The Inconvenient Truth on Steelhead Mismanagement in British Columbia

Story by Bob Hooton

Distilled down to basics and overall trends, the chronology of the steelhead fishing and  steelhead management scenario in southwestern British Columbia over the past 25 years reads something like this:

Mid 1980s – as good as any time in recent memory.  Wild steelhead catch and release is working.  Hatchery programs, long in the making, are finally up to target production and harvest opportunities abound.  The provincial Ministry of Environment (MOE) staffed with trained and experienced management and research personnel with substantial operating budgets.  Life is good, although not necessarily recognized as such at the time.

Late 1980s and early 1990s – the pendulum begins to shift.  Steelhead returns are declining virtually everywhere across Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.

Mid 1990s – alarm bells are ringing.  Steelhead abundance plummets to all time lows.  Many popular steelhead streams are closed to angling. Several hatchery steelhead programs are shelved due to lack of brood stock and concerns over negative consequences of producing spawning populations dominated by the offspring of too few parents.  Ocean survival becomes the issue.

Mid and late 1990s – enter the Georgia Basin Steelhead Recovery Program (GBSRP).  Emasculation of MOE’s steelhead management capability begins.  Evidence of coast wide declines in ocean survival accumulates.

Early 2000s – anglers and steelhead continue their downward spiral.  Government investment in partnerships with non-government organizations (NGOs) accelerates while MOE suffers death by a thousand cuts. Zero funding for hatchery steelhead programs.  Basic functions of MOE being assumed by NGOs.  The strong inverse relationship between NGO project investments and steelhead abundance persists.  The ocean is still an unhappy place.

Photo by Ted Harding Jr.

Today – staffing levels and operating budgets of MOE reach paralysis levels.  Steelhead management capability becomes a distant memory.  Meanwhile the BC Conservation Foundation (BCCF), originally established to facilitate hiring and administration of staff on behalf of MOE, has assumed control in splendid isolation of MOE.  Another “savior”, the Steelhead Futures Caucus (SFC) emerges from the background.

Now some would argue this is an overly simplistic account and that certain events are unsubstantiated or misconstrued.  Let them present their own case.  I will be happy to provide glowing details around any of the above for those that choose not to accept it.  Only the naïve and the willfully blind can’t see that wild steelhead stocks are at uniformly low levels, angler participation is still spiraling downward, the ocean remains a relatively inhospitable environment for steelhead emigrating from natal streams, and investment in things that aren’t working continues to rise.  All this while those who have taken over the ship’s helm continue to distance themselves from anything to do with fishing.

The emergence of BCCF as the provincial lead (certainly in the southern part of the province) was not by design, at least not at first.  BCCF did serve a very useful function in earlier times when its only purpose was to facilitate the flow of Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation (HCTF) dollars to MOE conceived projects approved by HCTF.  The rules of the day did not allow MOE to hire the staff required to conduct the HCTF projects directly and MOE contracting procedures were a nightmare.  Thus BCCF was established to serve as the primary contractor to hire whomever MOE wanted to do its HCTF approved work.

All was well until the large and increasing proportion of the annual provincial total HCTF dollars flowing through BCCF to the Georgia Basin Steelhead Recovery Program (GBSRP) precipitated animosity elsewhere in the province.  That forced HCTF to put the steelhead recovery proponents on notice there were numerous other non-government funding sources out there they should look to for funding.  The stage was set for the BCCF umbilical cord between MOE and HCTF to be cut.  Overlooked in all of that was the fact most of the dollars originally allocated to steelhead recovery under the GBSRP had more to do with basic MOE fisheries program functions than restoring fish.  That eventually changed and the investment in actual habitat work assumed more, but not all the dollars allocated.  So, when HCTF yanked the steelhead funding for the southern MOE regions, especially Vancouver Island, it all but destroyed any steelhead management capability.  Meanwhile the estranged MOE children, now their own pseudo management agency under the BCCF roof, apply to all the NGO funding sources MOE staff are forbidden to, as well as HCTF, for a multitude of projects bearing labels of convenience (e.g. buffers against climate change) that meet the funding organization criteria of the day, not the objectives of regional MOE fishery managers.  If there is any meaningful connection between the plans and objectives of the current BCCF “steelhead program” and MOE regional fisheries programs it is not evident to me or anyone I know in MOE.

Fast forward to November of 2008 and what was billed as a pivotal event occurred at the BC Institute of Technology.  That gathering – the “Steelhead Summit” –  was orchestrated over a period of many months by BCCF personnel, apparently with at least partial funding from MOE headquarters.  Regional MOE staff were not involved until the proverbial eleventh hour when each steelhead region was instructed to send a representative and present prescribed material.  This wasn’t particularly well received by staff but worse things can happen.  After all, this summit was intended to set the stage for renewed energy and funding for steelhead management.  The group known as the Steelhead Futures Caucus (SFC) was central to the summit.

The SFC is a loose knit group of a fluctuating number (usually five or six) of Liberal MLAs, mostly from Vancouver ridings, and occasional support staff.  It developed as a result of a relationship between one of those MLAs and a BCCF representative who seemed to have assumed responsibility for all things steelhead.  The SFC has been around for about three years.  It has no official status.  It doesn’t go unnoticed there has never been a Vancouver Island MLA in attendance at any SFC function (nine of 12 Vancouver Island ridings currently being NDP).  Thus, half the Georgia Basin has never had any representation in any SFC forum.

Details of the summit objectives, expectations, participation list and the presentations are less than important at this stage.  What is considerably more significant are messages transmitted from the summit to the provincial Liberal Caucus in early March 2009.  Predictably, it was the BCCF representative giving the presentation with a couple of headquarters MOE staff present, as observers only.  The audience in this instance consisted of about one quarter of the 42 member caucus, none of whom were cabinet ministers.  The latter, including MOE’s own top gun, then Liberal Environment Minister Barry Penner, were busy elsewhere.

So, once again, a cadre of mostly Lower Mainland MLAs heard the gospel according to BCCF.  The ultimate irony is the primary recommendation of the presenter – “to restore core capacity in MOE for steelhead management and research.  This from the people who are largely responsible for the demise of that capacity!  Equally ironic is the fact it was anglers and their license fees that supported all the HCTF/BCCF/GBSRP undertakings that are now serving only to increase the imbalance between conservation oriented expenditures and those that have anything to do with angling.  Ask one basic question of all of these fine people – where is the evidence a single steelhead or steelhead angling license or rod day has been produced by the massive expenditures marketed as steelhead recovery?

What could and should be different? Here is a list to consider:

Cease further expenditures on fixing the unfixable.  Most, if not all, of the streams that have sucked up in-stream project dollars are oversubscribed with vacant steelhead habitat.  The notion more smolts will be produced and that will buffer downturns in ocean survival was obviously sellable a few years ago but we know enough now to understand that isn’t going to work.  For those who disagree, ask for the evaluation.

Re-allocate a significant portion of the dollars being consumed by the plethora of habitat “fixing” projects to producing fish for anglers.  Yes, I said hatchery production and no, I am not talking Thompson River.  Work with the relatively successful stocks and facilities (Chilliwack is the obvious Lower Mainland candidate) and utilize hatchery origin brood stock as the source of smolts to be outplanted to two or three LM streams that are never going to see any significant angling activity otherwise.  The north shore, home of several of those SFC MLAs is not short of candidates.  On Vancouver Island Robertson Creek Hatchery could well supply hatchery adults for at least one or two other streams flowing to the west side of the Island and capable of supporting some serious angling.  MOE’s stream classification policy and preservation of the last pair of adipose bearing fish should not be allowed to block every attempt to manufacture some fishing opportunity.

Invest in protecting habitat, not in futile attempts to re-create it once gone.  But, prioritize those investments according to streams that might eventually produce some fishing.  The central east coast of Vancouver Island is a convenient place to build partnerships and an endless list of projects, none of which is likely to result in any fish or fishing.  The metric for success should not be the number of projects and partners and the dollars spent.  Rather, it should be fish and fishing.

Look to those responsible for the demise of fishing for mitigation and compensation.  Campbell and Quinsam Rivers are perfect examples.  Why shouldn’t BC Hydro underwrite a serious hatchery steelhead program on that system?  What logic is there in the public at large having to scratch together crumbs to support a token summer steelhead enhancement initiative for the Campbell and Hydro spending a king’s ransom to appease “partners” who seem to believe they can re-create the Campbell Haig-Brown once knew?  Has anyone ever taken a serious look at the results of 30 years of Hydro funded habitat projects on that system?  Did anyone catch a steelhead this past winter?  Did anyone even go fishing?  Tens of millions are on the books for seismic upgrades to the facilities that destroyed the fishery originally.  Its time for payback. Puntledge is in the same league, except it makes no sense to continue with steelhead enhancement in that system.  Instead, why not tap Hydro for off site compensation?   The Lower Mainland is hardly short of parallel opportunities.

And now for the ultimate fantasy – revise the entire approach to fisheries related expenditures.  Money isn’t the issue.  As with the world’s water, distribution is the problem, not supply.  Sequestering all the money in NGO controlled hands such as the Living Rivers Trust Fund, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, HCTF and its outlet conduit BCCF, etc. (bless them all but they just don’t see the forest for the trees) and then constraining or eliminating access to it by the MOE professionals (who the government pretends are involved) does not make for wise or efficient management.  Simply put: the model isn’t working.

On a purely technical note – some will recall the Living Gene Bank experiment (LGB).  That was the ultimate attempt to address the question of whether or not depressed wild steelhead populations could be restored via the most carefully designed and administered “conservation fish culture” exercise ever undertaken.  The Keogh River, MOE’s long term steelhead population dynamics research stream on northern Vancouver Island was the focus of sampling intended to answer the most important question associated with steelhead (and salmon) hatcheries today, namely, what are the consequences of spawning hatchery origin steelhead interacting with wild spawners?  The samples that will provide the answers are on the shelf but nary a dollar is available to support the analysis and write up.  The reason – such endeavors do not meet the criteria of any of the organizations holding today’s fisheries cash.  Needless to say there is no base budget left in MOE for this or anything else.  But, there is all sorts of money and supporters for building ‘luxury fish condos’ in streams that have become steelhead ghost towns.

There is one last point worth making.  Short years ago Gordon Campbell, who was then the Premier of B.C.,  committed to “the best fisheries management, bar none” in the world.  If those words weren’t laughable at the time they certainly are today.  It is well past time some feet were held to the fire.