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Threats to steelhead

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A 1996 study of all anadromous or ocean-going fish stocks in British Columbia and Yukon documented that 142 separate stocks or runs have already gone extinct out of a total of 9,662. In the United States, which has endured far more human impacts to Steelhead and salmon rivers and their watersheds, have lost over 400 indigenous stocks (29%) of the 1400 that originally existed. The majority of remaining native salmon and steelhead runs are endangered or highly threatened with vanishing forever.

The Skeena watershed represents one of the last true large river strongholds of wild, native Steelhead and salmon in North America. While the Department of Fisheries began “stock enhancement” of the much-prized sockeye fishery in the Babine River in 1970, all of the Steelhead and other 4 species of salmon represent the original genetic stocks that have evolved in these rivers for millions of years.

While the Skeena and its tributaries are recognized for their excellent water quality and habitat, these fragile fisheries are threatened by man’s activities that have decimated nearly all of the wild Steelhead and salmon fisheries on the continent: habitat degradation associated with logging, urbanization and hydropower, the poisoning of pristine water quality from mining, and overharvest from commercial and recreational fishing driven by short-term profit and greed.

Commercial Over-Fishing and Steelhead Bycatch
The epic Steelhead runs of the Skeena are currently facing severe threats from the short-sited overharvest from commercial fishermen targeting the sockeye runs in the Skeena estuary. Using gill nets and purse seines, commercial fishermen incidentally harvest Steelhead, coho salmon and other non-targeted fish as they return from the ocean. In particular, the early run Steelhead that enter the rivers in August and the mid-season fish that enter the rivers in September have suffered significant mortality. This problem on fish “bycatch,” or nontargeted killing of fish, is a classic management problem confronting mix-stocked fisheries, or fisheries where fish of various species inhabit the same waters.

In fact, the Skeena Steelhead experienced severe declines in the early 1990s from commercial fishing in the estuary until the Canadian Department of Fisheries (DOF) curtailed sockeye fishing in late August during this vulnerable time for the September Steelhead runs. But, increased lobbying pressure from commercial fishing interests and political decisions trumping proper ecosystem management of this valuable and diverse resource has threatened again the fragile Steelhead runs.

See Trout Unlimited article by clicking here

For more information on the battle to enforce existing regulations and to adopt ecosystem-management approach to harvesting salmon in the Skeena estuary, please visit the North Coast Steelhead Alliance website here.

Mining, Oil & Gas Drilling and Poisoned Headwaters
In the Skeena headwaters, several energy companies are eying deposits of coalbed methane and oil and gas. There is a proposed Enbridge pipeline to transport the oil and gas deposits from Alberta through British Columbia to the Pacific coast for transport by oil and gas tankers.

The mining industry, whether for minerals, oil, gas or coal, has a terrible environmental legacy of poisoned water quality, polluted rivers and devastated mountain communities. From the thousands of poisoned miles of coldwater rivers and streams from the coal country in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, to the killing of up to 90% of the fish life in the Cheakamus River in 2006 from a railroad crash carrying toxic chemicals, to the threat of cyanide leachate poisoning the headwaters of Bristol Bay in Alaska from the proposed Pebble Gold Mine, mining is no friend to wild steelhead and salmon.

The building or roads on rugged terrain often result in increased stormwater runoff and increased sediment loading to streams. The tendency of a river to “blow out” and become muddy and unfishable is often determined by the amount of roads and mining or timbering activity in its headwaters.

The Skeena watershed represents one of the last remaining healthy producers of wild steelhead and salmon in North America, retaining its complete assemblage of native fish, a rarity in the United States. Protection of its headwaters from ill-advised mining and energy extraction for short-term profit must be paramount in the management of this unique resource.

For more information on the proposed mining in the Skeena watershed headwaters, click here.

Aquaculture and Sea Lice
The Skeena estuary is facing a potential assault from factory fish farms. Eighteen (18) new aquaculture facilities have been sited for the mouth of the Skeena River, with 3 near approval from the provincial government agencies.

Aquaculture net pens typically raise around 600,000 Atlantic salmon, derived from European hatchery stock. The dense concentration of fish creates several serious threats to wild steelhead and salmon.

Scientific research has revealed that the most insidious threat of aquaculture fish is the dense concentrations of parasitic sea lice and other diseases that occur in the estuary as a result of this unnaturally high concentration of adult fish raised artificially in net pens.

In Nature, the two species of parasitic sea lice present almost no threat to smolts leaving the rivers for ocean feeding grounds. Normally, adult salmon and steelhead are located far away from the estuary at feeding grounds in the open ocean when smolt leave freshwater in spring. But with the artificial propagation of millions of adult fish in the estuary, smolts run a gauntlet of sea lice. The smolts are extremely vulnerable to these sea lice, and will die when only 1 or 2 sea lice attach themselves to a young fish’s gills.

Research published in 2004 and 2007 determined that entire populations of pink salmon and chum salmon smolts were killed in southern British Columbia waters because of aquaculture-induced infestations of sea lice at river mouths.

Conservation groups have demanded that aquaculture farming be banned from river mouths like the Skeena that produce millions of wild steelhead and salmon, either to off-shore locations or on dry land. Research has suggested that leaving aquaculture net pens fallow in spring temporarily reduces the high concentrations of sea lice and may reduce wild steelhead and salmon mortality.

For more information about the deadly impacts of fish farms and aquaculture on wild steelhead and salmon, and the measures that the government must adopt to protect the valuable and unique wild fisheries of the Skeena watershed

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