Heavy sedimentation and debris from last summer’s fires barricaded the Bonaparte River fishway, the pathway to steelhead spawning grounds. An assessment of two populations has confirmed a 2018 emergency survey that found the fish are at risk of extinction. (Black Press file photo)

Heavy sedimentation and debris from last summer’s fires barricaded the Bonaparte River fishway, the pathway to steelhead spawning grounds. An assessment of two populations has confirmed a 2018 emergency survey that found the fish are at risk of extinction. (Black Press file photo)

Investigation confirms dire situation of B.C. steelhead

Endangered species report will again go to Ottawa for SARA consideration

A thorough risk assessment of Chilcotin and Thompson steelhead trout has confirmed the results of a previous survey declaring the fish at risk of extinction. The latest findings mean the fish will again be considered for listing under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Last year the the federal government declined to list the steelhead after the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) submitted the findings of a rare emergency assessment. The government said protection under SARA would be prohibition based and therefore not lead to timely, proactive steps to increase the species’ productivity.

In their 2020 Species Assessments released in November, COSEWIC again looked at the Interior Fraser steelhead, but this time under its regular process with heightened scrutiny and peer-reviewed conclusions. Although the findings are the same as 2018 — “endangered” — standard procedure will push the file back to the government for SARA consideration.

READ MORE: Federal government will not list Steelhead under Species at Risk Act

“The conclusion really does not change anything about the status of these fish. It confirms their status as endangered,” COSEWIC chair John Reynolds said. “But I honestly think we could lose both of these populations within a couple of steelhead generations unless something changes.”

In lieu of a SARA listing, in July last year the federal and provincial governments announced a Joint Action Plan to reduce fishing-related mortality, remove significant barriers to migration and reduce ongoing habitat destruction. Additional measures are being taken over the longer term to remediate degraded habitat.

Options are also being explored to address the causes of natural mortality, such as seal predation, and to augment wild populations with hatchery fish.

A SARA listing would make it illegal to kill, harm, harass, or capture steelhead, triggering new protections and disrupting or shutting down legal salmon fisheries for First Nations and the commercial sector.

To limit bycatch of the endangered fish, the province wants the federal government to implement 77 days of closures on salmon fisheries, protecting 95 per cent of steelhead during their 82-day run time.

Last season DFO issued closures for just 27 days, which the province said DFO plans to do again next year.

“These measures fall short of the level of protection needed to give the species a chance to recover,” an e-mail from the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource operations and Rural Development reads.

Bob Hooton, a retired biologist and fisheries section head for the B.C. ministry of environment, now a writer and steelhead advocate, said the crisis will continue as fisheries are allowed to remain open while steelhead are migrating.

“Down tools. There’s no way around it,” he said. “If there’s one thing that’s completely under our control, it’s managing the harvest. It’s the most immediate and most effective thing you can do for any fishery.”

In the next few weeks the province plans to unveil a new online platform to improve public access to the current management information, science fact sheets and progress updates on steelhead populations.

COSEWIC will submit its full report to the federal government around the fall of 2021. The Governor in Council will consider listing the steelhead under SARA based on the findings and consultations with Indigenous communities, stakeholders and organizations, including wildlife management boards. The economic and social implications of the listing will also be considered.

– With files from Barbara Roden

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quinn.bender@blackpress.ca

DFOFisheries and Oceans Canada