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Critics say DFO is burying science, guaranteeing extinction of steelhead

Last Updated Sep 30, 2019 at 8:08 am PST

At-risk steelhead are seen discarded illegally after being caught in gillnets along the Fraser River. (Photo: Daniel Herrewynen)
Summary

The email chain shows the DFO changed the wording of a public scientific document that is based on peer-reviewed science

B.C. scientists concluded that gillnetting on the Fraser during the return of steelhead is killing too many fish

BRITISH COLUMBIA (NEWS 1130) – The commercial pink salmon fishery is so important to the federal government it’s willing to wipe out an entire species of steelhead to keep harmful gillnets in the water, say critics.

In emails obtained by the BC Wildlife Federation, British Columbia government staff and scientists say Fisheries and Oceans Canada is burying science and misrepresenting a crisis situation to the public, risking the extinction of Thompson-Chilcotin steelhead trout.

In the fall of 2017, only an estimated 150 Thompson fish returned alongside just 77 of the Chilcotin, down from thousands a decade and a half ago.

The email chain shows the DFO changed the wording of a public scientific document that is based on peer-reviewed science.

The wording used by the federal ministry says removing gillnets will not significantly benefit steelhead recovery.

However, B.C. scientists concluded that gillnetting on the Fraser during the return of steelhead is killing too many fish in a joint report with the DFO just last year.

Manjit Kerr-Upal is the Director of Conservation Science with the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. She summarized concerns the team in B.C. has with the DFO’s SAR in an email to the federal department on Nov. 30, 2018.

“It appears this document’s summary findings were altered such as the report, as published, downplays the threats associated with salmon fisheries bycatch mortality,” the email reads.

“The SAR report now concludes that commercial salmon fishing closures will not likely reverse the future declines of steelhead stocks. This conclusion is inconsistent with the joint Canada-BC science team’s agreement on daft content, and is not supported by BC as it is currently written.”

Feds alter scientific advice 

Despite numerous inconsistencies and apparently acting outside of its own policies, the federal agency stands by its actions and says it has done nothing wrong.

In the emails, the DFO says the wording of the SAR can differ from what was agreed to with the province and that it can vary from the collaborative and peer-reviewed research document.

While there are calls to take the concerns to B.C.’s Attorney General made by one staff biologist in an email to his peers, the response from the Ministry of Environment is as follows.

The province only provided an emailed response and did not meet requests for NEWS 1130 to speak directly with the staff in the email chain about scientific inaccuracies.

“The Province of British Columbia is working in close collaboration with the federal government, Indigenous groups and stakeholders to implement measures to help restore Interior Fraser Steelhead populations,” reads the Ministry statement.

“The Interior Fraser Steelhead BC/Canada Action Plan will benefit the Thompson and Chilcotin Steelhead populations as well as many other populations of Pacific salmonids, many of which have been assessed as species at-risk by COSEWIC.”

In February, 2018, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) released its emergency assessment of the fish stating “bycatch mortality in commercial Pacific salmon fisheries and declines in marine and freshwater habitat quality are the key factors driving the declines.”

According to that report, Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead are at their lowest numbers ever, since population decline began in 1978.

“The decline of mature [steelhead] in the Thompson River over the last [15 years] is 79 per cent, and the decline of the Chilcotin River Steelhead Trout over [18 years] is 81 per cent.”

Against COSEWIC recommendations, the Fraser River steelhead never made it onto the endangered species list.

Selective fisheries

For years, government and independent biologists have been pointing at the federally managed commercial pink gillnet fishery on the Fraser as one of the biggest factors in the reduction of steelhead numbers.

A 1998 DFO report on Pacific salmon also states that more selective fishing practices should be explored to protect the steelhead.

Zemans says a simple solution, though expensive to initially transition to, would be pound traps. He says these have proven effective at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Scientists, First Nations, sport fishing advocates and others have been asking the government to switch to using pound traps, a selective fishing method that has effectively zero mortality associated with bycatch.

But the federal government did not approve a fleshed out research proposal that would have seen First Nations testing the trap method on the Fraser River this year and next, which shocked the applicants.

The partners included the Steelhead Society of BC, DFO and provincial scientists and a number of First Nations fisheries operators.

It was intended to show how salmon traps can assist in harvesting fish deemed abundant, while reducing harm to those needing protection (including Weaver sockeye, Fraser River chinook and sturgeon, interior Fraser steelhead and coho) and would have included scientists with decades of experience working with species at risk, steelhead and Fraser River salmon.

Despite committing $150,000 of seed funding, the research group was turned down by the BC Salmon Restoration Fund, which is managed and distributed by the DFO.

This year the fund was dispersed to 23 projects, including a number dedicated to habitat restoration on the Fraser.