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Bob Hooton was a steelhead biologist working for the British Columbia Ministry of Environment for 37-years until he retired. He was an uncompromising champion of the rights of fish. (Dana Atagi/Dana Atagi)
Bob Hooton was a steelhead biologist working for the British Columbia Ministry of Environment for 37-years until he retired. He was an uncompromising champion of the rights of fish. (Dana Atagi/Dana Atagi)

Native Fisheries

Steelhead's plight brings retired B.C. biologist back in the game Add to ...

A lot of people were glad to see Bob Hooton retire.

As a steelhead biologist working for the B.C. Environment Ministry for 37 years, he was an uncompromising champion of the rights of fish.

Mr. Hooton, who left government service in 2008, patrolled the Skeena watershed, from 1986 to 1999. And he made a lot of enemies up there because of his outspoken and unyielding ways in advocating for reduced pressure on steelhead stocks.

“All I ever cared about were the fish,” he said recently, as he dropped off a copy of his new book, Skeena Steelhead – Unknown Past, Uncertain Future.

For those who thought Mr. Hooton’s voice had been silenced when he left his job, this is a wakeup call. He’s still out there, both fists up in defence of steelhead.

In his book, Mr. Hooton goes after everyone who has been contributing to the decline of steelhead in the Skeena. He has criticisms for commercial fishermen, native fishermen and sports fishermen. But he lays most of the blame at the feet of federal and provincial fisheries managers who, year after year, fail to do the right thing.

The book is published by Frank Amato Publications, a big U.S. publisher of sporting books, and Mr. Hooton hopes that it stimulates renewed efforts to protect the Skeena. The watershed has a reputation for providing some of the best steelhead fishing in the world, but it is wavering on the edge of collapse.

The Skeena and its fabled tributaries could not only be saved, but could be made a lot better, argues Mr. Hooton, if governments would stop pandering to various user groups and act in the interest of the fish.

Habitat destruction is a serious problem. But the interception of steelhead in various commercial and native fisheries is what is really depressing stocks, he argues.

The Skeena’s relatively small run of steelhead returns from the ocean to the river, coincidentally, at the same time very large salmon runs are coming back. As the commercial fleet masses at the river mouth to catch millions of sockeye, they end up killing tens of thousands of steelhead – fish that are desperately needed on the spawning grounds.

The conundrum is simply this: how do you maximize the sockeye catch and minimize the steelhead interception?

The key, thinks Mr. Hooton, is in where, when and how you allow the commercial fisheries to take place. When he was the steelhead biologist on the Skeena, Mr. Hooton used to yell loudly whenever he felt the commercial or native fisheries were tipping too far over into the steelhead runs. He argued for windows in the commercial fishery, to allow the steelhead to get upstream.

Usually he was ignored – and the steelhead suffered.

He should be listened to. He argues that with different approaches it will be possible to catch salmon while sparing steelhead. Shifting the catch out of the river mouth is the obvious place to start. But that would mean upending traditional fisheries – and of course in B.C. nobody wants to change.

Mr. Hooton makes it clear, however, that if we keep doing things the way we have been, the Skeena’s great steelhead fishery will be lost.

In his book, Mr. Hooton also argues for restraints on the native and sports fisheries.

He says natives should not be setting gill nets bank to bank, and that they should not be setting nets when endangered runs of steelhead are moving through. And sports anglers, he argues, have for too long been getting a free pass by saying they have little impact because they release what they catch. Gear and technological changes, including the invention of jet boats, have greatly increased the reach and impact of sports fishing. Restrictions are now needed, he says.

“The religious conviction that catch-and-release fisheries can be prosecuted without limit is not going to stand the test of time,” he writes.

Mr. Hooton’s book (for which I wrote a foreword, praising his fearless steelhead advocacy) provides a detailed and brilliant analysis of what has gone wrong with fisheries management on the Skeena River.

It’s nice to hear Mr. Hooton raising his voice in defence of steelhead again.

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Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

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