Dean River Steelhead in Crisis

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Steve Morrow

Seasons on the Dean come and go. From the rains of June to the dry days of July to the low flows of August. Winter rolls over the valley like a heavy blanket and the people disappear. The years come and go and conditions ebb and flow like currents in the river. Some years a few lucky fish squirt over the tidal flats into the Dean and other years, endless schools of nickel muscle swarm in.

But there is one constant. Every year, without exception, the nets descend on Area 8.

Area 8 is a government management area that includes some of the most productive waters of British Columbia’s central coast. It’s home to famed rivers like the Kimsquit, Bella Coola, Kwatna and of course the Dean. It’s part of the famed Great Bear Rainforest and the geographic heart of Canada’s pacific salmon belt.

The commercial fisherman that inhabit these regions eagerly await the runs of chinook and chum each summer. Commercial fishing is a way of life here and the backbone of many coastal communities. Few here argue its importance to the locals.

But the Area 8 fishery is a textbook example of mismanagement. A human enhanced run, the inflated schools of salmon provide increased economic opportunity and seem on the surface, hard to argue with. But more fish attract more attention and those wild stocks, the ones mother nature intended here, are subject to longer seasons with pressure that otherwise wouldn’t exist. One day openings quickly become two days and potentially three, and few boats become many, followed by many more.

Then in a perfect storm, on years of poor salmon returns in other regions, hungry commercial fisherman migrate into Area 8. More fishermen translate into more pressure for more openings and more non-target stocks are caught in the crosshairs. In short, even more steelhead die. Often a lot more.

For those of us who love steelhead, and specifically Dean River steelhead, it’s a tragedy that unfolds often. Fishless days dwarf the successes and those moments of magic are interrupted by sad catches with torn backs and raw sides.

We are reduced to fishing for the “lucky ones” who won their battles with nets.

Help save the Dean River steelhead.

Some things you can do include emailing Sue Farlinger ( or Dan Wagner ( managers with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans or support organizations fighting the good fight like the Native Fish Society, Skeena Wild or the Steelhead Society of British Columbia. Let em know what’s on your mind.


Steve Morrow
Gink & Gasoline
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16 thoughts on “Dean River Steelhead in Crisis

  1. That the commercial openings in Area 8 hammer the Dean steelhead can’t be a matter that’s disputed by anyone. The low recreational catch rates and scarred fish are proof enough. Then there’s the video from a couple of seasons back showing Dean-bound steelhead left lying on hot decks for one to two minutes before being booted back into the water to float belly-up. That U-Tube expose certainly raised reasonable doubt in people’s heads about the survival rates of steelhead and other non-targeted by-catch salmon that are by law supposed to be returned swiftly and safely to the water.

    So if Area 8 is open again this year to commercial netting (irrespective of what’s going on at the mouth of the Skeena), the Dead suffers from ineffectual lobbying.

    I’ve not (yet) fished the Dean. But everyone I’ve met who has is a huge fan. So I can’t believe that these individuals aren’t speaking up, writing emails and donating whatever they can afford. My question is why this isn’t enough? The average Dean fisherman is probably spending more per day than anyone fishing the Skeena tribs, save maybe the Babine and Sustut. So these aren’t backpackers or vagabond steelheaders who live out of their cars the rest of the year.

    I suspect it’s a numbers game: there are thousands of Skeena (& tribs) supporters who will donate our money and voices to causes pledged to support the watershed and fish. But there’s only one Dean, and it’s an exclusive and expensive river to boot. My guess is that the Dean lacks a critical mass friends whereas, say, the Bulkley does not.

    So while we recreational fishermen can’t see why there are hatchery Chums planted in the same area which justify commercial openings, at present there’s insufficient clout to put a stop to either the hatchery or the resulting pressure to harvest the economically marginal salmon.

    As a hypothetical question, would those who love the Dean as it is today be in favor of doubling or trebling the number of anglers allowed on the river in season if these larger numbers brought the numbers (and dollars) up to a critical mass needed to make our voices heard by the fisheries policy makers?

    I hope the answer is yes. It’s a question that’s going to be at the forefront of discussions over the next generation on a great many rivers. Every watershed that has wild salmon and steelhead needs friends, but friends come at a cost to the incumbents.

    I’ll be watching with keen interest what those who influence the Dean’s recreational access policies recommend. It’s great to have the river mostly to yourselves, but not if there aren’t enough fish to make traveling there worthwhile. But if the fishing is shoulder-to-shoulder, even if there’s an abundant run it may not be worth doing. Overcrowding chased me off my favorite steelhead river over ten years ago. I can’t bear to go back because the ghosts of the way it used to be push all the joy out of the quasi-combat fishing of today. But there are plenty of fish, and the river has plenty of friends, too. More than enough to keep the loggers at bay . . . at least recently.

    * * * * *

    Steve, great article, by the way: short and sweet. Hope to see you on the B.

    • There’s more to the issue than a numbers game. As I understand it the politics of BC are counterintuitive. The far left party, which champions environmental causes and sees great support, is extremely conservative on fisheries issues. This is because they are also the party of organized labor, which is their voting base. The commercial fishermen are unionized, there for the party will do nothing to limit commercial fishing.

      Having fished the Dean several times, I would say that its reputation as an elitist river is a myth. All it takes to fish the Dean is a plan and some persistence. The regulations are a great thing for the river and I hope they do not change.

    • First of all I appreciate your passion for the resource. But I have to say, there may be some barriers to your cause. Is there any research on the Dean in regards to commercial harvest vs total populations or commercial harvest vs the amount of fish that get to the river? You have to first understand scientifically what the status of the populations are (salmon, steelhead etc.) Then determine if the commercial harvest is actually having the significant impact you claim. I am not saying they are not. It is a pretty simple concept. However, you have to know for sure and you have to be honest with yourself. Is it that there really are not that many fish making it to the river or are we just having trouble catching the fish that are there for whatever reason…be it the challenging environment, the logistics of fly fishing, or personal skill. I am just saying…

      I do fisheries research in the Great Lakes and I see it all day. People complain about the fishing while the fishing is actually quite good. There has to be a scientific process and understanding because it is often that fishing people only get part of the picture while on the other hand scientific researchers may only be getting part of the picture as well.

      If you want to change commercial fishing regulations then you need to get the science behind it and then attach it to a cultural, environmental or economic cause, such as more productive recreational fishing, money for the guide industry or saving steelhead. Bottom line, you need to get the science behind it as you had not cited any sources or studies. If you don’t then the policy makers may be restricted in their ability to introduce new policy.

      • Spencer, you and I have had this conversation before. So, with respect, let me saw definitively, SCREW THE SCIENCE!

        Let me clarify that. What I mean to say is you do not need a scientific study to see the obvious. It’s a popular dodge in these modern times to require SCIENCE! To see that it’s raining outside. Well guess what, The same people who are going to do a thing to protect the fish are going to pay for a scientific study. You cannot require science to protect a resource that’s obviously in danger. That is my considered cowboy opinion.

        Nobody knows more about the Deane River fishery than Stevie. What’s more I have been there and seen it in effect. Seen the number of fish in the river fall off on the days that were allowed and rebound when they were not. Caught the fish with that marks all over them. You’ll have to find something else to blame this on my fishing ability. That river has been damn good to me.

        I appreciate your support and your comments but the science argument is something I can tolerate. Perhaps when I hear it from actual scientist. 99.99% of the guy screaming “where’s the science!” Wouldn’t know what to do with the scientific paper if you gave it to them. Let’s not lose an amazing fishery because we want to sound like a smart guy.

        • Louis, that is just the way it is. You can accept or not. Your choice. Policy regarding natural resources is most always supported by research. THAT IS THE WAY IT IS. See how I did all caps too? It means I am yelling. Ya know what Louis, go off and live your life being the angry fisherman with no fucking factual research to back it up. When a fisherman yells, “the fishing sucks,” and that is all, with no scientific backing, no one pays attention. It is not about sounding smart. It is about how shit works.

          Your cowboy opinion doesn’t make any sense. If what you are trying to say is that the natural resources department is the only agency that can fund the research and they are the ones who make the policies, that isn’t true. There are plenty of third party agencies besides the feds and state to perform research… they exist.

          And thanks for saying I am not an actual scientist and attacking my character. Class act. I am indeed a scientist. I work for a tribal natural resources department and I do fisheries research, I was doing that today.

          99.99% of people wouldn’t know what to do with science? That is crazy.

          • Spencer, who pays your salary? I don’t want to chide your character, however, as a physician, I see lots of studies that are paid for by drug companies. They are always positive in the drug companies favor. I insist on studies provided by third parties with very large numbers before I will use a new drug. You can buy me donuts , I won’t eat them, I won’t use it unless it is cost effective and balanced. Please don’t take this the wrong way. You may be an independent fisheries expert, but until I see published studies, in the correct format, I am thinking “paid for BS” . Forgive me, if I am wrong, please. ( and any grammatical errors) By the way I am a conservative in the voting ranks, but retaining natural environment is imperative.

          • pweemd,

            Okay, I don’t know what indication gave everyone the impression that I am fraudulent. Maybe I need to update my Facebook job status. I work for a legitimate natural resources department, not an “independent research expert.” In fact it is arguable that an agency like the one I work for is easily more transparent than federal and state agencies and also less influenced by bureaucracy.

            Fisheries is not the drug industry, apples and oranges. I don’t care if you are liberal or conservative, that is not an issue here. Furthermore, the point you are making, “but until I see published studies, in the correct format, I am thinking “paid for BS” is exactly what I am saying, you need legit research!

            Louis, how the hell do you think this anti-science approach is going to work out? Do you not see that it is actually going backwards? Have you ever been a part of an anti-science movement and made a change in natural resources? I have never heard of it…because natural resources and science are somewhat synonymous. Not somewhat…definitely! You are not living in reality if you think everyone can just call up their representative and complain about the fishing and shit will get done! No way! You need science.

        • I wasn’t trying to sound like a dick. I was actually trying to help. It has literally been said on this website that the Dean can be…a bit rough? (high water..turbuelnce.. a tough place to fish) I never exclusively said, “you are wrong and it is because you cant catch them.” Don’t twist my words.

      • Spencer,
        I would suggest you read Bob Hooten’s book “Skeena Steelhead” to understand how the DFO operates commercial fisheries and their systematic record of ignoring science based principles for operating commercial salmon fisheries.

        Bob was the former steelhead biologist for the Ministry of Environment on the Skeena system and waited until he retired to write a book exposing the borderline criminal activities of DFO.

      • Spencer wrote:

        You have to first understand scientifically what the status of the populations are (salmon, steelhead etc.) Then determine if the commercial harvest is actually having the significant impact you claim.



        Any “science” which is presumably charged with proper conservation of resources does not place the (often difficult) onus of proving scope upon those who conscientiously observe, in many ways, the substantial adverse impact you’re asking them to quantify. Are the salmon fisherman or marine biologists required to reliably count the total populations of targeted fish *before* setting proper regulations?

        Obviously not. So you are asking for half the science — and a half which the potential destroyers of Dean are certainly neither producing nor verifying.

        There are many ways to sufficiently estimate the consequences of this opposition to vital regulation. There are also ways to avert these consequences. The person who says forever that we ought to count what is nearly impossible to count in total, or who forever denies that the proportions of observed impacted fish reflect across whatever the totals… is only asking for a form of the answer which cannot well be produced.

        This impractical requisite only sustains the controversy until the Dean or any other place is ruined.

        I’ve fished the Dean. And I wouldn’t risk its ruin for all the salmon which will ever be netted in its proximity.

        Everywhere in the world, demand for one thing or another, pitted against the wild resources and habit which are ruined as producers compete not only against each other to over-consume ever-more-waning vitals, but hope furthermore to prevail against an ever-more-adverse purported economy, is precipitating today in the routine draining of the very last of our best fisheries. And no one will take your count until it can’t be taken.

        It’s sufficiently obvious what the present consequences are. It’s also sufficiently obvious what continued escalation of the present consequences will be.

        What happens when a political party “finds itself” between the proverbial rock and a hard place of pleasing both sides?

        It is forced to pretend it can never find he answer, because instead of standing for the answer, it chose fatal indifference to the very most inalienable object of veritable resource management.

        Before you know it, or before you have counted each differing step… we will have paved the world. There will be “good enough” reasons to flatten the mountains of British Columbia — to pollute its every lake and river, to fill the sky with fumes and smokes and whatever kind of bi-product of any ostensibly desirable thing.

        And why?

        Only because again and again and again, we refuse to manage *every thing* rightly — as would instead have preserved the things we observe (but may not have counted) are disappearing.

        You set the limits. And you never allow their violation. You never risk destruction by any process capable and even likely to produce destruction you *can* prevent.

        The object is neither as complicated nor impossible as counting by means which are beyond us, what we *do* count already by means which are not.

  2. Ahh. Louis, as a BC resident, I wish it was that simple. Bc really doesn’t have much to do with Fisheries openings in Area 8. These industrial fisheries are controlled by DFO which is controlled by the Federal Gov’t. The Feds (with a few exceptions) do not really pay much attention to recreational fisheries. There are a few biologists who do, but they are outnumbered by hundreds in the same organization whose job it is to “manage” and monitor commercial fisheries. Stock assessment (aka counting salmon), genetic analysis, and “test fisheries” are all supervised and run by DFO whose main mission is to manage commercial and first nation fisheries. Recreational fisheries are a distant very poor, second cousin, despite the fact that sheer numbers of participants would lead an outsider to think they might have more clout. They don’t.
    The other thing to consider is these commercial fisheries are virtually all (with a few exceptions) mixed stock fisheries in salt water. This results in weaker stocks (non-target) swimming with strong stocks (target) being hammered! Such is the case in area 8 for virtually all species except LOW VALUE CHUMS. Nets are not selective – they catch everything in their path, and all the weed lines in the world and mandatory release of non-target species will not improve survivals of non-target species in a heavy-duty industrial fishery like that in Area 8.
    BC biologists trying to manage steelhead have little say in what happens in these TIDAL WATER fisheries. They are charged with attempting to manage the left-overs (steelhead) and other fish species (EXCEPT THE 5 PACIFIC SALMON SPECIES) who make it to, or live in, NON-TIDAL water.
    A complex political issue to be sure. Also remember to take into account that the Government of Canada, being very, very oil and pipeline-friendly just sees, though they would never admit it, salmon and trout as a pest getting in the way of their plans. The Government of BC is presently also made up of people with little vision who cannot understand the intrinsic value of strong salmon (and steelhead) runs. The main use of river valleys (in their mind) is for pipelines to move LNG (fracked natural gas) to a Port they want to build AT THE MOUTH OF THE SKEENA,!!

    Honestly, steelhead have few friends in BC right now. Anyone interested in BC steelhead should read Skeena Steelhead by Bob Hooton (a retired steelhead manager). Honestly, it is depressing, but may give those who do not live and work in BC fisheries a clear idea of just how strongly the odds are stacked against steelhead in BC.

    Books may be written about the folly of fisheries mis-management up here. Bob’s book is one. I can only pray that one day during my life-time things will not look as bleak as they do right now. Steelhead are being hung out to dry folks.

    I’m retired so I can state facts from my perspective. Folks working within DFO who do see and understand what is happening are under GAG orders. Welcome to the new Canada. I live here, and I really don’t like it.

    • Thanks for that perspective Frank. Politics are never simple and I have a hard enough time keeping up with our own here in the US. I’m afraid you’re right about one thing. If we have anything important to say to steelhead, we’d better say it now.

      Let’s hear from some more Canadians!

      • Hi Louis: I’ve watched the other conversation going on as well. Politics is at the root of much of the lack of science in Canada. While I can agree with people who say “show me the science”, the sad reality in my part of Canada (West Coast) is that after over 10 years of cuts, more cuts, cancelling fisheries research and then more cuts again makes me wonder how any Canadian scientist can realistically say “show me the science”, because there isn’t any. Not anymore. The Conservative Party presently in power doesn’t believe in science, unless it supports their agenda.

        World class fisheries research libraries have been destroyed, scientists studying global warming have had programs cancelled, and on and on in the name of pandering to Big Oil. Canada’s resources are for sale to the highest bidder and the Province of BC, and the Federal Government can’t sell them fast enough.

        When I was young, I might have said “show me the research”. But right now, in Canada, Fisheries scientists are muzzled by the Feds., and they are the ones trying to do the research…. with no money. Inconvenient programs have simply disappeared ….. and salmonid numbers ARE inconvenient when you want to build pipelines. I’m retired now, and very, very, concerned about all of our salmonids.

        This is very depressing. I’ve been clincially depressed too – now I faithfully take my white pills and pray that someday someone might “show me the numbers”. I too was trained to show the numbers, but that is not possible at the moment under the present political climate in Canada and on the West Coast.

        So to be honest, I like your method of dealing with things at present because if things continue the way they are, perhaps we on the West Coast will have to travel to the Great Lakes to enjoy good steelhead fishing. And that will indeed be a very sad day.

        • I am worried for my grandchildren who might never no the joys of fly fishing. It is my generations fault, greed of a few, not the majority.

    • Frank wrote:

      A complex political issue to be sure. Also remember to take into account that the Government of Canada, being very, very oil and pipeline-friendly just sees, though they would never admit it, salmon and trout as a pest getting in the way of their plans. The Government of BC is presently also made up of people with little vision who cannot understand the intrinsic value of strong salmon (and steelhead) runs. The main use of river valleys (in their mind) is for pipelines to move LNG (fracked natural gas) to a Port they want to build AT THE MOUTH OF THE SKEENA,!!


      Great and terribly relevant observations, Frank.

      But let’s recognize then, what are the principles of true solution:

      What you terribly pertinent words record is a fact that *a few* are selling the resources of Canada — as if the resources of a country belonged to a few, not only for their profit — but in turn to deny representation on an exhaustive scale, and to ruin every other resource in the way of their taking.

      The real issues here therefore are:

      1. The fact the resources of the country are owned not only by the country as a whole, but by the future generations of that country;

      2. and that accordingly, an obligatory national public responsibility exists to preserve *all* the resources in such manners as without fail, sustains the natural resources of the country so as future generations can and will enjoy them as previous generations have.

      These were in fact central and inalienable precepts of the indigenous North Americans who preceded us. Thomas Jefferson translated the underlying principle into the proposition that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” In other words, NO ONE has a right either to consume or jeopardize the earth as would deny future generations their right to enjoy the earth respecting the same responsibilities.

      Every country in the world is being gutted in the same way. To please the pseudo-scientists of representation, the false grail of economic benefit is paraded before fools, as if we get some share of the taking, or cannot fix “an economy” which everywhere, can only multiply faux debt into terminal sums of faux debt.

      What is needed (everywhere) is a constitutional amendment declaring and obligating or inherent obligation to preserve the earth so future generations can enjoy it as we have. What is needed everywhere are constitutional amendments fixing what is wrong with the lie of economy (which forces fleets of salmon-netting vessels to take however much they can, to meet the rising costs of everything, imposed by an intentional obfuscation of our economies). What is needed is constitutional amendments not onlhy gauranteeing representation without exception or deviation, but guaranteeing us every means to ensure no breach ever transpires.

      We are governed by looters, whose primary object in usurping representation is to obliterate every principle, means, and object in the path of their taking.

      Your candid observations see all that, as we all see all that. Never in our own lives did we think that everything that such a formerly remote place as the Dean was to us… could disappear to such iniquitous usurpers… as have never either steered a raft down the Dean’s rapids, nor joined us at our campfires — not at least without having to bring along a brand new, un-worn pair of Levis.

      The inevitable further ruin of the Dean is no unique issue. It is an issue of underlying principle, subverted intentionally by a few whose most important and undeterrable object of all is to take what is not there — from the many, who simply make themselves too hapless to unite on the only principles which can save them.

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