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Skeena Steelhead
Multiple factors contributed to low returns in 2021.
By Dana Sturn

Photo by Adam Tavender

Skeena steelhead are in trouble. According to British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD), “The summer of 2021 saw the lowest return of interior summer-run steelhead to the Skeena River watershed in 55 years.” This estimated escapement of just 5,461 adult steelhead prompted the government to imposed a bait ban on the Skeena system in early September 2021, and a full steelhead angling closure in mid-October.

Equally concerning, the past two years have also seen lower than normal returns, with 16,672 Skeena steelhead returning in 2019, and 15,800 in 2020. The average is 36,861.

So, where have all the steelhead gone?

 

Skeena Steelhead

The Skeena is the last stronghold of wild steelhead. It’s not one river, but many—including the Copper, Kispiox, and Babine—legendary tributaries that steelheaders collectively refer to as The Skeena. The size and varied character of its mainstem and tributaries, and the numbers of fish that swim its waters on their way home, have led many to consider it the greatest steelhead river on the planet.

Annual estimates of Skeena steelhead returns are based on data generated by a test fishery in operation in the lower Skeena River since 1955. Bob Hooton, a retired Skeena steelhead biologist who publishes the excellent Steelhead Voices blog, said, “The test fishery history is easily seen, although it doesn’t reflect the total annual run. It only estimates the number of steelhead that didn’t get caught before reaching the test fishery location upstream from the last gill net.”

These gill nets are part of commercial fisheries that target Pacific salmon returning to the Skeena. Although steelhead aren’t a commercial fish, they are often intercepted as bycatch in these fisheries.

 

Canadian Fisheries

“Historically, the commercial sockeye gill net fishery in the approach waters to the Skeena was the biggest impact, harvesting an average of 5,000- to15,000 steelhead per year until mandatory release was introduced in the mid-1990s,” said Greg Knox, executive director of Skeena Wild Conservation Trust, a leading steelhead conservation organization. Knox notes that, in spite of these new regulations, as many as 50 percent or more of the released steelhead perished due to the lethality of gill nets. Since 2009, the Skeena sockeye fishery has been greatly reduced, but between 2011 and 2015 the Canadian commercial interception of combined Skeena and Nass sockeye numbered in the hundreds of thousands each year. Thousands of Skeena steelhead would have found their way into these nets, too.

 

Indigenous Food and Ceremonial Fisheries

Indigenous fisheries are also problematic. Some of these fisheries use gill nets, and “steelhead caught in these fisheries are either kept or released with very high mortality rates,” said Knox. In 2021, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans reported that over 1,900 steelhead were taken in these fisheries. According to Knox, this original estimate was later updated to about 700 fish. Knox said this new number is likely an underestimate as it doesn’t include marine harvested steelhead.

 

Alaska

Alaska has active commercial salmon fisheries in the waters north of the Skeena. These fisheries, notably the Noyes Island seine fishery and the Cape Fox gill net fishery, occur right in the path of homeward-bound Skeena steelhead. Knox said, “These fisheries intercept large numbers of Skeena steelhead. Since 1997, Alaskans have been releasing steelhead, however their fisheries are not selective, and most if not all steelhead caught in Alaska are dead by the time they are thrown back overboard.” Unfortunately, Alaska does not provide steelhead release numbers, but “prior to 1997 they were reporting steelhead catches of 2,000-to 8,000 for the southernmost fisheries.” Knox believes the actual numbers may be much higher.

A recent report published by SkeenaWild explores the impacts of Alaska fisheries and presents a stark picture. Since 2015, Alaska commercial fisheries have dominated the commercial catch of Skeena and Nass River sockeye. In some years the US catch is more than double the Canadian take. In 2021, Canadians didn’t fish at all, while their Alaskan counterparts netted nearly 400,000 sockeye bound for the Skeena and Nass systems. It’s reasonable to assume that many Skeena steelhead also met their end in Alaska nets.

The Pacific Marine Conservation Council echoes this. In its recently released report, Southeastern Alaska catch of BC salmon: summary and reports (January 2022), it notes,“Although the number of steelhead intercepted and total mortalities of steelhead in SEAK fisheries in 2021 are unknown, it is likely that significant numbers of Skeena and other BC steelhead were killed.”

Bob Hooton told me that, due to the lack of steelhead bycatch data from the Alaskans, the best source of steelhead interception information is the Alaska commercial sockeye and pink salmon catch. “Sockeye data is the best option because Skeena and Nass origin sockeye are the only sockeye present in those Alaska waters,” he said, “and there is good data on reported catches of that species. The overlaps in run timing between Skeena steelhead and sockeye, plus the known harvest rates for Skeena sockeye, can be knit together to approximate what the harvest rate is for Skeena steelhead.”

Hooton noted that, although the Noyes Island seine fishery in southeast Alaska intercepts large numbers of fish that are headed for Canadian waters, this fishery also targets Alaska pink salmon. Adjusting the fishery so that the Alaskans target only their own abundant pink salmon by fishing closer to their rivers of origin could minimize or eliminate interception of Skeena sockeye . . . and steelhead.

The problem is that sockeye salmon are much more valuable than pinks. Convincing commercial seiners to forego such a lucrative fishery to save some BC steelhead would likely be a tough sell. “Alaska holds all the cards in this game,” said Hooton, “and no one tells them how their fisheries should be managed.”

 

Other Threats

For anyone who’s followed steelhead conservation issues, the threats facing Skeena fish will seem all too familiar. Commercial and indigenous fishing pressures, habitat degradation and changes in ocean conditions brought on by climate change all contribute to the tough times on the Skeena. According to FLNRORD, “steelhead populations throughout the North Pacific have been experiencing declines in recent times. It is difficult to identify one factor that contributes to such poor returns. This result could be the combination of changes in freshwater rearing conditions coupled with extremely poor ocean conditions.”

Anglers also have a part to play. “While catch and release with good handling has low mortality rates, some systems experience a lot of pressure,” noted Greg Knox. “A large number of steelhead in these systems likely experience multiple releases, significantly increasing mortality.”

 

Skeena 2022

So, what can anglers expect in 2022? According to FLNRORD, “The province will continue to monitor summer steelhead abundance in the Skeena and Nass River watersheds, and engage and keep stakeholders informed of Skeena and Nass summer steelhead strength.” A concern is the potential impact the spring steelhead angling season may have on overwintering summer fish. To limit this risk, Skeena tributaries that are home to summer steelhead have been closed until early summer 2022. Below Terrace, the mainstem Skeena is open for winter steelhead fishing, with a bait ban in place.

But beyond the spring, it remains to be seen how the province will respond if Skeena steelhead stocks continue to decline. So far, the province seems to favor an approach that balances steelhead conservation with the retention of angling and related business opportunities. If last autumn’s decisions are an indication, the pressures exerted on the provincial steelhead managers from the conservation and business communities will likely see the Skeena remain open for at least part of the season, with the potential for some restrictions if steelhead populations continue to struggle.

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn