From left to right, MLA Peter Milobar, MLA Jackie Tegart, Skeetchestn Fisheries Manager Don Ignace, MLA Marvin Hunt, Skeetchestn Councillor Marshall Gonzales, MLA Ralph Sultan, MLA Simon Gibson, and in front, Chief Ron Ignace, MLA Jane Thornthwaite. Lori Pilon photo.

MLA Jackie Tegart says we need to pay more attention to steelhead

‘We can’t afford to lose this iconic species,’ said Tegart during Steelhead Caucus tour

We need to start paying more attention to steelhead in B.C., said Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart after completing a recent field-trip tour of fish-ways along the Thompson, Bonaparte, and Nicola rivers.

Tegart began the B.C. Liberal Steelhead Caucus tour through the region on Sept. 16 alongside caucus co-chair Ralph Sultan. Tegart and Sultan stopped at the Bonaparte fish-way near Ashcroft on the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 18 to tour the site and discuss what can be done to rebuild the stock.

The electronic fish counter. Lori Pilon photo.

In August, Thompson and Chilcotin Steelhead returns in the province were at an all time low. Steelhead stocks have declined dramatically in past years and the species, along with Chinook and Coho salmon, have also been threatened by damage to the Bonaparte fish-way, near the confluence of the Bonaparte and Thompson Rivers north of Ashcroft.

That damage has prevented fish from travelling to their spawning grounds further up the Bonaparte. In past months, environmentalists and community leaders have continued work to address the problem, but this past week B.C. Liberals got to visit the affected fish-ways firsthand.

“It went really well,” said Tegart of the first stop on the Steelhead Caucus tour. “We were very pleased that Chief Randy Porter from the Bonaparte Indian Band joined us. They talked about and showed us pictures of what it looked like when it was discovered that the fish-landings were in trouble and some of the work that’s been being done.”

Related: Thompson steelhead trapped at bottom of Bonaparte River fishway

During their stop, Tegart and Sultan toured fish-way water levels, water velocity, and viewed photos of the fish trying to get past the damage. Tegart and Sultan had the opportunity to discuss the current challenges for fish and experience the enormity of the undertaking for themselves.

“It is a huge project but it’s such an important one. Our group has been learning as we’re on our Steelhead Caucus tour that we really, really need to pay attention to water flows and to habitat rehabilitation to ensure that the fish can get to the spawning grounds.”

The Bonaparte fish ladders are incredibly important to the steelhead and salmon system of the Thompson River, said Tegart, but there are other things that can be done to help B.C. fish, too.

“We had some conversation about hatcheries and about raising steelhead by hatcheries,” explained Tegart, adding that hatcheries aren’t an ultimate solution.

Touring the Bonaparte fish ladders was part of the Steelhead Caucus tour. Jane Thornthwaite photo.

“We also all recognize that we can’t afford to lose this iconic species. And so, as we’ve talked all the way up the Fraser [River] and to people on the Nicola River, Spius Creek, [and] Coldwater River, habitat rehabilitation is really important.”

Tegart said that steelhead are interesting fish because they are a provincial responsibility, whereas salmon are a federal one.

“What we’re finding is that as important as the steelhead is to the whole ecosystem, they often get forgotten. So it’s interesting to talk to experts in the field and to people on the ground, people who are stewards of the waterways.”

One challenge Tegart and Sultan heard about was by-catch, which is a term used to describe the collection of unintended fish. Another concern is gillnetting, but there are also challenges around habitat changes and warming water, said Tegart.

“As water flows go down and the water warms up, steelhead and salmon are cold-water fish. So we need to have a lot of discussion about where we’re going to go, based on where we’re at. Because of forestry and pine-beetle and fires, we’re seeing a lot of silt in the waterways. We’re also seeing, because there’s no trees left, [that] the water warms up really quickly, and that’s dangerous for the fish and for the spawning grounds”

There is no doubt that climate change is “absolutely” a factor in the problem, said Tegart.

“This tour is the first of many I hope, because there is so much information to gather and there’s no one quick solution. We have people doing wonderful and incredible things and we want to learn as much as we can before we think we have the right answer.”

Meeting with those involved first-hand has been the most helpful part of the tour, added Tegart, emphasizing the importance of focusing on long-term solutions for the problems currently facing B.C. fish-ways.

“One of the things that has been very enlightening is, as we talk to our First Nations people, they have the ability to look so far into the future and [see] how important it is to do that, rather than think that there is a short-term solution and then it’s fixed. So, we’ll continue our work. It’s been a great first tour and we’ve learned so much.”

On Wednesday, Tegart and Sultan were on the way to Lillooet to get a briefing on the Big Bar Slide after departing from their stop near Ashcroft. Next, the tour headed to Kanaka Bar for its final stop on the trip.

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Chief Ron Ignace, MLA and BC Liberal Steelhead Caucus Co-chair Jackie Tegart, Skeetchestn Fisheries Manager Don Ignace, MLA and BC Liberal Steelhead Caucus Co-chair Ralph Sultan. Lori Pilon photo.

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