BCWF Executive Director Jesse Zeman addressed the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans on April 27, 2023, to speak to Steelhead Recovery and Ecosystem Impacts

This transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Click here to watch the full presentation. Jesse’s speech starts at 16:40.

ZEMAN: Thank you for the opportunity to be a witness. The B.C. Wildlife Federation is British Columbia’s leading conservation organization. We’re the largest and oldest conservation organization with over 41,000 members and 100 clubs across the province. As it relates to watersheds, wetlands, salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon, our clubs and members spend hundreds of thousands of volunteer dollars and hours conducting habitat restoration across the province, operating hatcheries that were defunded by DFO, and advocating for legislative, regulatory, and policy changes to support a future that includes abundant salmon and steelhead. As it relates to water wetlands and fish, the BC WF invests millions of dollars annually in projects, working with First Nations and other partner groups.  

Steelhead are slightly different from other salmon species in the sense that they survive after spawning. These fish are called kelts. Kelts are capable of returning to the ocean and coming back to spawn a second time as older, bigger fish. Bigger fish means more eggs, which means more offspring.  

In the past, I’ve spoken to you regarding the peer reviewed process through the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, which is supposed to be a formal, transparent process for providing peer reviewed science advice to DFO and the public. This process is integral to candidate Species at Risk Act. And as it relates to endangered and threatened Fraser steelhead, this process was completely undermined. In that process, pinniped predation on smolts and adults steelhead, competition with other salmon in the ocean, interception through fishing, ocean conditions, and freshwater conditions were all identified as factors which could support recovery. Out of all those factors, pinniped predation was identified as the single largest drivers. But in the report, all factors were lumped together and without identifying the relative importance of each, which will likely keep DFO off the hook for doing something meaningful to recover these endangered fish.  

In Puget Sound, south of the border, steelhead populations have declined to less than 5 per cent of their historic levels. South of the border, they invest orders of magnitude more into monitoring, research, and generally into science and management. The indicators which explain the most variance and steelhead smolt survival included harbor seal abundance, hatchery Chinook, salinity of marine waters, and river discharge. Seal abundance was the strongest predictor.  

As it relates to pinnipeds and steelhead in B.C., the Salish Sea marine survival project has shown an extensive predation of steelheads smolts and adults by harbor seals. In the past, we have discussed the crash of Iinterior Fraser steelhead, namely the Thompson and Chilcotin River fish, which respectively numbered 3000 fish each in 1985, but saw just an estimated 19 and 104 fish in 2022.  

These are not the only steelhead populations which are rapidly being managed to zero. On Vancouver Island the story is much the same, but in some watersheds, the outcome is even worse. The Gold River on Vancouver Island was once famous for its steelhead fishing. Winter steelhead snorkel counts were as high as 909 fish in 1999. Since 2018, the annual snorkel count was four, zero, two and zero fish respectively. 

The current steelhead population in the Gold River is less than 10 per cent of the watershed’s carrying capacity. Over the past decade, monitoring on the Gold River by provincial biologists and the Muchalaht First Nation has identified consistent use of the river and estuary by harbour seals, when the only notable prey available would have been steelhead, despite being nearly extirpated. Even when there are thousands of tonnes of herring spawning in front of the Gold River, seals have been observed hunting in the river for the few steelhead which remain in river. Steelhead were historically found using runs and pools in the river and they are now found hiding and rocks and extremely shallow parts of the river to avoid predation. This has recently been noted by anglers and biologists on rivers across Vancouver Island. The Gold River fish are headed for extirpation and will not recover without intervention. 

After years of webinars and presentations from academics and researchers on salmon, regarding the trends around steelhead as well, the B.C. Wildlife Federation passed a resolution last week at its Annual General Meeting and Convention in Nanaimo to support a sustainable and managed harvest of pinnipeds. Our organization and member clubs, which again spent millions of dollars restoring habitat, operating hatcheries, and advocating for policies that support future for salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon, now officially supports the management of pinnipeds. As it relates to steelhead and a number of salmon populations, we are in a crisis. We need to use all the tools in the toolbox, employing adaptive management, and as a country we need to be laser focused on outcomes, not process. I’ll end by saying: steelhead are endangered, pinnipeds are not. 

COMMITTEE: Can you elaborate a little further on what you know about the recovery of the Thompson and Chilcotin Steelhead? 

ZEMAN: We have talked to the committee about this a number of times. The reality is that you folks in Ottawa are supposed to provide the rest of us in Canada with the best available science. We know what happened behind the scenes is that the peer reviewed research had been altered. It’s only recently been released after years and years of Access to Information requests and media attention. When we look at the covariates that were examined, predation on smolts and adult fish by pinnipeds come up as two of the most significant factors driving the declines. They came in at one in Number One and Number Two. Number Three was salmon competition in the Pacific and a lot of that revolves around other countries dumping millions and millions of pink and chum salmon into the Pacific (salmon ranching). 

COMMITTEE: The limiting factors on steelhead recovery: Would it correlate that those same limiting factors would apply to other Salmonids that we’re seeing struggle? 

ZEMAN: There’s been tons of work done and you all have heard from the experts. Pinniped predation is coming up regularly for most species that are being evaluated. And, of course, once we get into the Candian Science Advisory Secretariat and the Species at Risk Act, you’re jumping into a very large pool with little water left in it. When we’re looking at endangered fish, you’re probably a few decades behind. The message is that it costs orders of magnitude more to bring those fish back from the brink than it does to manage them sustainably and to get ahead of the curve. 

COMMITTEE: How do we avoid doing the sort of things that would clearly get activists on case as (seal fur purveyor) Miss Jen Shears has experienced? 

ZEMAN: I’ve also received more than my fair share of death threats as it relates to endangered caribou recovery, so, I live in that world and quite frankly, I don’t think there’s room for that in our society. There needs to be a broader discussion about what’s okay and what’s not. 

Specific to pinnipeds consuming salmon, the Gold River is not a system that has a whole bunch of manmade or anthropogenic change on it (i.e., hydro electric dams). So those seals are specializing. We have experienced this with mountain caribou and cougars (specialization) at times, too.  

There’s the in-river piece, there’s logbooms, I’m sure that’s all contributing. With our steelhead, we’ve put transmitters on kelts before they go out to the ocean. Not one of those has come back and made it back to the river and half of those are not making it from the inshore environment. So, within a kilometre of the coast half of them are dying.  

We had First Nations attend our AGM on the weekend and from their perspective, they’ve always harvested seals and they’ve always managed seals. So, I think there’s an issue with the in-river environment, but I think that also there’s an issue in the Pacific (ocean environment). 

COMMITTEE: Can you explain the background about the resolution that you referenced concerning the seal harvest? 

ZEMAN: Being such a big organization, it is a major operation to bring representatives for over 41,000 people. But we have resolutions that come forward every year and we dealt with one concerning pinnipeds. We had Dr. Murdoch McAllister speak.  We’re supporting a postdoc at UBC researching steelhead recovery. We deferred the resolution till after the research is done. As an organization involved in all facets of salmon restoration, the message is that we support pinniped management, and we support what Miss Shear spoke about, which is sustainable use. That is a way of life for us and for our members. 

We’re a part of the Lower Fraser Collaborative Table and there is consistency across all groups as it relates to pinnipeds. I think there’s consistency across everyone. So it’s just a way to formalize how we think and how we lead as a conservation organization. 

COMMITTEE: One of the key recommendations that the Steelhead Society is bringing forward is around monitoring and comprehensive data gathering. You had spoken a little bit about this as well. I’m wondering if you can speak to whether you’re in agreement with that. 

ZEMAN: We have a number of systems that are monitored extensively and that includes Gold River on Vancouver Island. It’s on the West Coast. When you get down to counting zeros, when estimates get down to 20 fish in the Chilcotin and then 104 in the Thompson, then the time for monitoring has long passed. We can count in the Skeena and do a better job because we still have thousands of fish, but on Vancouver Island and off of the Fraser we do not have thousands of fish to count anymore.  I would urge this committee to really take their triage approach and say “we don’t have any fish in these areas we need to start using all tools available so that we can ensure that these fish do not go functionally extinct.” 

COMMITTEE: You had mentioned the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat process and I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit as to how the CSAS process has impacted management decisions around pinniped harvesting? 

Zeman: I think that the steelhead is just really an observation that the process is broken and that there is bureaucratic interference happening in the world of science and that is not good for any of us. And it doesn’t matter if it’s fish, or seals, or sturgeon. It matters that the right information is getting to the right people, so they can make the right decisions. 

COMMITTEE: When governments are afraid to manage an entire tier of the ecosystem, such as what happens with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and that we see individual choices like grizzly bears and other apex predators in provinces such as British Columbia, where ministers during their announcements actually say that the decision has nothing to do with science and has everything to do with emotion: What do the long term consequences on the rest of the food chain look like, including any negative human-wildlife conflicts that are bound to arise? 

ZEMAN: In our world of sustainability and conservation, science is what guides us. We have experienced the same thing federally as it relates to wolves and caribou as we have with grizzly bears. I refrain from speaking on behalf of First Nations, but I can tell you in British Columbia, our partners and First Nations that we’ve worked with on wildlife management and conservation, that their values align with ours. In the world of reconciliation, these values quite often are shared, and elected officials are not listening. 

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