Good afternoon, everyone. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we have a briefing on steelhead salmon in the Fraser River.
I apologize to our witnesses, who have been waiting patiently by video conference to join us for testimony today. Unfortunately, we had a bunch of votes, which we have no control over, but we wanted to make sure we had a chance to at least hear from our witnesses this afternoon.
Appearing today by video conference we have Mr. Eric Taylor, Professor, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia.
From the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, we have Rebecca Reid, Regional Director General, Pacific region, as well as Andrew Thomson, Regional Director, Fisheries Management.
From the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development of British Columbia, we have Mr. Robert Bison, Fisheries Stock Assessment Biologist, Wildlife and Ecosystems.
From the Steelhead Society of BC, we have Poul Bech, Director.
We'll hear from Mr. Taylor first, for seven minutes or less, please.
Good afternoon. My comments will be very brief.
I am involved in the steelhead issue in British Columbia as I was the chair of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, which received a couple of petitions to conduct an emergency assessment under our rules and procedures. I was the one who decided that the preliminary information submitted was sufficient to conduct an emergency assessment.
I chaired the meeting that conducted the emergency assessment, and I and about 25 other people came to the conclusion that the Thompson and Chilcotin rivers' steelhead trout were endangered under the internationally recognized IUCN criteria. We sent a letter to in February 2018 asking her to initiate an emergency listing of Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead trout.
I'm here simply to make myself available to expatiate on any of that or answer any questions you have about the procedures we used to write that letter to the minister back in February 2018.
That's all I have to say. Thank you.
Thank you very much. Good afternoon committee members, and thank you, Mr. McDonald, for inviting the department to appear before the committee today.
I am Rebecca Reid. I'm the Regional Director General for Pacific Region. I'm honoured to appear before the standing committee, as are my colleagues who have joined me. I am joined in your room by Julie Stewart, who is the director of the species at risk program, and Andrew Thomson, regional director of fisheries management.
In February 2018, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada published an emergency assessment of two distinct populations of steelhead trout found within the Fraser River system in British Columbia, the Thompson River and Chilcotin River populations. Both species were assessed as endangered as a result of the population declines of greater than 80 per cent over three generations.
Historically, these populations numbered several thousand fish. The spawning survey conducted in spring 2018 estimated 150 Thompson River and 77 Chilcotin River spawners.
Steelhead trout are an anadromous form of rainbow trout, meaning that they spawn in fresh water but spend a portion of their life in the ocean. Steelhead are highly prized sports fish and contribute significantly to lucrative freshwater recreational fisheries in British Columbia. While retention of wild steelhead is not permitted in most areas, steelhead angling opportunities draw sports fishers to B.C. from around the globe.
Steelhead are identified as a significant species for many coastal and inland first nations as a seasonal source of food and cultural and traditional practices. They are fished for food, social and ceremonial purposes. There are no commercial fisheries targeting steelhead, but they are encountered as bycatch in commercial, marine and in-river fisheries for other Pacific salmon, including chum, chinook, pink and sockeye. Recreational salmon fisheries can also intercept steelhead in both marine and fresh water.
Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead face threats throughout three distinct phases of their life cycle: marine, migratory and fresh water. These threats are associated with fishing mortality; changes in marine and freshwater environments, including habitat loss and degradation; and other biological limiting factors, including predation and competition.
Low marine survival is not well understood, but has been correlated with long-term and broad-scale deterioration in marine habitat and changes in climate. Consequently, there is little that DFO or B.C. can do over the short term to address low marine survival. With respect to the other two life-cycle phases, migratory and fresh water, mitigating threats is possible. When Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead migrate through marine approach areas and return to fresh water to spawn, they are impacted by mortality from bycatch in commercial salmon, recreational, and food, social and ceremonial fisheries.
While resident in freshwater environments, steelhead spawning and juvenile rearing are impacted by habitat loss and degradation, including barriers to migration, sedimentation, water flows and temperature. While habitat loss and deterioration are often due to cumulative effects over decades and are challenging to address, habitat conservation actions can reduce impacts and promote survival.
In the non-tidal rivers and lakes of British Columbia, steelhead trout recreational fisheries are jointly managed by the governments of Canada and British Columbia. While the Government of Canada has legislative jurisdiction for the conservation and protection of these fisheries, British Columbia has jurisdiction over the proprietary and civil rights aspects of fisheries, such as licensing.
The Government of Canada has granted authorities for British Columbia to oversee some aspects of the day-to-day management of non-salmon fisheries, including steelhead. The protection of fish and fish habitat is provided for through the federal Fisheries Act and through various authorities under provincial legislation. Accordingly, British Columbia has the primary jurisdictional responsibility over regulation of activities that would impact steelhead freshwater habitat, including water removal for agriculture, forestry in riparian zones and other land use issues. DFO also has responsibilities under the Fisheries Act for managing impacts to fish and fish habitat. These are implemented through the fish and fish habitat protection program, which reviews proposed works, activities and undertakings; provides advice on how to avoid impacts to fish and fish habitat; and, when appropriate, issues Fisheries Act authorizations.
Because of these shared jurisdictional responsibilities, the most effective means to address threats associated with habitat, and actions to improve and restore it, would involve effective federal-provincial collaboration. DFO and B.C. have been implementing fisheries management measures for the conservation of wild steelhead trout for many years under the Fisheries Act and its associated regulations. The department consults on steelhead conservation measures in salmon fisheries planning processes undertaken in collaboration with indigenous groups, commercial and recreational fishery stakeholders, and representatives from B.C. ministries.
Fisheries management measures are set out in annual integrated fisheries management plans and are implemented through fishery regulations, variation orders and conditions of licence. Measures implemented by DFO to protect steelhead from salmon fisheries since the early 2000s include time and area closures to avoid the steelhead run, mandatory release of steelhead incidentally intercepted in salmon fishing gear, and the use of more selective fishing techniques and gear types.
In 2018, steelhead conservation measures were expanded and DFO implemented a series of 27-day window closures to salmon fisheries designed to cover the time period over which approximately 90% of the Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead migrate. Closures were applied to all commercial and recreational fisheries targeting salmon in fresh water, and to some commercial gillnet fisheries in marine waters. In-river aboriginal food, social and ceremonial fisheries using gillnet gear were also reduced by 50% during this period.
The 2019 management measures have not yet been established, but we anticipate that additional salmon fishery closures will be implemented to protect the steelhead return. These additional closures could involve extending the duration of the window closures or applying closures to salmon fisheries that were not included in the 2018 actions.
Continued co-operation between the Province of British Columbia and the federal government is essential to developing effective measures to restore and protect these populations.
My colleagues and I would be pleased to answer your questions.
Thank you for the invitation and the opportunity.
I'd like to begin with a brief introduction about what these steelhead are. I'm a biologist, and would be reporting to you in that capacity.
Interior Fraser steelhead is a group of steelhead populations that spawn and rear as juveniles in some of the inland portions of the Fraser River watershed in British Columbia, portions that begin immediately inland from the coastal mountain range.
Interior Fraser steelhead are valued, and were, until recently, used directly by first nations communities and sport anglers supporting culture as well as tourism and recreational economies. These values manifest themselves in the interior part of the province where the steelhead reside for quite a period of time in the latter stages of their upstream migration.
Interior Fraser steelhead are also a bycatch in some salmon fisheries that occur along the southern B.C. coast and along the Fraser River. While these steelhead are migrating from offshore habitats in the north Pacific toward their spawning and rearing areas, that migration spans a period approaching three months. In terms of biodiversity, interior Fraser steelhead are comprised of at least three discrete evolutionary significant units of biological diversity and are exceptional examples of the species they belong to, Oncorhynchus mykiss.
As for abundance trends and current status, interior Fraser steelhead populations, along with most of the steelhead populations along the B.C. coast and Puget Sound, as well as many salmon populations, have been declining in survival and abundance for at least three decades.
Thompson River and Chilcotin River steelhead, which comprise sizable components of the interior Fraser steelhead group are currently at about one-tenth of their former abundance in comparison to the abundance in the 1970s.
Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead, as you heard, are currently classified as endangered by COSEWIC, and a recommendation was made in February 2018 to place them in schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act. Under the B.C. provincial classification system, they are classified as an extreme conservation concern.
With respect to factors causing decline, the evidence to date suggests that the most likely causes responsible for the decline and survival of abundance include an increase in predation in the inshore marine habitats; increased predation from marine mammals, particularly pinnipeds; an increase in competition in the offshore ocean habitat, from an increase in a natural and enhanced abundance of salmon in the north Pacific; and finally, fishing, predominantly in the form of bycatch and salmon fisheries.
All factors are partially or wholly human-induced effects. Fishing is obviously a wholly induced human effect. The increase in pinniped populations particularly is largely attributed to marine mammal protection in both Canada and the U.S. The increase in competition and offshore ocean habitat is largely the result of salmon production in the U.S., Japan and Russia. Canada is a relatively minor source of salmon entering the north Pacific.
Over the past 90 years for which we have abundance and biomass estimates for the north Pacific, salmon are more abundant now than ever. About 40% of the current biomass of salmon in the north Pacific originates from hatcheries, with the remainder originating from natural and enhanced production from sources not associated with hatcheries, for example, fishways and range expansion or spawning channels and enhancements of that type.
Decline in survival diminishes the amount of mortality that can be sustained by the steelhead through human activities, such as fishing. Currently any amount of mortality will inhibit or delay potential recovery. The potential for recovery to formerly observed abundances rests almost entirely with the recovery of survival between the smolt stage, when these fish migrate to sea as juveniles, to the stage of full maturity and spawning.
There is little potential to recover to formerly observed abundances by improving the survival during the freshwater stage of life, meaning the egg stage to the ocean-migrating smolt stage. However, maintaining and improving freshwater survival may help the populations persist and avoid extirpation from the freshwater habitat range that they occupy.
The crash of interior Fraser steelhead is one of the biggest fisheries stories of this century. Thompson River steelhead are or were among the largest, strongest, most iconic and most famous steelhead on the planet. Anglers came from around the world to try to catch one. The Thompson River was like the Olympics of steelhead fishing, and now it's gone, closed as it should be, and the river and the communities that depend on it are like ghost towns. Don't minimize how much of a blow to Canada's reputation this is. The world is watching our efforts—or lack of effort—to recover these endangered fish.
How did it happen? There are two reasons: overfishing and greatly reduced marine survival of steelhead.
Bycatch mortality of steelhead and chum salmon net fisheries was roughly 80% in the 1980s. In recent years, bycatch was only 15% or 20%. This should be a success story, but it's not. In the 1980s, smolt-to-adult survival of steelhead was as high as 20%. That survival rate is now 2% or less. At these low ocean survival rates, steelhead populations cannot endure bycatch mortality of 20% or even 10%. We're managing to extinction.
What is required now?
First, reduce bycatch mortality to near zero. That can be done by closing chum fisheries or, preferably, by fishing with truly selective low-mortality fishing methods, such as pound traps instead of gillnets. Second, we need to fund directed solution-oriented research to determine why steelhead ocean survival is so low. Those who argue that we already know everything infer that we're driving fish to extinction on purpose.
Management agencies face conflicted priorities and resist change. I wish our climate were as resistant to change as government agencies are.
We have to change. These days, you can't schedule a gillnet opening without incidentally impacting one or more threatened salmon stocks. The increasing number of weak stocks in itself is evidence that status quo management has failed, but DFO continues to protect the status quo.
Remember the headline in the Vancouver Sun on February 25 of this year? It was, “DFO buried scientists' concerns about endangered steelhead, B.C. deputy minister says”. The story goes on to state:
Fisheries and Oceans Canada...suppressed elements of a scientific assessment that could have led to stronger protections for a steelhead population on the brink of extinction, according to a letter written by B.C. Deputy Minister of the Environment, Mark Zacharias.
DFO unilaterally changed the conclusions to “support status-quo commercial salmon harvesting”....
The only way to change the status quo is SARA listing. Many focus on the economic costs of listing but fail to consider the economic benefits of recovery. Here's how listing helps.
First, it motivates fishers to use proven truly selective fishing techniques, such as pound traps, which would almost eliminate bycatch mortality of steelhead, sturgeon and weak salmon stocks. Overall, total allowable salmon catch could increase, and trapped salmon could command a higher price per fish given their exceptional condition: no net marks, with virtually no lactic acid buildup. We'd get more fish and more money per fish.
Second, selective fishing is key to the recovery not only of Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead, but also of sturgeon, weak salmon stocks and southern resident killer whales. The recovery of these stocks would have huge economic benefit.
Third, net fisheries are difficult to monitor, and catch data is often suspect. Traps are easy to monitor and could facilitate accurate stock assessments and new research.
Fourth, traps could become tourist attractions and give consumers a new opportunity to purchase truly fresh Fraser River salmon.
Fifth, any economic costs directly related to listing are short term and are low relative to the costs of not listing and thereby forgoing recovery options.
Sixth, some impediments to recovery are political. Listing would depoliticize steelhead recovery.
Seventh, not least, recovery would benefit upriver first nations who have stopped fishing for steelhead, and perhaps return the recreational fishery to something approaching its former glory.
We actually can have our cake and eat it too, but we have to embrace change. Of course, all these things could theoretically happen without listing, but they won't.
I'd like to close with a quote from a letter to then minister Roméo LeBlanc from William Shatner of Star Trek fame:
In every lifetime, a person of influence and power, if they are fortunate, has the opportunity to do something great, to truly make a difference in the world, and create a lasting legacy. What will be yours? Previous Ministers have missed their chance; yours lies before you. Take decisive action now to ensure the survival of endangered Thompson steelhead.
I'm waiting too.
Thanks for listening.
Thanks very much. This addresses some of the questions by the chair earlier as well.
First of all, I wanted to provide my support for bold action that's required. This is related to the pinniped issue. That there may be some uncertainty as to the exact effect of pinnipeds is exactly why bold action is needed—some experimental culls and things like that where we can actually learn. Instead of residing in this sort of atmosphere of speculation, we can actually provide some management actions to reduce numbers in an experimental approach to try to understand the situation better.
Second, this is why listing under SARA is absolutely critical, and we're slipping from that. The catch-and-release fishery, which is closed for the steelhead, has a mortality rate that's one-twentieth of that of the gillnet bycatch. What is required is not to reduce the bycatch mortality to as low as possible through things like the integrated fisheries management plan state. What's required is to reduce bycatch mortality to zero. The only way you can do that is by listing these fish under the Species at Risk Act. That's exactly why we have a Species at Risk Act. It is to list and provide legal protection and recovery for any animal or plant that has been demonstrated by COSEWIC to be endangered.
Finally, listing it under SARA would provide exactly the umbrella for targeted and accountable co-operation between the province and the federal government that, in my opinion, has been lacking. It's been lacking ever since I've been at UBC, which is over 25 years. Putting it under the rubric of the Species at Risk Act will enforce it and require accountability, for every five years a minister has to report on the actions that have been taken or not taken to recover the species. That's why it's critical to list it under SARA.
Thank you for that question.
I would agree that DFO and B.C. have been working together for a very long time and certainly there are differences of opinion between us. Recently I think there has been a lot of interest and collaboration between us, particularly as it relates to steelhead management at the very senior level. Minister to minister there are conversations, and there is direction to staff to work together.
As a result, we have created working groups to actively develop the types of management actions required to be put into place to protect these species, so I would say there has been a lot of progress made over the past year towards that goal. I would say that the governance pieces around the three ministries within B.C. working together with DFO is something that continues to need work, but it is something that is supported at the ministerial level, which is very helpful and, I'd say, moving in the right direction.
I'm unaware of a single steelhead population that's ever been recovered through hatcheries. That was part of my job for 20 years before I retired. I was facilitating and assessing steelhead hatchery programs in the Lower Mainland. There were 17 different programs on different rivers, and not one was successful in improving the wild steelhead population.
Beyond that, in terms of the province, it has the responsibility for managing these fish, and since the COSEWIC announcement, I'm unaware of a single addition to staff resources directed towards interior Fraser steelhead. That's really disappointing to me. I was hoping to see some sort of task force between the ministries and between the region and the province. Part of the problem is the way that provincial fisheries are organized.
Mr. Bison works in a region, and he reports to a whole series of foresters. In FLNRO, fisheries management is just a tiny, tiny portion of their responsibilities. I don't even think it's called a fisheries section anymore. It's like an area of responsibility or something like that. Then there are provincial fisheries biologists who work at headquarters, but they're not attached to the regions. There's no supervisory relationship there at all.
Part of it is an organizational problem, as well. At the senior levels in FLNRO, there's not a whole lot of professional interest in steelhead. They're all foresters. There are lots of problems in forestry these days, so it's not a priority until people start squawking about it.
Good. I haven't talked about Oncorhynchus mykiss
in a long time. This is fantastic.
The ability, I think somebody said, to use morphometric measures to distinguish versions of Oncorhynchus mykiss as being steelhead and those that are not seems a relatively difficult task, even for somebody who might actually know. A relatively educated angler, I would argue, wouldn't even have the ability sometimes to tell the difference between a rainbow trout and a cutthroat trout, depending on the environmental conditions. We have a very difficult choice to make here, and I appreciate the technical expertise at the table today.
I do have a question, though, for Mr. Bech.
You talked about the pound traps. I'm just wondering why you would include the pound traps and not also include the possibility of using a fish wheel. Is there something about fish wheels that you don't like, or is there something you could edify this committee about? I see it as being just as useful as a pound trap could be.