The annual fall Thompson River steelhead watch is about to begin, a pathetic ritual that reminds us how far the mighty strain of sea-run rainbow trout has diminished.
Last week the Environment Ministry issued its first in what will be a closely watched series of bulletins estimating the size of this year’s return. Based on the numbers, government biologists will decide when — or if — to open a sportfishing season for these mighty giants of the Thompson River.
For the past few years, less than 850 fish have returned from the ocean to spawn in the Nicola, Deadman and Bonaparte rivers, barely enough spawning adults to ensure the run survives. In 2011, only 500 fish were counted in the rivers.
It’s far from the heyday of past decades, when tens of thousands of steelhead returned to haunt popular fishing holes near Spences Bridge. Anglers from around the world made the trip every fall, sparking an industry that sustained a town.
Today, a handful of merchants continue to cling to hope each year as the ministry contemplates if or not to allow angling, knowing that any opening will bring enough anglers to town to keep them going one more winter.
This year’s return is expected to be better than last year, but not as good as biologists hoped. The first bulletin indicates there is roughly a 20 per cent chance of exceeding the ministry’s minimum threshold of 850 fish, meaning — at this moment, anyway — there is still a chance the season will open.
It’s a sad statistical dance, made to preserve fading angler memories, self-absorbed ego that seeks the thrill of the catch no matter what the cost and the financial hopes of a small town.
The fact is — as has been known for at least a decade —Thompson River steelhead are seriously threatened. It’s time to bring this annual farce to an end. Why do we continue to allow any kind of sportfishing for this fading magnificent strain? Every fish caught, even if released, suffers as a result of the experience and some of them will not survive. The loss of any spawning adults to human acts is one we should not be prepared to tolerate.
Yes, commercial fishing also takes a toll on steelhead and we should not be prepared to accept sacrifices there either. The fact that steelhead die in gill-nets, however, cannot be used as some kind of moral justification for a sport season. Closing the sport season indefinitely would help provincial authorities confront federal powers about commercial ocean fisheries that threaten steelhead.
It would show B.C. means business, that we truly value the survival of the run. We must accept what has been evident for a long time — the steelhead are dying. They need no further help from us.
We Say editorials represent the viewpoint of The Daily News and are written by publisher Tim Shoults, city editor Tracy Gilchrist, or associate news editors Dan Spark and Mark Rogers.