Billy Blewett runs one of the most famous fishing lodges in the world on British Columbia's Dean River, where the steelhead are renowned for being big and plentiful.
But he has been apologizing to his clients at the Lower Dean River Lodge lately because so few fish are being caught – and many of those are scarred from being entangled in nets. Mr. Blewett and others are blaming the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans because it allowed a commercial chum fishery that has concentrated more than 150 fishing boats in the area of the Dean Channel, near Bella Coola.
"This year, they have the whole fleet out there pretty much and we're just getting hammered. There are so few fish in the river, and the ones that are here are extremely net marked," Mr. Blewett said.
He said with commercial salmon fishing closed in many areas because of conservation concerns, the opening for chum salmon has drawn boats from all over the West Coast. Those boats have been setting their nets in ocean waters where fish from many river systems swim.
While non-target species such as steelhead have to be released alive, Mr. Blewett said many of the fish in the Dean River are obviously injured from being in nets and he thinks a lot of others did not survive.
"Once those chum openings started, it was just like all of a sudden the steelhead stopped coming," Mr. Blewett said. "The weeks you should be getting big numbers of fish, in early August, there was nothing. You'd go down and fish the lower river and not catch a single fish."
Asked what he has been telling his clients, who have come from all over the world to fish the Dean, he replied: "You apologize for DFO's mismanagement and wish there was something you could do about it."
Craig Orr, of conservation group Watershed Watch, said the chum fishery should not be taking place because of the impact on Dean steelhead runs, but also because chum stocks in both the Dean and Bella Coola rivers have declined 80 per cent in recent years.
"These fisheries are hurting chum stocks that are in trouble," he said. "They should be letting these stocks recover, not fishing them down."
Jeff Vermillion, who runs Sweetwater Travel Co., a U.S.-based business that books sport-fishing trips to the world's top lodges, including Mr. Blewett's, said in an e-mail to DFO officials that the chum fishery should be stopped.
"Given the current crisis, it's clear to me that you are not managing either [for] sound conservation practices, the health of the fishery, or the economics of coastal communities," he wrote to Dan Wagner at DFO's operations centre.
Mr. Wagner could not be reached for comment, but Mel Kotyk, DFO's area director for the North Coast, said officials are monitoring the situation and do not believe the chum fishery is having much impact on the steelhead run.
Mr. Kotyk said 161 boats are in what is known as Area 8, but that covers a huge stretch of the Central Coast, and only a small number are fishing in the Dean Channel.
Mr. Kotyk said fishing is not allowed within 50 kilometres of the mouth of the Dean River, all commercial fishermen have to release any steelhead they catch, and gillnet boats in the Dean Channel have to run a "weed line" that sinks their nets, creating a gap near the surface. Because steelhead swim near the surface, in theory, they should pass the nets safely, while deeper swimming chum salmon will be caught.
He said gillnet and seine boats in all of Area 8 report catching only 320 steelhead this season.
"And from what we can tell, they were all strong and vigorous when they were released. So the impact on the steelhead in all of Area 8 is fairly small," he said.
The DFO has offered no alternative explanation for the low numbers.
But Joe Saysell, a retired Vancouver Island fly fishing guide who has been going to the Dean every summer for 30 years, said the impact of the commercial fishery on the steelhead run was shocking.
"There were fish coming in, and then all of a sudden it was zero," he said. "It was like a switch clicked and the [steelhead] run ended."
Mr. Saysell, who camps on the river, said the fishing was the worst he has seen in three decades and he felt sorry for the paying clients who were staying at one of the three fishing lodges on the Dean.
"Here were people who were paying $6,000 to $7,000 a week to go fishing, and they were sitting on a log at the side of the river because there were no fish," he said. "It's unbelievable how much tourism money the Dean draws into British Columbia. But all of that has been put in jeopardy by this mismanagement of the resource."