When We Fail: Thompson River Steelhead Crisis

British Columbia is revered as a mecca for catching steelhead on the fly. With seemingly unlimited vast watersheds between our Pacific coastline and high mountain ranges, we pride ourselves, promoting our province as the cultural epicenter of the wilderness; with forests that stretch hundreds of thousands of kilometers and rivers that flow through unseen remote lands. However, British Columbia is facing a crisis. If our landscape, our wildlife, and our wilderness are so embedded into our wild psyches, why then, are we bleeding ourselves of our wild stocks?

Mention British Columbia to any steelhead angler and two rivers come to mind; the Skeena and the Thompson. In both of these river systems, wild fish stocks are under peril, threatened and vulnerable to Canada’s provincial and federal fisheries’ mismanagements.


The Thompson River, which is the largest tributary of the Fraser River and flows through the southern arid interior area of British Columbia, typically produces a population of steelhead revered for their size, speed, and strength. For decades, anglers from around the world have been making their pilgrimage to the infamous Baits Motel, a steelheader’s refuge, next to a log cabin pub and steps away from the silver sage brushed banks of the Thompson. This river, steadfast in its history of bright aggressive steelhead was a paradise amongst global anglers.

This year, a record low of 240 wild steelhead are predicted to make their return from the salt, through the tumultuous waters of the Fraser, and eventually back to the Thompson to spawn. So far, only 177 spring spawning steelhead have made it back. This run, which used to consist of 7000 spawners in the 1980’s is in a state of natural crisis; and without aggressive action taken by our federal fishery ministers, we will lose these wild anadromous Thompson fish forever. It should be noted, however, that this fishery started collapsing in the late 1990s, and with over two decades of no management changes, this typical reactive-approach happens when it’s almost too late.


Where Did We Go Wrong?

When habitat is destroyed, nature stops working. Interception of wild steelhead is undeniably acting as a barrier to successful migration and is unethically acting as the last play before checkmate. The federally managed commercial salmon fishery is catching steelhead in gill nets set for chum salmon. Seine (seine fish hauling) and gillnet fisheries are preventing Thompson River Steelhead from reaching their spawning grounds, with an estimate that one-quarter of these wild fish, are caught as bycatch, migrating through the south coast waters. Poul Bech, a Director of the Steelhead Society of British Columbia stresses that because ocean survival is so low, steelhead cannot adapt or adjust to current levels of bycatch.

Ocean conditions are changing and temperatures are rising, there is crucial habitat loss, climate change, and deforestation; all devastating factors in steelhead longevity. Ambient water temperature is one of the most critical environmental influencers of steelhead biology. Thermal changes cause extra stressors that will inhibit migration, affect reproduction, reduce growth and size, create disease and ultimately lead to salmonid lethality. While rising water temperatures are detrimental factors in our wild stocks’ health, it seems hard as a single citizen to make a difference against the global, governmental machine. Changing ocean habitat is complicated and is interfaced between ethics, politics, economics, ecology, human culture, geopolitics, and resistance. While it is something, we as a global community need to amend, there is one solution that if removed, could potentially save this species from collapse- stop interception.


What can we do?

Local British Columbian’s and anglers abroad petitioned the Canadian government with a parliamentary petition, and an online petition resulting in 47,000 signatures from around the world to stand up for our wild Thompson steelhead, which is quite literally on the edge of collapse; to save a wild stock that cannot be replaced and to make sustainable changes to our chum fishery. We are asking for the closure of non-selective seine and gillnet fisheries. Bech remarks how “this is less about shutting down fisheries and more about moving towards truly selective fishing methods;” such as traps and monitored beach seines. It is the non-selective approach to our fisheries that are dangerous to our migrating runs, and if continued will be an “international black eye for Canada.”

The Thompson River run is now listed as endangered, and something has to be done. This will not be the last fishery affected by mismanagement. Changing provincial and federal management approaches today, can and will have implications on saving future wild stocks in other watersheds that are in peril; such as Skeena Chinook and Chum salmon and many other steelhead fisheries. Conservation is the most complicated problem in the world; however, in an emergency situation such as this, actions must be aggressive and they must happen immediately because once they are gone, they are gone. Let’s not be the generation that allowed this.

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With thanks to Poul Bech, Director of the Steelhead Society of British Columbia and Allison Oliver, Aquatic Ecologist and Biogeochemist.

Katy Watson is the Flylords conservation writer. She is a fly fishing guide, casting instructor, competition caster and steelhead dirtbag. But more importantly a passionate steelhead conservationist, be sure to check her out on Instagram @katywat!

Photos Courtesy of Landon Mace @the_nomadic_fly, and April Vokey @aprilvokey



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