Lasting Wild Salmon Recovery versus Merely Avoiding Extinction
Jeff Curtis and Kaitlin L. Lovell
In the gray-green waters of the Kispiox River in northern British Columbia on a cold autumn day, a steelhead made the mistake of lashing out at a bit of feather and yarn that flashed in the water before her. Whether it was hunger or aggression that drove her did not matter; the steelhead found herself attached to the end of a line that was attached at the other end to a fly angler. For fifteen minutes, a struggle was on, ending with the steelhead being cradled by trembling hands, photographed, and then released to resume her upstream journey.
The Kispiox steelhead Oncorhynchus mykiss weighed about 14 lb, average for a fish on that river but larger than most of her cousins to the south in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. She had left the river several years earlier, a smolt about the same size as your average herring, and was returning to mate and spawn in her natal river. Unlike true salmon, she could survive the rigors of the inland journey and return to the ocean. It was possible that she would make several spawning runs in her lifetime.
This particular steelhead was fortunate in many respects. She was a wild fish that carried millennia of evolutionary adaptation in her genes. She was attached to that river by the ecological cords that tied the whole ecosystem together. No hatchery steelhead corrupted the genetics of the Skeena River system of which the Kispiox is a tributary. Her habitat was largely intact, in part due to the remoteness of northern British Columbia, in part due to conscious efforts of the people who lived in the watershed. Consequently, the river was designated a catch-and-release fishery; all steelhead had to be released unharmed.
There is considerable hope that the steelhead of the Skeena River system will flourish into the 22nd century. To be sure, there are threats to their survival. A plan to put Atlantic salmon Salmo salar aquaculture net pens in the Skeena estuary could cause an environmental disaster, and there is always the threat that development will gradually overwhelm the habitat even of this remote region.