B.C.'s battle to save endangered steelhead shrouded in secrecy

Credit to Author: Randy Shore| Date: Mon, 16 Dec 2019 22:36:44 +0000

The provincial Environment Ministry is pressing the federal government for an emergency Species at Risk Act listing for the Interior Fraser steelhead, but their arguments are being kept secret from the public.

A freedom of information request for provincial records related to steelhead bycatch in the Fraser River this fall was granted, but with 85 per cent of the pages withheld as “harmful to intergovernmental relations or negotiations” or containing “policy advice or recommendations.”

In the documents released by the province, the Environment Ministry’s aquatic species specialist urges colleagues not to share a draft status report on Thompson and Chilcotin outside the provincial government.

True to form, the next 69 pages of the FOI response are blank, which appears to include the draft and the responses from staff in the ministry of environment and ministry of forests, lands and natural resource operations. A second section of 107 pages was also redacted.

A total of 176 out of 209 pages were withheld.

The full version of the draft report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada — with provincial input — is intended to support B.C.’s renewed case for a Species at Risk Act listing of the Interior Fraser steelhead runs, according to the emails.

The Thompson and Chilcotin River runs have recently dwindled to just a few hundred fish in recent years.

B.C. and Fisheries and Oceans Canada are officially collaborating on a steelhead plan, which aims to improve freshwater habitat, curtail recreational and commercial fishing that could be harmful to the endangered steelhead, and develop a hatchery program.

But that relationship has been strained since the federal cabinet rejected a recommendation by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife for an emergency listing of the Interior Fraser steelhead as endangered under the Species at Risk Act.

Hostilities bubbled to the surface about a year ago when B.C.’s deputy environment minister, Mark Zacharias, wrote a letter to his federal counterpart blasting a recovery potential report, apparently altered by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, as “no longer scientifically defensible.”

That report — peer-reviewed by federal, provincial, and independent scientists — has not been made public.

The federal government has been no more forthcoming about the steelhead wars. An FOI request for documents related to that report was originally estimated to take 822 years to fill, later reduced to just less than two years.

“That is science paid for by the public, being hidden from the public,” said B.C. Wildlife Federation director Jesse Zeman.

Zacharias notes that salmon harvesting is the “only substantial threat to Interior Fraser steelhead that can be immediately mitigated” to save stocks on the brink of extinction.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has implemented a program of “rolling closures” that curtail salmon harvesting at critical times when the steelhead are migrating to the Fraser and their home estuaries.

Zeman sought documents from the provincial government in a freedom of information request related to steelhead bycatch in the Fraser after evidence surfaced that steelhead were entering the river weeks before the closures were in place.

“A picture of a dead steelhead caught in a net was taken in August near Lillooet, which is more than one month before DFO’s closure starts,” said Zeman. “A DFO test fishery caught two more steelhead weeks before the rolling closure dates, which isn’t great when we are talking about runs with just a few dozen fish.

The Thompson spawning population is estimated at 86 fish, while just 39 steelhead are expected to spawn in the Chilcotin.