Sharp Edges

Jim Taylor's column appears every Saturday in our weekend edition.

Earlier this week, the B.C. Wildlife Society released a disturbing report. Steelhead are headed for extinction.

If you’re addicted to fishing, you’ll know what a steelhead is. It is considered a world-class sport fish for its spectacular size and fighting capabilities.

Taxonomically, steelhead are related to rainbow trout, which are themselves a desirable catch. But trout live their lives in the same freshwater stream. Steelhead migrate down to the sea, like salmon. After growing big and strong in the open ocean, they return to the stream where they were spawned.

In technical terms, that makes them anadromous. Even more precisely, Oncorhynchus mykiss — a trout that acts like a salmon.

Steelhead fall into the crack between migratory fish and resident fish. Indeed, the federal Department of Fisheries

oscillates between defining them as salmon and as trout.

DFO has historically based its classification on the “looks like a duck” principle —

if it looks like a salmon, and acts like a salmon, it must be a salmon.

Except that it’s not.

This confusion exasperates Brian Braidwood. As president of the Steelhead Society of B.C. he told CBC News, “I don’t care what they are, these governments that are responsible for their well-being need to get serious about protecting them.”

Because, according to official provincial estimates, only 19 steelhead will return to the Chilcotin watershed this year. Supplying enough steelhead for a single restaurant’s menu would wipe out that particular steelhead run forever.

The Thompson River steelhead run is

estimated at just 104 individual fish.

As recently as 1983, both steelhead runs had more than 3,000 fish.

Since the 1970s, says Braidwood, “We've gone from 6,000 fish a year to 5,000, 3,000, 2,000, 1,000, and now here we are at less than 200 in the Thompson.

“It’s time for governments to get serious about their jobs."

As an occasional fly-fisher, not a professional biologist, I’m not sure that governments can do much about it. Fish generally don’t pay attention to government instructions.

At the same time, I don’t envy the tasks of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

When I lived on B.C.’s north coast, I reported on annual meetings between DFO (or

whatever it was called back then) and the two powerful

fishing unions: the United Fishermen and Allied Workers and the Native Brotherhood.

The two unions rarely saw eye to eye, except on their dislike of Fisheries. DFO

regularly got blasted for working too hard at protecting the fish from the humans.

Today, DFO is more likely to get blasted for NOT protecting the fish. Against climate change. Industrial by-products. Toxic effluents. Diseases spread by fish farms. Marine traffic. Microplastics. Forest fires and floods…

To say nothing of overfishing.

The collapse of the cod fishery on the east coast is an example. Despite ample evidence of declining fish stocks, DFO did nothing. Until it was almost too late to save the cod.

Cod stocks have not yet recovered, 30 years later.

Some marine studies claim that we humans have already scooped up 90% of the fish that used to dwell in the deeps. I have no personal expertise to offer in that area.

But I will dare suggest that DFO cannot help screwing up, because it thinks like a management consultant, not like a fish.

It tends to take the side of the fishing industry, because industry consists of humans.

No fish has ever read, let alone understood, the reams of regulations that come out of Ottawa. I doubt if even any human has.

Put yourself in a fish’s place. It lives in water, even without knowing what water is. It cares about the temperature of the water. About fractional traces of chemicals dissolved in that water, that enable that particular steelhead or salmon to come home to a particular patch of gravel bottom in a river.

For a fish, the ecosystem is everything.

That’s all it cares about.

For humans, the ecosystem is secondary; economics comes first.

If DFO wants to protect a species, DFO needs to concentrate on the whole ecosystem that fish live in.

It needs to have a say – maybe even a veto – in forestry projects that affect watersheds. And industrial developments. Urban expansion.

And, yes, in a warming climate.

Instead, DFO concentrates on regulating human fishing. Whether those humans are flicking a fly-line out over the water, or dragging huge nets through it. DFO acts after the fact; it should be dealing with the fish’s whole life cycle..

“Can’t we do something about this before the interior steelhead go extinct?” Brian Braidwood asks.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca