated with provincial Water Sustainability initiatives designed to protect the ecological goods and services provided by functioning watersheds.

Maintenance of the abundance and diversity of the Steelhead stocks will provide long term economic benefits for both indigenous and non-indigenous communities both in terms of Food Social and Ceremonial purposes and both the consumptive and non-consumptive values of this species and other salmon.

Major investment in research is required in the freshwater and marine environments, using modern research techniques including genomics, remote sensing and evolving assessment techniques that could re-establish the place in fisheries research and management that BC’s academic and research facilities had in the past internationally.

A focus on rebuilding these stocks and truly selective fisheries is a unifying objective socially and culturally, rather than the current approach of managing to zero taken by DFO with steelhead and other weak stocks where the focus is allocation of a diminishing resource base. The benefits would include greater social support, increased transparency and the substitution of process to specific steelheads and salmon objectives that will drive financial technical and community support from both indigenous and non-indigenous communities at a watershed level.