Archive for July, 2020

The Steelhead Story

Saturday, July 18th, 2020

The Steelhead Story

It was a mild afternoon late in the winter of 1969 – a big snow winter on the South Coast. I’d finished a good day of steelheading on Nanaimo River and dropped into Johnson’s Hardware to brag. “Hit nine fish between the Willow and Haslam Runs and a couple were real sharks”. Ernie Johnson just shrugged. “You young guys just don’t know” he said. “Years ago you could catch forty on a good day”. He had the photos to prove it. Dog eared slaughter shots that would produce howls of outrage today. “Yeah, there were sure lots of fish in those days” I agreed.

But there weren’t; not in the way it seemed.

Few people fished for steelhead in BC before the 1960’s. Winter fish were ghosts of grey days and murky rivers. Most summer steelhead streams were remote and little known. Specialized steelhead tackle was still in the future. The early days were heady for the few angles who fished steelhead. Imagine having a lovely river like the Cowichan almost to yourself. Herman Mayea, a pioneer Cowichan steelheader can. “I remember one year back in the fifties when I had a contest with my fishing partner. I caught 300 but he caught more than 500.”

It’s not surprising that steelhead were thought to be abundant in the past. This misconception was one of several that led to the perilous situation in the mid seventies when steelhead numbers became dangerously low in many streams.

It was aided by information from American rivers where steelhead were more abundant. Lacking research of our own, B.C. relied on US knowledge. But steelhead streams to the south are different. Aside from Northern Washington, their basins were never heavily glaciated, their watershed soils are deeper and richer and climate and terrain are less harsh allowing the fish a longer growing season and better access to the upper reaches of rivers.

Many BC coastal streams drain short, steep basins of gravel and granite where run off is super charged by heavy rain and snow melt which causes wild flow fluctuations. The water is often cold even in the summer months and ice can be a factor in the winter. Nutrients are sparse and waterfalls often block passage a short distance from the sea. Young steelhead in the Northwest States usually smolt in their first of second year while many BC juveniles don’t head to sea for three or even four years. Every year they spend in freshwater takes a toll.

In short, most of our steelhead streams are much less productive than those to the south and where we thought we had thousands of fish, we had hundreds. Where we thought there were hundreds, there were tens.

Aside from a few premium streams like the Cowichan, the Stamp the Gold, the Dean and the Bella Coola in their good days, most of our streams carry a few hundred steelhead. With the forty fish annual catch quota before the mid-seventies, a few good steelheaders could easily catch most of the run. But steelhead research was thin in BC and American data was solid. What difference could a few hundred miles make?

By the mid –seventies, steelhead were falling back in many of our streams. Two fortunate circumstances combined to propel their recovery:

  1. Steelheaders began to lobby for catch and release and reduced kill. Some steelheaders began asking for a much reduced kill as early as 1969. In 1970, the Steelhead Society of BC was formed. Steelheaders like Barry Thornton, Earl Colp and Ted Harding Senior not only lobbied for better angling regulations but they were instrumental in helping to improve forest policy and practices around streams and reducing the commercial interception of steelhead.
  2. The Salmonid Enhancement Program(SEP) began in 1977

In my opinion steelheading has always attracted many anglers more interested in quality fishing rather than filling the freezer so it didn’t take much for steelheaders to demand more careful management of their resource when it appeared to be in trouble. Many anglers practised catch and release long before it became law. SEP provided funding for population surveys which quickly revealed that steelhead were by no means abundant. Prior to snorkel counts, the only available indicator of steelhead abundance in BC was the steelhead harvest analysis which was based on an angler questionnaire rather than direct observation.

More careful regulation began in 1977 when the annual catch quota was reduced from forty to twenty. It was then quickly reduced to ten and catch and release, barbless hooks and bait bans followed and have persisted to this day along with total closure in some cases.

Steelhead numbers were thought to have bottomed out in about 1979 and the 80`s were a period of recovery. In 1985, I spent a lot of time fishing the Riverbottom Reach at my friend Linda McLeod`s. She had lived there for ten years and had never caught a steelhead despite putting in lots of effort. She believed catching a steelhead was beyond her even though her yard fronted on Asha`s Run, one of the river`s best steelhead holding areas. In 1985, she caught over fifty and her nine year old daughter even caught several. I lost count of those I caught.

The bonanza was very gratifying but it didn`t last. By the 1990`s fish were dropping off again and scientists were beginning to realize that ocean conditions were a strong factor in salmonid survival. Many had thought that if the freshwater environment was protected and fostered, steelhead numbers would hold. A lot of effort was put in to careful catch regulation and habitat protection and more effort was expended on basic research. But so many factors are ganging up on these beautiful fish that their survival is very tenuous.

Ocean survival has dropped off the scale in the last two decades and there does not seem to be much that can be done about it because the problem is global and beyond the control of BC or Canada. Even if a co-ordinated world effort was undertaken, resolution would be very tough. People with far more grey matter than I have strained themselves almost beyond reach looking for answers and there are many that do not even agree about the true nature of the problem. But there are things that we can do as Canadians to make sure we are doing our best for the fish.

Commercial interception in salmon net fisheries is still a huge problem. Premier world class steelhead are being killed so we can sell our salmon to the highest bidders. I have long advocated for a more controlled salmon fishery where the harvest would be more terminal and selective. This means taking more sockeye, pinks and chums and releasing more chinooks, coho and steelhead – probably all the steelhead. At one time, salmon traps were utilized along important migration corridors like Juan de Fuca Strait. This required a shared, collective effort but fishermen wanted to catch their own fish and boats and gear developed so the Wild West approach could be employed. Efforts have been made to thin the fleet and loads of fishers have been squeezed out but things have not improved much and the few fishermen left in the not so wild west are still griping in their five dollars a glass beer when they can afford a few. Meanwhile salmon farming has moved in to supply the demand. There are issues with that but I believe they can be largely mitigated or controlled.

Can a renewed collective effort of reduced or eliminated commercial interception, continued habitat improvement and protection and some kind of fish culture input start us back to a steelhead return? Perhaps but it will not be easy or anywhere near it. I can hear the howls of outrage already as I have heard them ringing off the walls for more than fifty years in my life as a salmonid biologist.


Ted Harding with a summer steelhead from Money’s Pool on the Stamp River  in 1971


Death Down the Alley

Saturday, July 18th, 2020

Death Down the Alley

There is little that is more vexing to me than a useless death – a death for a life unfulfilled or a death for no good reason. Now you are probably thinking about death from addiction or some young person felled by a rare disease but no, what I am thinking of is animals that are killed by police or conservation officers for just being animals.

Bryce Casavant, former Port Hardy Conservation Officer must also be wondering if police and CO’s may be a little too quick on the draw when it comes to dispatching “problem” wildlife. Casavant ran into trouble when he refused to kill a pair of young bears when someone complained about them so he decided to try and find out if the problem was more an itchy trigger finger than a problem with wildlife. He speculated that many CO’s were associated with the culture of hunting and perhaps tended to view wildlife as an economic asset to be exploited and killed or as a danger to life or property instead of a resource to be nurtured and appreciated. At any rate, I can’t help but feel there is a far too cavalier attitude to killing wildlife that could cause a problem – especially predators. Between 2011 and 2019, 4341 black bears, 162 grizzlies and 780 cougars were killed. That is a lot of lives lost for what I think could be rather flimsy reasons. Of course you cannot know for sure and the officer always must err on the side of caution when human life is involved. But how often is it really? Are there not better, more humane methods of dealing with problem wildlife?

When I lived in the West Kootenay Region, bears were a constant presence and if you let your guard down, they could quickly become problematic. Ted Rutherglen was the Nelson CO. He got very tired of having to almost constantly kill bears so he began tranquilizing them and transporting them away from where they were causing a problem. I sometimes helped him out. He attached a tranquilizer dart to a ski pole then climbed up the tree to stab the bear with the dart. When the bear came down, it was moved into a trap then re – located. Eventually, the dart could be fired with a rifle which saved Ted a few scraped shins. The bears never bothered Ted but they usually showed up in the same places again somewhat chagrined but still an issue. The bears were usually black bears but sometimes he had to deal with grizzlies. On one occasion he had to shoot two young grizzlies in Kokanee Glacier Park. The National Ski Team was training on the glacier in the summer and they befriended the bears who started to hang around. I had friends on the team and they told me the bears were very friendly and were even ridden by some of the kids. Somehow the Fish and Wildlife Branch got word of this and Rutherglen was ordered to dispatch these beautiful young bears or find another occupation. This was very hard on him but he eventually complied under protest.

For awhile, trapping and relocation became very common. However, it wasn’t as easy as it may have seemed and many if not most returned. I remember trying to catch a bear near Kaslo for about a week without success. We finally had to buy a side of bacon to get him in the trap.

Traps can be hard on animals especially if long trips on rough roads are involved which they often are. When you do figure a spot you can pretty well bet that another resident animal will be there and your animal will have to crowd its way in or try to find another space or go back home. Sometimes you separate parents and siblings and the list goes on.

Another factor may be the way the Conservation Officer Service is set up. Prior to about 1980, the service was part of the BC Police or the BC Fish and Wildlife Branch. I can’t say much about the BC Police time but I do know about the Fish and Wildlife Branch/ Ministry of Environment days. At that time, the CO, s were part of a team of biologists and technicians and were not directly wedded to issues of enforcement and wildlife control. Most of the CO’S were involved with habitat inventory and management, regulation formulation and public education. The job was more conservation oriented and had more variety.

I remember that many of the CO’s of the time were not completely comfortable with the variety of the tasks and some just wanted to be bush cops. They constantly lobbied for special uniforms and side arms. More police things than conservation things.

I have lost contact with today’s Conservation Officers but I occasionally come in contact with “Natural Resource Officers”. They tell me they do environmental enforcement and don’t have much contact with CO’s. In the early seventies, he CO’s were the face of the environment and well known in the communities they worked in. Most would do whatever they could to avoid killing problem wildlife. Is today’s Conservation Officer a different breed? A few years back I lived in Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, a place with an about normal degree of bear human conflicts. It got so the people of The Lake refused to call the CO’s or RCMP about a bear because the bear almost always got shot.

There has to be a better way. I know live in Port Alberni another place with a normal supply of bears. They are in our yard a lot and we have noticed that those that get scared off in their initial contact are very careful about sneaking back and flee easily. I wonder if it would be possible to condition bears to stay away with an aggressive dog, bear bangers or other frights. If these things were combined withal the other safety suggestions or regulations, it may be possible to save a few animals.

Ted Burns

July 18, 2020