Bob Hooton’s fight to save Skeena Steelhead

Excerpt from the new book
Skeena Steelhead Unknown Past, Uncertain Future
Story by Bob Hooton with Photography by Dana Atagi


The world is replete with examples of fisheries that once were. Whether it be bluefin tuna, coral reef fishes of southeast Asia, the northern cod of eastern Canada, Atlantic salmon throughout most of their range or the Chinook and steelhead runs of California’s Central Valley and northern coast and the Columbia, to name but a few, the story has been the same. The human animal has consistently placed a lower value on fish than the economies that have grown to compete for them and, eventually, against them. The end result, each generation of us lowers the bar and re-defines a benchmark for the next. Regrettably, succeeding generations rarely understand or appreciate where the bar once stood.

Some isolated opportunities still exist to savor what little remains globally of the once abundant premiere river sport fishing opportunities for iconic species like steelhead and Atlantic salmon. Kamchatka is the last frontier for steelhead, albeit inaccessible for most of us. Across the vastness of Russia, at its opposite corner, the Kola Peninsula supports the best of what remains of Atlantic salmon fishing. Some might place the rivers of Iceland on equal footing. In North America the single remaining opportunity to reach out and touch a piece of past glory rests with the Skeena watershed in northwestern British Columbia. Alaska may boast more pristine environments than modern day Skeena and it undoubtedly reflects abundances of anadromous fish no longer found outside its borders but it does not support the world record class wild summer steelhead of the fabled Skeena.

The Skeena steelhead fishery story began to unfold with the arrival of commercial fishing in the late 1870s. By the turn of the 20th century the commercial fishery and its inevitable proliferation of canneries had assumed ownership of fish and fishing. No one will ever know with certainty how many fish of any species, especially steelhead, once occupied the waters of the Skeena. Regulations governing fishing and catch recording lagged the blossoming fishery by several decades and fisheries science took even longer to develop, let alone be applied. Aboriginal people sustained themselves on the strength of Skeena fish for countless generations before the commercial fishery began but their numbers, distribution and technology were never a threat to fish, at least not until the European descendent entrepreneurs arrived.

There is no record of any description to suggest the era prior to the arrival of commercial fishing saw fish abundance influenced measurably by those who preceded it.
Sport fishing as a detectable element of the Skeena fishery mosaic did not materialize until more than a half century after the first gill nets were deployed in the path of Skeena bound salmon. Not until the early economies worked through the succession from fir trading to canneries to mining and logging did a railroad and highway allow access to rivers and fish that had never been subjected to angling. Float planes and helicopters followed and jet boats were not far behind. Now we have the worldwide web and an unprecedented proliferation of fish porn. Some perceive it as the best thing that ever happened for fishing. I view it as the worst possible thing for fish.

At any time in recent history the harvesting capacity of any of the three sectors involved in the Skeena fishery, if unconstrained, exceeded the capacity of the resource to sustain it. Conservation imperatives restricted fishing effort progressively but rarely prospectively. Fishing effort restrictions always lag behind fishing efficiency improvements. Perceptions among fishing sector spokespersons hardened as they saw their rights and lifestyles being compromised. The debate of the day around steelhead became conservation versus allocation. Amicable resolution of that issue is as likely as peace in the Middle East. Nonetheless, governments of the day have contributedresources thought not to exist toward the process of resolution. The investment in interpretation and application of policies and unanswerable questions has spawned a growth industry whose output is measured in everything but the status of fish and fishing.

So, how long will Skeena steelhead and the sport fishery as it has come to be known last? How did we get to where we are? What will it take to see an outcome different from everywhere south where the obvious inverse relationship between the abundance of people and the abundance of fish has relegated fishery after fishery to photo albums? Will lessons learned elsewhere ever be applied?

Much has been written about particular aspects of the history of the Skeena watershed. Richard Geddes Large’s 1957 piece “Skeena, River of Destiny” is an intricate and wonderfully readable description of early developments stemming from the first furtraders and missionaries through two world wars and the economies that developed thereafter. Cicely Lyons milestone, Salmon Our Heritage, published in 1969 is an excellent account of the history of the commercial fishing industry in British Columbiaas seen from the corporate boardroom. Geoff Meggs 1995 book, Salmon, The Decline of the BC Fishery, sharply contrasts the boardroom accounts. Between Lyons encyclopedic documentation and Meggs take on exploitation of workers is K. Mack Campbell’s warm personal reminisces of the rise and fall of the outlying canneries along the BC coast (Campbell, 2004).

More recently Allan Gottesfeld and Ken Rabnett’s 2008 publication “Skeena River Fish and Their Habitat” documents and knits together into a highly instructive reference a huge volume of technically focused background material originating from sources unknown or unavailable to most.
Hundreds of references embedded in a half century’s worth of scientific literature on fish and fisheries include Skeena related material. The explosion of records and reports emanating from the golden age of process, from 1990 to the present, add to the mix.

Foremost among references on sport fishing in the Skeena is John Fennelly’s 1963 classic “Steelhead Paradise”. Paralleling the proliferation of scientific literature has been the steadily increasing volume of sport fishing related publications in magazines, journals, hard cover and, of course, the worldwide web. Nowhere, however, is there anything that documents the steelhead sport fishery development and the struggle of successive generations of advocates to preserve what too few know as an international treasure. It’s a story worth telling.