‘Walls of Death’ Nuke the Dean River

Story by Mark Hume with photos by Craig Orr, Steven Morrow and Skeena Wild

Put some time in on a West Coast river and pretty soon you get to know how the runs of fish are moving through it.

And when a run suddenly turns off, when a “hole” opens in the river and seems to swallow every fish in it, you know that the only explanation is a disaster. Either a landslide has blocked the river – or fisheries managers have allowed commercial nets to be dropped.

That’s what happened on British Columbia’s famed Dean River this summer, when what looked like a good steelhead run suddenly stopped, cold, stone dead.

The end of the run coincided with a massive chum fishery which the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) opened on the central coast in what is known as Area 8. Included in that area are narrow channels and inlets that are the approach waters for steelhead running back to the Dean, one of the most fabled steelhead rivers on the planet.

Dean River

Dan Smith, from Texas, holds a net marked steelhead on the Dean River

“There were fish coming in, and then all of a sudden it was zero,” said Joe Saysell, a retired Vancouver Island fishing guide who has been taking summer trips to fish on the Dean for the past 30 years.

Joe was on the river in early August, pumped by the almost perfect dry fly conditions, when the chum fishery opened.

“It was so dramatic. It was like a switch clicked and the [steelhead] run ended,” he said. “I’ve never seen it so void of fish.”

Joe camps out on the river, but he said he felt for those who had come so far and were paying top dollar to stay at one of the three lodges on the river.

Dean River

Clark Closkey (L) and Joe Karpinski (R) with a bright Dean River Steelhead

“People were paying $6,000 to $7,000 a week and they were sitting on a log at the side of the river,” he said. “It’s unbelievable that such a valuable resource could be mismanaged in this way.”

Billy Blewett, who runs the world famous Lower Dean River Lodge, said the fishing was so bad he had to start apologizing to his customers.

And like many others, he said he has no doubt that the blame lies with the chum fishery, which brought over 150 seine and gill-net boats to fish the coastal approaches to the Dean and other rivers around Bella Coola.

Dean River

A commercial fish boat sets its net in the Dean Channel

“This year, they have the whole fleet out there pretty much and we’re just getting hammered. There are so few fish in the river and the ones that are here are extremely net marked,” he said.

With commercial salmon fishing closed in many areas of the West Coast, including the Skeena and Fraser sockeye runs because of conservation concerns, almost the full commercial fleet descended on the chum fishery.

While non-target species such as steelhead have to be released alive by commercial fishermen, Mr. Blewett said many of the fish in the Dean River in the summer of 2013 were obviously injured from being in nets – and an unknown number simply didn’t survive to make it back to the river.

“Once those chum openings started it was just like all of a sudden the steelhead stopped coming,” said Mr. Blewett. “The weeks you should be getting big numbers of fish, in early August, there was nothing. You’d go down and fish the lower river and not catch a single fish. ”

Asked what he’s been telling his clients he replied: “You apologize for DFO’s mismanagement and wish there was something you could do about it.”

Dean River

A Dean River Steelhead

Craig Orr, executive director of conservation group Watershed Watch, said the chum fishery should not have been allowed, not only because of the devastating impact it had on Dean steelhead, but also because chum stocks in both the Dean and Kimsquit rivers have declined by 80 per cent in recent years.

“These fisheries are hurting chum stocks that are in trouble,” he said. “They should be letting these stocks recover, not fishing them down.”

Jeff Vermillion, who runs Sweetwater Travel Co., a U.S.-based business that books sport-fishing trips to the world’s top lodges, said in an e-mail to DFO officials that the chum fishery should be stopped.

“Given the current crisis it’s clear to me that you are not managing either [for] sound conservation practices, the health of the fishery, or the economics of coastal communities,” he wrote to Dan Wagner, at DFO’s operations centre.

Mr. Wagner could not be reached for comment but Mel Kotyk, DFO’s area director for the North Coast, said officials don’t believe the chum fishery had much impact on the steelhead run.

He said there are 161 boats in  Area 8, but that covers a huge stretch of the central coast and only a small number are actually fishing in the Dean Channel.

Dean River

Commercial Fish boats at anchor waiting for the commercial Chum opening.

Mr. Kotyk said fishing is not allowed within 50 kilometres of the mouth of the Dean River, all commercial fishermen have to release any steelhead they catch and gillnet boats in the Dean Channel have to run a “weed line” which sinks their nets, creating a gap near the surface. Because steelhead swim near the surface in theory they should pass the nets safely, while deeper swimming chum salmon will be caught.

He said gillnet and seine boats in all of Area 8 report catching only 320 steelhead this season.

“And from what we can tell they were all strong and vigorous when they were released. So the impact on the steelhead in all of Area 8 is fairly small,” he said.

But up on the Dean where the river was so suddenly empty of steelhead they saw it differently.

“It just breaks my heart. There are no steelhead or salmon in the river,” said Joe Saysell. “And they weren’t there because the commercial fleet intercepted them.”

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A commercial fish boat sets its net in the Dean Channel

Asked what he thought should be done, he didn’t hesitate to call for major change on Canada’s West Coast.

“It makes no sense to have a commercial fishery for chum salmon, which aren’t worth very much a pound, if it wipes out a run of steelhead that is the backbone of fishing tourism for that whole region,” he said. “We’ve been making this same argument for years without anything changing. I really think the time has come for us to demand an end to these walls of death that the commercial fleet is setting out there.  Buy the boats out, that’s what I say. Get the commercial boats off the coast.”