Stephen Hume: Ban anglers from drought-stressed streams, groups urge

Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun, June 24, 2015

The Cowichan is one of Canada’s premier fly-fishing rivers for trout and steelhead. The river also support spring salmon, coho and chum. (Photograph by: TBA , Courtesy Ellen Himelfarb)Government criticized for failing to protect fish amid critically low water levels on Vancouver Island
 
The provincial government is failing to protect B.C.’s prized game fish in the face of a drought crisis that threatens the survival of the very trout, steelhead and salmon upon which a billion-dollar freshwater fishing sector depends.

First Nations, professional guides, angling associations and naturalists are all pleading with an apparently deaf province to close drought-stricken Vancouver Island streams to sport fishing until they can be replenished by winter rains.

Drought conditions are so severe that the Cowichan Tribes have completely closed the Cowichan to fishing by their members — yet the province continues to permit non-aboriginal sports angling on the beleaguered river.

“When we shut the rivers down we wrote to the minister asking that the province close the river to sports fishing. We didn’t even get a reply,” says Cowichan Chief William Seymour.

The tribes have prohibited fishing until abundance can be assured, citing critically low flows in the river. This acknowledges the moral imperative. Compare it to a dithering province’s do-nothing policy.

Discharges on the Cowichan, one of Canada’s premier fly-fishing rivers for trout and steelhead, are only about five per cent of peak winter flows. The river also supports spring salmon, coho and chum.

Sharply rising water temperatures are driving the prized game fish into a few deep, spring-fed pools where conditions are cooler.

But as trout and young steelhead stack up, they become easy pickings for predators — including anglers. And guides say high water temperatures so stress the fish that they frequently die after release by anglers.

“It’s unbelievably unethical to be fishing in these conditions,” says professional guide Joe Saysell, who provides a drift boat service for steelhead anglers. “Government is just showing no leadership at all.

“I took the river temperature in front of my house and the water was 22 degrees. But there were two guys out fishing right in front of my house this morning. There are people out there fishing most days.”

The Friends of the Cowichan River, a public advocacy group, wrote to Steve Thomson, the minister of forest, lands and natural resource operations, on June 5 pleading that the river be closed to angling from June 15 to Oct. 1, when the winter rains traditionally begin.

“There is no snow pack at all and we have had an extremely dry spring with the month of May being the driest on record,” the letter warns. “Low river water flow and high water temperatures will make it extremely difficult for resident trout, young steelhead and salmon this summer.

“We believe that it is your ministry’s responsibility and that it would be logical and a conservation-minded measure to close the river to all angling this summer.”

The Cowichan Valley Naturalists also wrote to the minister.

“River flows are low and water temperatures are rising. The higher temperatures place the fish in the river under stress and also restrict the parts of the river where they will be found to the cooler places. Any fish caught by anglers are going to be further stressed when released.”

The naturalists also urged closing the river to angling until the fall rains.

“It’s a no-brainer; that’s what’s so shocking about it,” says Pat George of Victoria, who chairs the conservation committee for the Haig-Brown Fly Fishing Association, of the province’s failure to close drought-stressed streams to anglers.

He said he’s just returned from Montana, where such seasonal closures are standard and have resulted in a remarkable abundance for the resource.

“Montana hasn’t had to have a stocking program for 20 years,” George says.

Here, however, the pleas received no response from the province, Saysell says.

“I’ve been talking to the ministry about this crisis since May,” he says. “I haven’t had a reply yet. The government doesn’t seem to comprehend the damage that’s being done, particularly to trout and young steelhead.”

Bob Hooton, since retired to Nanaimo from the provincial government where he served as a steelhead specialist, says that when he began his career 37 years ago, the then-steelhead expert “told me the issue going forward is domestic water supply for the east coast of Vancouver Island.

“What are the trends, people? It’s not an unlimited resource, which is how it’s been treated. We are seeing desperately low water. It is bad. We’re basically in unprecedented territory now. You can’t keep going the way you are and not reap the consequences.”

Do we want a legacy of barren rivers? Thomson should act. We need cabinet ministers unable to prove decisive in a policy crisis about as much as fish need bicycles.

shume@islandnet.com

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