The Oktwanch River and upper Muchalat River

‘A lost run’: logging and climate change decimate steelhead in B.C. river

When zero fish showed up for a winter count in the Gold River on Vancouver Island, their absence hinted at a much larger story of how and why this species is disappearing throughout the province

As Kent O’Neill, general manager of a fishing lodge in the village of Gold River on Vancouver Island, looks ahead to the winter steelhead run, he worries that no fish will show up after a survey last winter found zero. 

“I want my grandkids to be able to experience the way these fisheries were before,” said Kent O’Neill, who is also president of the Nootka Sound Watershed Society.

O’Neill has been fishing the Gold River for close to 35 years. He noticed steelhead begin to decline rapidly about two decades ago, when the lodge was being built. The lodge was originally intended to be primarily for steelhead fishers, but that plan proved unsustainable.

“We don’t even see steelhead anymore,” he said. 

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People once knew the Gold River on central Vancouver Island as a great place to catch steelhead and salmon. Steelhead are trout but they behave a lot like salmon and share a similar pink meat. They’re anadromous, like salmon, meaning they hatch in fresh water, live in the ocean as adults and return to where they hatched to spawn. Unlike salmon, which die after they return home and spawn, it’s possible for steelhead to spawn more than once and live to a ripe old age of about eight years (though some exceptional fish may survive more than 10 years).

Both summer and winter runs used to fill the Gold River in the thousands and steelhead were once a reliable food fish for Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation, a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. But, like salmon, steelhead numbers have plummeted in recent years. 

Summer runs have decreased but are still in the hundreds. Winter runs are faring much worse. For the first time ever, zero steelhead were observed in the annual snorkel survey that took place in the Gold River in February. Not a steelhead in sight.

That doesn’t mean no steelhead returned at all. The annual survey, led by the British Columbia Conservation Foundation, takes place for one day in one spot, so it’s by no means comprehensive. But it’s the first time in the history of the snorkel survey that not a single steelhead was observed.

Steelhead counts winter Gold River B.C.

Seasonal winter counts of steelhead trout in the Gold River show dramatic declines in the population between 2009 and 2017. Source: B.C. government and the British Columbia Conservation Foundation. Graph: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

Jeramy Damborg, senior project biologist with the British Columbia Conservation Foundation, who was part of the survey said that in 2008, they observed about 200 adults in the same 8.5-kilometre stretch of water.

“It’s tragic not to see any steelhead in such a large watershed,” he said. “I am not very confident the winter-run steelhead are savable at this point.”

The Nootka Sound Watershed Society recently formed the Solutions for Steelhead task force to rebuild steelhead stocks and alert people to the fact that the iconic species is at risk of being lost.

“It just seems like we’re not paying enough attention to these things. … It really does feel like this may be a lost run,” said O’Neill, who is a member of Solutions for Steelhead.

The main causes of the Gold River steelhead’s plight are climate change and stream degradation caused by logging, said Roger Dunlop, a biologist with Uu-a-thluk, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s aquatic resource management organization, a board member of the Nootka Sound Watershed Society and a member of Solutions for Steelhead.

To save steelhead, “the biggest thing we could do is reduce the rate of cut in the Gold River watershed,” he said. 

The watershed falls within tree farm licence 19, which is held by Western Forest Products. Between 2000 and 2018, over 18,000 hectares of forest was logged within that licence area, according to provincial data. Dunlop estimates all old-growth in the watershed will be gone in 17 years if the company’s annual allowable cut doesn’t change.

Gold River logging Western Forest Products

Log boom operations at the Western Forest Products mill in Gold River. Photo: Tim Gage / Flickr

‘The old forests were the only thing that held this landscape together’

Both salmon and steelhead spawn in rocky, shallow areas of rivers called riffles, which can be compromised by logging.

Logging old-growth forests causes more floods and droughts since the trees increase the water-carrying capacity of forest soils. Their big roots help keep soil cohesive and absorb and release water as necessary. Without big trees, streams are more likely to dry up in hot weather and rain is more likely to rush down slopes, causing sediment erosion. Both of these scenarios eliminate riffles.

Without tree roots to hold banks together, rivers can  more easily erode, widen and become shallower. Shallow rivers are more likely to dry up in summer and not be feasible fish habitat.

Logging also decreases the amount of large woody debris that naturally falls into rivers. These large pieces of wood are required to form small, deeper pools where fish rest and feed. And when a river’s peak flows increase due to logging and climate change, that causes the river to flush out wood debris.

Large woody debris in the Muchalat Lake watershed

Large woody debris in the Muchalat Lake watershed, which lies within the greater Gold River watershed, creates habitat for fish that allows them to hide from predators and eat insects that drop into the water. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Steelhead in Gold River

Steelhead are large, athletic trout that behave like salmon but can spawn for many years. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Together, fewer pools and higher peak flows mean rivers are faster and steeper, causing more erosion and sedimentation, Dunlop said. As rivers erode more quickly, they lose their meandering nature and begin to straighten, further eradicating pools and riffles.

“We’ve made these channels three to four times wider than they were. We need to make them narrow again and put the wiggle back in the rivers,” Dunlop said.

And how to restore that wiggle?

“The only way you can do that is by re-establishing old forests,” he answered.

“The old forests were the only thing that held this landscape together.”

Logging roads take their own toll on fish. They can send sediment into streams and suffocate eggs in the stream bed. Earlier this year, the province’s forestry watchdog reported that B.C.’s Forest and Range Practices Act is too lax on sediment management.

Forest Practices Board chair Kevin Kriese told The Narwhal in June the legislation should include clear language to tell operators, “You must minimize the deposit of sediment into streams.”

Road infrastructure, like culverts, can also cause sediment accumulation and block fish movement upstream

Studies have also found that young trees, often used to replant clearcuts, suck up more water. 

A 2017 study out of Oregon State University found that summer streamflows in basins dominated by young plantation Douglas fir were 50 per cent lower than streamflows in basins dominated by old forest including Douglas fir and other conifers.

logging truck Peace caribou pen

Logging trucks can send sediment into rivers, harming fish. Elevated sediment in streams can decrease the abundance of plant life, which impacts the fish that feed on those plants. It can also bury spawning beds and smother fish eggs. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

Steelhead suffer in extreme events caused by climate change

While logging contributes to destabilizing rivers, it’s not the sole cause.

Climate change is leading to increased periods of drought and flooding, which damages fish habitat and further contributes to rivers widening and straightening, since heavy rain and more snowmelt lead to higher peak flows, causing more erosion. 

“Our rivers in B.C. are all going to get five per cent wider just from climate change,” said Dunlop.

“In dryer summers, more dewatering will occur,” said Karenn Bailey, stewardship coordinator for Nootka Sound Watershed Society. “Things are basically dryer in summer and peak [flow] events are more catastrophic.”  

Steelhead suffer in warming water temperatures and extreme events caused by climate change like “The Blob,” a pool of abnormally warm water in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast that, from 2013 to 2016, disrupted wildlife and led to thousands of dead seabirds and fish and disrupted migration patterns. A marine heat wave that took place off the Washington coast last year saw temperatures 2.7 C above average and may have also played a role in lower returns.

Harbour seals

The province is blaming hungry harbour seals for declining steelhead populations. Photo: Nicole Beaulac / Flickr

Steelhead in Gold River

Steelhead are large, athletic trout that migrate like salmon. Photo: Fernando Lessa

“It’s a really difficult and complicated equation,” O’Neill said. It’s made all the more mysterious by the fact summer steelhead are faring better than winter steelhead in the Gold River. Dunlop guesses this may be partly due to the fact that summer steelhead have some protection from predators by masking themselves underneath the larger sockeye run.

Solutions for Steelhead is working to identify additional causes behind steelhead’s decline, because there is “no smoking gun,” according to O’Neill. For example, he said, the full extent of fish farm impacts on steelhead is unknown, and predators like seals and sea lions have been on the rise.

Tyler Hooper, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, told The Narwhal via email that the province acknowledges steelhead populations have “drastically declined in recent years,” and added “we suspect the reason for this is due to predation by harbour seals who have moved into the area.”

Restoration alone ‘not going to work’ to recover declining steelhead runs across B.C.

The Nootka Sound Watershed Society is focused on restoring riparian areas and has applied to the British Columbia Salmon Innovation and Restoration Fund, a provincial and federal program to support the sustainability of fish in B.C. It proposes improving habitat in the Muchalat Lake watershed, which lies within the greater Gold River watershed, primarily through re-establishing conifer trees that will stabilize the bank.

But Dunlop said restoring riparian areas is only one piece of the puzzle. 

“Until the rate of logging is reduced, we’re just addressing symptoms. If we’re not willing to reduce the rate of cut, it is not going to work,” he said.

“If we leave this for 1,000 years or more, those trees will grow back and the rivers will be in pretty good shape again. But if we keep inflicting the same wounds on the river over and over again, there’s just no way it can stabilize.”

The story of winter-run steelhead in Gold River is echoed throughout B.C.

As of Nov. 5, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development forecast a total spawning population of 186 steelhead in the Thompson River watershed and 83 steelhead in the Chilcotin River watershed in B.C.’s Interior. In comparison, from the 1980s until the early 2000s, between 1,000 and 3,500 Thompson adults and 500 to 1,000 Chilcotin adults returned each year. This year’s estimates are the second-lowest forecast for the Thompson stock and the third-lowest forecast for the Chilcotin stock ever recorded.

In the Keogh River, on Vancouver Island, smolt-to-adult steelhead survival sits at four per cent, down from 15 per cent before 1990. To the north, the Skeena River steelhead summer run is estimated to be just over 15,000, which is less than half of that stock’s long-term average. 

The federal government disappointed many when it chose not to protect the high-profile Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead under the Species At Risk Act last year

“This is how extinction happens,” Aaron Hill, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said in a statement following the government’s decision.

“They are claiming that species at risk will fare better without the protection of the Species At Risk Act,” said Hill. “Clearly, our government has no intention of recovering these populations.”

Meanwhile, B.C. still has no endangered species law, despite the NDP’s 2017 election promise to introduce one.

Read more: ‘It just takes too damn long’: How Canada’s law for protecting at-risk species is failing

A future for steelhead

Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations are taking steps to protect key areas of old-growth forest in watersheds from future logging in order to protect the fish in the rivers. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council is pursuing Dunlop’s proposal to create salmon parks — areas of protected forest where sustaining salmon is top of mind, which would in turn protect steelhead. 

The ha’wiih, the Hereditary Chiefs of Nuu-chah-nulth, “have already declared the salmon parks are de facto in their law,” Dunlop said. “Now our challenge is to have the province and the federal government respect those laws.”

The Oktwanch River

The Oktwanch River, which flows within the Gold River watershed, is an area Solutions for Steelhead wants to focus on restoring if it receives federal funding. Wetter winters, dryer summers and logging impacts have destabilized the river. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Solutions for Steelhead is also seeking to get the Gold River watershed designated as a Fisheries Sensitive Watershed by the province, which would require logging companies to prevent impacts on water that would harm fish, such as erosion. 

Bringing steelhead back from the brink will take a societal shift, according to Dunlop, and “a lot of cooperation” to address climate change, industrial impacts and habitat loss — and we don’t have much time to do it.

“We’re standing on a limb and sawing on the branch,” he said.

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Steph Kwetásel'wet Wood is a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh journalist living and writing in North Vancouver. She writes stories about Indigenous rights, the…

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