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Steelhead trout are spawning this month on the Chilcotin and Thompson Rivers in British Columbia’s southern interior, after an arduous journey from the Pacific Ocean. The population is clinging to the edge of survival, with just 261 fish expected to make their way home to breed.

Scientists warned this was coming more than three years ago, but newly released internal documents show Ottawa blocked efforts to publicly release findings that spelled out both the threats and the potential solutions.

The B.C. government and independent experts maintain that the science is clear that strong – and politically difficult – action is required to avert extinction.

In January, 2018, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent advisory panel of scientists, put out a rare emergency bulletin declaring the southern interior steelhead trout was at imminent risk of extinction. The population had been reduced by 80 per cent over the previous 15 years, and was at its lowest point in 40 years.

Three main threats include inadvertent bycatch by gillnet fisheries targeting Pacific salmon; habitat degradation; and poor ocean conditions. Only one of those threats could be easily controlled – but curtailing the fishery would be an unpopular move.

And it was a political decision. COSEWIC asked the federal minister of environment to protect the southern interior steelhead trout under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), which would have had significant implications for commercial, recreational and Indigenous fisheries.

The minister rejected the request in 2019. But not before an intense behind-the-scenes battle over what the science called for.

Roughly 2,800 pages of documents obtained by the B.C. Wildlife Federation under an Access to Information request show management at Fisheries and Oceans Canada worked to rewrite the findings of a scientific panel that assessed the recovery potential for these fish.

Steelhead trout are jointly managed by B.C. and Canada. A team of scientists from both levels of government produced a peer-reviewed report in response to the COSEWIC designation.

Justine Mannion, the acting manager for fish population science at the Department Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), alerted the team on Oct. 31, 2018, that she was “getting questions” about the report from senior bureaucrats in the assistant deputy minister’s office. The office was asking for “slight modifications,” the documents say.

That same day, Sean MacConnachie, DFO’s section head for aquatic ecosystem and marine mammal science, said the changes being sought were undermining the integrity of the process.

“The ongoing involvement by people who were not part of the process, who have not been involved in the development of the materials or the advice, continues to compromise our ability to meet the deadlines as well as the scientific integrity of the process,” he wrote.

The edited report was published, sparking a furious response from scientists on the B.C. side. They argued that the report no longer reflected the work of the science team, and that the changes specifically removed key points.

“The new summary report is inconsistent with the joint science team’s determination regarding how immediate action to reduce mortality provides the best chance of recovery,” wrote Jennifer Davis, B.C.’s director of fish and aquatic habitat, in a Dec. 7, 2018 e-mail. She demanded that DFO remove the report from public circulation. Ottawa refused.

“As it stands now, the published summary report contains substantive changes which are not supported by B.C. scientists,” wrote Manjit Kerr-Upal, the province’s director of conservation science.

One change was key. In the early drafts, the lead authors concluded that “any harm will inhibit or delay potential recovery” and that exploitation by fisheries should be reduced below current levels wherever possible.

That version never made it into the final report, which instead concluded that “allowable harm should not be permitted to exceed current levels.”

After the final, altered report was made public, the federal government announced it would not recognize the steelhead as a species at risk. “Listing Chilcotin and Thompson River Steelhead as endangered under SARA would result in significant and immediate negative socio-economic impacts on Canadians,” the decision read.

Jesse Zeman, director of fish and wildlife restoration for the B.C. Wildlife Federation, said it took him more than two years to get the documents, and hundreds of pages were redacted, leaving him with questions about why the changes were made. But he said it is clear that the formal, transparent process for providing science-based advice to DFO and the public was undermined.

“We have this iconic, endangered species, but DFO does not want to move away from fishing,” Mr. Zeman said. “They edited peer-reviewed science to justify the status quo – that’s the reality.”

The steelhead trout behaves like salmon – spending much of its life in ocean waters before returning to the river where it was born to spawn. But unlike Pacific salmon, it can return to the ocean and complete the cycle again.

Mr. Zeman said these runs are worth trying to save. “Steelhead anglers all over the world know about the Thompson steelhead because they’re so strong – they have to navigate Hells Canyon. They are just these amazing fish.”

Officials from DFO did not respond to interview requests. In a written statement, the department said the government will reconsider listing the southern interior steelhead trout under SARA, as COSEWIC has recently reconfirmed that the fish are endangered. In the meantime, the department has proposed measures to reduce bycatch during this year’s salmon fisheries, including a “rolling window” shutdown during the peak migration period for Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead trout.

Eric Taylor, a zoologist at the University of British Columbia and an expert in freshwater fish, was the chair of COSEWIC when it issued the emergency statement in 2018. He said DFO’s meddling in the reports was “indefensible” because management changed the conclusions against the advice of its scientists.

Had the federal government accepted COSEWIC’s advice and listed the steelhead trout under SARA, it would have required the government to adopt a recovery plan that would have been in place by now, Prof. Taylor noted.

It also would have forced significant changes on the salmon fisheries on the Fraser. SARA imposes legal prohibitions against killing or harming that species or damaging its critical habitat on federal lands, oceans, and inland waters.

But Ms. Davis, B.C.’s lead scientist who had pushed back against DFO’s interventions in 2018, maintains that Canada can still take action and help the steelhead trout rebound.

Ms. Davis said in an interview that the science hasn’t changed since COSEWIC first flagged its concern. “All the scientists behind the scenes, when we worked all together on the recovery assessment, all came to agreement. That’s why not seeing that report come out was just so heartbreaking, because of all the efforts we made to actually get all the scientists together.”

She said B.C. is now working with Indigenous governments in the interior to improve stewardship. She would like to see a “massive shift” to more selective fishing, which is more expensive but could protect steelhead trout without closing the salmon fishery.

“Let’s just look at the hard, cold facts of the population right now: We know we need to do more,” she said. “We’re really trying to do everything we can. But I don’t control DFO. So I need a willing partner here.”

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