An Oct. 1 correction and regulation change for the Skeena watershed sport fishery was bad news for local steelhead guide outfitters and anglers.
The province confirmed the steelhead fishery would close on Oct. 12 until at least Dec. 31, for the Skeena River and all tributaries including the Bulkley, Telkwa and Morice Rivers.
There is also a bait ban for the Skeena and tributaries, as well as the Nass watershed that came into effect Sept. 7 and is currently scheduled to last until June 15, 2022.
The closure was based on the lowest Tyee Test Fishery returns for steelhead on record, stretching back 66 years. According to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources, the summer steelhead run is currently in the Extreme Conservation Concern Zone.
Alex Bussman, owner/operator of Oscar’s Source for Adventure in Smithers, said it is another blow in what have already been two very uncertain seasons for his and many other businesses in the area, who rely significantly on international guests.
“We were struggling with what to do, were the borders going to be open, when were the borders going to be open,” he said.
“So that was our first stumbling block, is to know who was going to be able to travel to Smithers and Terrace and Hazelton and Houston. And then you combine that with the uncertainty of COVID. What’s the procedure going to be like for us if you’re a U.S. citizen or a Euro, how’s that going to work?”
“And then the low fish numbers, it’s just kind of the perfect storm.”
Even though they saw only a fraction of their normal steelhead business, Bussman is grateful they were able to get in two-thirds of the season at least. The upside of the lack of clients is there is also less pressure on the fish that are returning, he noted.
Bussman worries though about the future, including the reputation of northwest B.C., both in terms of guests, but also for those seeking to move here for lifestyle reasons.
“It’s definitely not helping our region; I feel like Skeena region has received a bit of a black eye.”
It’s also about the long-term health of the resource itself though.
“When we engage with the province, my message is, for us this season is a write-off, what do we better for ‘22 and the years after that, how do we come up with a plan… that gives everybody a little bit of certainty?”
Low returns of not just steelhead, but also salmon has been a perennial problem of late, putting sportfishers, First Nations, commercial operations and governments in a tenuous situation.
In an update to anglers, the province responded to a Gitxsan Nation ban on recreational fishing in Gitxsan territory issued in April.
“Fishery management decisions are made on the best available science, with conservation and sustainability being the top priority, followed by First Nations’ food, social and ceremonial needs, then recreational opportunities,” the update stated.
“Based on the best available science at this point in the season, steelhead, trout and char in the Skeena watershed can support recreational fishing as per management measures in the Freshwater Fishing Regulations Synopsis.”
The government did, however, urge anglers to “respect First Nations rights and perspectives and seek permission before crossing Indian Reserve lands” and for everyone to avoid confrontations.
Watch for an in-depth feature on this topic in the Oct. 21 edition of The Interior News.