The Outdoor Narrative: Ottawa’s decision on steelhead is shortsighted

Welcome to the inaugural The Outdoor Narrative column, which will run every two weeks in the pages of KTW and online at The Outdoor Narrative, which is also a podcast, is the work of Robert Koopmans, an angler and hunter and former editor of the Kamloops Daily News.

If there is one question I’d like answered in the continuing saga of the demise of the Thompson River steelhead, it’s this: why are we still calculating the costs of saving endangered species?

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The outlook for the Fraser Interior steelhead, which includes both the Thompson and Chilcotin river runs, is grim. Ten years ago, biologists said at least 900 fish needed to make it to spawning beds in the Deadman, Nicola and Bonaparte rivers for the Thompson strain to continue. In 2018, only 177 spawning adults and just 37 fish were counted in the Chilcotin River system.

There is much speculation about the reasons for the fish’s decline, but reports from various government groups, committees, bodies and agencies (the decline of steelhead has been well considered, at the least) indicate three likely causes.

They are deteriorating freshwater habitat, poor ocean survival and losses to coastal commercial fisheries as unintended by-catch.

The threat to steelhead is so dire that the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada issued an emergency report in February 2018, noting the runs have declined more than 80 per cent in three generations.

The fish are clearly endangered, the report stated, with immediate action required.


It was an open invitation for the federal government to list Fraser River steelhead as a “species at risk” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), legislation that would have kicked in numerous provisions designed to make survival of the species the highest priority.

From the government of Canada’s website: “The purposes of the Species at Risk Act are to prevent wildlife species in Canada from disappearing, to provide for the recovery of wildlife species that are extirpated (no longer exist in the wild in Canada), endangered or threatened as a result of human activity, and to manage species of special concern to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened.”

Sounds tailor-made for the steelhead dilemma.

What happened?

In July, the federal government announced it would not list steelhead under SARA after considering a wide range of “polycentric factors,” including a “cost-benefit analysis of the potential impacts of listing (steelhead).”

What would have been those costs?

According to the same notes, the costs were estimated to range between $190 million to $254 million over 20 years, mostly in lost revenue and profits to “harvesters, recreational anglers, Indigenous groups, the seafood industry and the recreational services industry.”

“Listing Chilcotin and Thompson River steelhead as endangered under SARA would result in significant and immediate negative socio-economic impacts on Canadians due to the application of (SARA’s) general prohibitions,” the government’s statement on the decision indicated.

And there you have it.

To what extent the “socio-economic” factors weighed more heavily than other “polycentric” factors, we will likely never know.

But they are big numbers and I can’t help but think those in high corridors in Ottawa did some political math — there would have been a tremendous hue and cry had West Coast commercial fishing seasons been dramatically affected — and decided the cost of saving 50 steelhead a year accidentally caught by gillnets wasn’t worth it.

Such calculations are incredibly short-sighted. We’ve heard the same socio-economic concerns expressed and seen the same calculations made many times in other places, including Canada’s East Coast with Atlantic cod.

There, long-term resistance to constraining commercial fisheries led to the collapse of cod stocks and the fishing industry.

The fact is, people are incredibly resilient when it comes to adapting to changing economic circumstances.

The Atlantic commercial fishing industry collapsed and fishermen moved on. There are no businesses in Spences Bridge today catering to anglers.

The town is still there.

We have survived countless periods of economic adjustment.

No doubt there are individual hardships when regional industries are affected, but history shows people are remarkably adept at surviving job loss and displacement.

Steelhead are not so adept at dodging commercial fishing nets.

Is it too late for steelhead? Probably.

The federal government’s refusal to do all it can to protect the few remaining fish likely sounds their death knell, despite Ottawa’s promise to implement “immediate conservation measures.”

What can we learn?

If nothing else, perhaps that calculating short-term costs in relation to saving endangered species is embarrassingly selfish and will be judged as such by future generations. Economic pain is temporary. Extinction of species is permanent.

Canada is a rich country with a deep natural heritage and Canadians are resilient people with proven ability to survive “socio-economic impacts.”

Let’s act like it.

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