Tŝilhqot’in close steelhead fishery, call for change

The Tŝilhqot’in National Government has closed its fishery for the endangered Chilcotin River steelhead trout.

The Williams Lake-area First Nation issued a statement saying monitoring efforts found only 58 adult steelhead trout returned to the river in 2018 and 77 in 2019. The steelhead trout population in the river has declined 81 per cent over 18 years, the First Nation said.

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"The harvest of Chilcotin River steelhead has traditionally been critical to members of the Tŝilhqot’in Nation, taking place at a time of year when other food sources have been in low supply," the Tŝilhqot’in statement said. "The population of this iconic fish has drastically declined over the past five years, forcing the Tŝilhqot’in Nation to forgo their collective Aboriginal right to fish steelhead."

The decline in steelhead trout, along with declines in salmon populations exacerbated by the Big Bar landslide in 2019, has hurt the food security of the First Nation, the statement said.

In 2018, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assessed the Chilcotin River steelhead population and recommended it be listed as an endangered species under the Species at Risk Act. The committee found the main causes of the population's decline were ocean conditions and by-catch from commercial fisheries – with commercial fishing catching between 15 and 25 per cent of the population annually.

However, the federal Ministry of Environment decided not to list steelhead trout as a species at risk in 2019.

The First Nation called on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to eliminate steelhead trout by-catch in the commercial Pacific salmon fisheries and work with the Tŝilhqot’in on a steelhead trout recovery plan.

"We are tired of doing our part – of continuing to keep our traditional fisheries closed – when other governments are failing to act. It is unfair and unconstitutional that the Tŝilhqot’in people sacrifice our fishing rights year after year while B.C. and Canada fail to address this crisis," Chief Joe Alphonse said in a press release. "There is no time to waste. It’s clear to us that without the Tŝilhqot’in at the table, the federal and provincial governments will let steelhead and salmon populations decline until our Aboriginal rights are extinguished."

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