Thompson River Steelhead: Climate Change and Gill Nets

Steelhead

The Thompson River is the largest tributary of the Fraser River, which is the tenth largest river in Canada and the largest river in British Columbia.

Though the 1990s, the Thompson was one of the premier steelhead fishing rivers in North America. In the late 1980s, the steelhead run was estimated at over 10,000 fish; these were large fish with the average male weighing over 16 pounds with some as heavy as 30 pounds. Steelhead are aggressive fish with streamlined bodies and large tails; catching a steelhead is an unforgettable event – something I hope to experience at some point; they are not called the fish of a thousand casts for nothing.

Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are anadromous rainbow trout, spending several years in the ocean before returning to spawn in their natal rivers. Unlike salmon that die after spawning, steelhead can return to the ocean, spending a year or two before returning to spawn a final time – if they are successfully able to migrate out.

Spawned steelhead are exhausted and their outward journey is complicated by competing fish, angling pressure, reverse osmotic chemistry and biological fatigue. Any obstructions on the journey doom them. So it’s vital that the first spawn include large numbers of steelhead to continue to propagate the fish.

Unfortunately the Thompson River steelhead fishery has collapsed. In 2016, the run was estimated at 400 steelhead. The estimate for 2017 for spawning Thompson River steelhead is 175 out of 240 entering the Fraser River.

There are several causes for the collapse.

The first and most apparent cause is climate change. Numbers of returning steelhead and other salmonids are declining significantly in multiple river systems due to warming oceans. This is another example of the ongoing Anthropocene extinction – with the possibility of large numbers of animal extinctions occurring in our lifetimes and the high probability of the same in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.

A second cause of the collapse of the Thompson River steelhead is the use of gill nets in the Fraser River by both commercial and First Nations fishers. Steelhead have no commercial value – it is a sport fishery only.

Unfortunately for the steelhead, their journey up the river occurs at the same time as that of chum salmon – which is a commercial fish. While slightly smaller than the chum salmon, steelhead can still be caught in the nets and be fatally injured even if released after capture.

The impact of the collapsing fishery has been recognized by the small communities along the Thompson who rely on the dollars spent by visiting fishers. And the Cook Ferry First Nation did not participate in the Fraser River chum season this year out of concern for the Thompson River steelhead.

Saving the Thompson River steelhead is dependent on the actions of the British Columbia government and there is a petition campaigns underway to pressure it to act.

But this isn’t just an issue of fly fishing for Thompson River steelhead. Whether one has fished there or hopes to do (and I’m in the second category) or whether one has any interest in casting for any fish, the primary issue is one of saving the wild things on this planet. The return of the Thompson River steelhead and the emergence of mayfly nymphs on the Henry’s Fork in Idaho are connected.

They are both threads in the web of life on Earth that sustain other species. The Henry’s Fork mayfly feeds the rainbow trout; the decay of a steelhead after its death feeds microbes, stream invertebrates, mammals and birds – as do salmon.

Life propagates when all processes of natural systems work together.

The plight of the Thompson River steelhead is another example of the combined impacts of human arrogance and ignorance. But taking action to save those fish is one opportunity to commit to the natural processes that sustain life on this planet – including ours.

Here is the link to the petition.

Social Media and The Loss of Serendipity

Recently I read a post on the Chrome Chasers‘ blog that got me thinking about social media and the way in which it threatens the unexpected in the things we do and encounter in our lives.

In his post, Keith Allison – owner of Chrome Chasers – observes that social media is one of the biggest threats to steelhead. Where fly fishers used to drive for hours in the hope of finding steelhead – with some incredible trips while others wound up as busts, now people consult social media for up to the minute status, guaranteeing that once quiet lightly peopled rivers are flooded with crowds and boats all wanting to hit the “epic” conditions.

He went on to say that he’s seen out of area guides posting about their success – thus bringing in more people, and in one instance he helped out a guide in trouble who was taking clients down a river the guide had never run before. I guess you can’t blame the guide; after all he was after the epic conditions for his paying clients and didn’t have time to do his homework. I wonder if his clients knew how poorly he served them.

Social media is now omnipresent and here to stay. Some estimates suggest that by 2018, 2.4 billion people will be using social media (up from less than one million in 2010). That expected increase is in spite of the revelations that every communication online eventually winds up in some government big-data store.

And it’s not to say that social media doesn’t have its uses from enabling societal change as happened in Tunisia and Egypt, or being used as a focal point for communication between family or friends during disasters. And it’s handy for being reminded to pick up something from the grocery on the way home.

The problem I see is that social media eliminates the separation between the private and the public. Everything we see, do, think or feel winds up posted, texted or tweeted. There is no pause to reflect on whether what is being done should be closely held or broadcast (literally) to the world.

As individuals, I think we have to own the responsibility for deciding what to post, text, or tweet. And I think we also have to be responsible for deciding what we read in social media.

In fly-fishing or any other activity in nature, it’s often better not to know and just show up and be open to what happens.

There have been mornings spent on Puget Sound where no sea run cutthroat trout were to be found. But then again, on many of those mornings there were eagles overhead and seals just off the beach. One morning, I looked behind me to see a deer looking at me.

I would have lost those opportunities if I had read a post saying there was nothing to catch in the Narrows and then decided not to go or go somewhere else. And I would have deprived someone else of the same random chance if I had been the one doing the posting.

We all need to be responsible for protecting the natural world and what it offers in terms of privacy and solitude. And maybe take a moment to think about what and when before posting or tweeting after landing that steelhead or trout.

You can read the post here.

May the Rivers Never Sleep

Book cover

Many people – most perhaps – see time as linear. A year begins; months pass; and then the year ends. It then recedes into the past, remembered only as an incrementing number on one’s decrementing life journey. Infrequently, a year will be remembered for some significant achievement or tragedy.

Fly fishers, hopefully more wise than most, have evidence of the cyclic nature of time as seen in the annual hatches and return of treasured species of fish. And to be fair, evidence of the cyclic nature of time is shared certainly with hunters and others that chase fish with plugs or bait.

Depending on the river, fly fishers eagerly await the Skwala hatch, Mother’s Day Caddis, hopper season or October Caddis. On other rivers, autumn is the time for brown trout. Fishers, both fly and spey, on the coasts wait for the return of salmon and steelhead.

Whatever the month or season, it is a time for being outdoors with a fly rod in hand; an occasion to reflect on fond memories of past outings as well as look forward to the possibilities of the next hatch or the return of salmon or steelhead.

There are a few, a relatively small few, who put aside fly rods to look for the deeper revelations of fish and the world they inhabit. Once such person was the deservedly revered Roderick Haig-Brown. Among his books is the enduring A River Never Sleeps published in 1946, in which he uses the calendar year to write of his experiences on rivers, streams, and estuaries – using the calendar year to mark his journey.

Haig Brown

Now following along in the writing of Haig-Brown are the father/son team of Bill and John McMillan. Bill is well known in the Northwest for his writings on salmon and steelhead and was one of the founders of the Wild Fish Conservancy. His son John leads the Trout Unlimited Wild Steelhead Initiative.

Their book, published in 2012, is May the Rivers Never Sleep. Their river calendar takes place on the salmon and steelhead rivers of primarily Oregon and Washington.

Similar to Haig-Brown they’ve often traded rod for snorkel and mask. This is a large format book with plenty of photographs of salmon and steelhead taken underwater as well as surface photographs of well-loved streams.

Their prose is full of reflection and insight.

There are surprises, such as when the McMillans observe male rainbow trout mating with female steelhead on Olympic Peninsula rivers. They also cite recent studies that indicate that male rainbow trout may father more than 50% of steelhead in both Oregon and Washington in some years.

Their writing also reveals the extent of what has been lost. Whether due to loss of habitat due to logging and dams or the impact of climate change, populations of salmon and steelhead are in decline.

They observe the Grande Ronde river in Oregon. It was once considered one of the most prolific salmon and steelhead rivers in the Columbia basin as late as the 1940s and 1950s. Now those fish must traverse eight Columbia and Snake river dams to reach their natal streams. Further, many are confused and unable to find their natal streams; as juveniles they were collected and barged 200 miles downstream.

But this is not a book of pessimism. They see hope in the adaptation of pink salmon, whose number have increased, to warmer North Pacific temperatures. They note the depletion of char in British Columbia, but note the Skagit River holds sizable numbers of bull trout, one of the three species of char found in North America; the other two are Dolly Vardens and Arctic Char.
Given bull trout are nomadic they could spread to other river systems in Puget Sound if water temperatures are conducive and if salmon recovery proceeds – the bull trout feed on salmon eggs and fry.

This is a book to be read, and then reread a second time, with the second reading occurring over the months of a year – one chapter for each month. Each month of the river year then provides an opportunity to reflect upon the wider (and deeper) perspectives of what it means to chase salmon and steelhead.

Wild Washington Steelhead in Decline…No Problem, Recommend for Consumption

The Wild Salmon Center has a recent article concerning a recommendation from the Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in which wild steelhead were given a “Good Alternative” rating. This is astounding given the science that shows wild Washington steelhead are in decline. See the graph for the Hoh River as only one example.

Hoh River Steelhead Decline

The lack or awareness and poor science that went into the recommendation is disturbing. The Seafood Watch promotes itself as “Helping people make better seafood choices for a healthy ocean”. But this makes no sense particularly if it encourages widespread consumption of the last remaining wild steelhead stocks on the west coast of the United States. And make no mistake, as a prized species it will command high prices on dinner tables of the rich and famous.

What the hell were they thinking?

You can read the Salmon Center’s article here

Steelhead: As Hatchery Fish Go Up, Wild Fish Go Down

I came across an article about a presentation last December by Dylan Tolmie, sponsored by Emerald Water Anglers, about the threat posed to wild steelhead by hatchery steelhead. Dylan Tolmie is an environmentalist, Patagonia sponsored athlete, and former guide, who lives north of here on Bainbridge Island.

There’s been a lot written about the threats to wild steelhead here in the Northwest. Given the magnitude of the problem, it’s nowhere near enough. Tolmie introduced his topic by saying, Are you guys ready to get pissed off? Because I’m pissed about this. The more I’ve found digging deeper and deeper, the more upset I get.” The specific incident that drove that question was the closure of the Nooksack River due to lack of hatchery steelhead eggs needed for production quotas.

As in everything, economic needs, e.g., “production quotas” drive everything.

To those who would ask why protecting hatchery steelhead poses a risk to wild steelhead, Dylan has the ready answer. A wild steelhead is an example of survival of the fittest – even those smolts making it from their spawning beds out to the ocean have gone through a natural selection process. Hatchery steelhead have not faced the same challenges, being raised in production facilities. The sheer numbers released means they out compete for food.

The hatchery system is paid for by taxes – taxes that could be used for better purposes; certainly better purposes than reducing fragile stocks of wild steelhead.

You can read the article here.

Northwest Steelhead Primer

Steelhead

Leland Miyawaki, former Fishing Manager of Orvis Bellevue, has written a terrific piece on Northwest Steelhead. Leland discusses how Northwest steelhead are categorized by the years they spend in the ocean before returning to spawn and what gear is needed for each year group. He also discusses fishing tactics and emphasizes the need to be able to cast 80 – 100 feet on the bigger Northwest rivers – a polished double haul is mandatory.

You can read the article here.

Hood Canal Bridge: A Steelhead Deathtrap

The Hood Canal Bridge connects the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas in Washington state. It is the world’s longest floating bridge that exists in a saltwater tidal basin (7,869 feet in length). A vital link between those peninsulas, daily traffic flow is over 16,000 vehicles daily. Made up primarily of pontoons, it’s anchored at both ends by fixed bridges.

But it is those center sections that may be acting as a deathtrap for Hood Canal steelhead – and potentially salmon. At low tide, the pontoons cover 95% of the canal’s width. Steelhead, which swim in the upper layers of the water column, may be held up by the 12-foot deep pontoons, making them easier prey for predators (eagles, seals). Or the complex water flows around the bridge may be confusing the fish.

Fisheries scientists don’t fully know yet what’s going on. But it’s clear this is another adverse impact on increasingly vulnerable fisheries.

Read more here.