Commercial fishers in British Columbia came out winners in a decision over the fate of Chilcotin and Thompson Rivers’ steelhead trout, after Environment Minister Catherine McKenna declined a scientific board’s advice the species be listed as endangered.

“The steelhead is not a commercial fish in this case,” said Professor Eric Taylor, past chair of Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) that counsels Environment ministers on conservationism.

“But in order to protect it, one of the major implications is they would have to restrict commercial fishing for other species where the steelhead is caught incidentally,”

Taylor is a fish biologist and was COSEWIC’s chair when it sounded the alarm on the “imminent risk of extinction” for steelhead trout and recommended that they receive endangered status protections under federal species-at-risk legislation (SARA).

Eighteen months ago, COSEWIC went public with the startling evidence: “a mere 177 fish returned from the sea to the Thompson River in late fall 2017, and only 58 returned to the Chilcotin River…an all-time low since records began in 1978…main threats include inadvertent bycatch of adults by net fisheries targeting Pacific salmon and poor ocean conditions.”

“So because of the apparent economic and social costs of limiting fishing opportunities, it was one of the main reasons they decided not to list it,” said Taylor of the Ministerial directive published in Gazette Canada in July.

“Obviously it would’ve made the gill nets, which are harassing the fish illegal.”

Questions to McKenna about her trout directive were forwarded to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Jonathan Wilkinson, whose press secretary promised “bold new measures” in a lengthy response.

Experts say the steelhead trout are ‘endangered’ but Environment Canada gives no status.

“It is important to note that SARA is only one tool at our disposal for the recovery of aquatic species, and we will be taking swift action to help endangered runs of Steelhead Trout,” writes Jocelyn Lubczuk in an email.

“Existing conservation measures for this species are already in place, (but) we are committed to continue to work closely with the Province of British Columbia, Indigenous communities and stakeholders on identifying and implementing further measures.”

Further measures include imposing 42 and 27 day “rolling closures” on commercial gillnet and seine fisheries in marine waters and in the Fraser River that’s fed by Chilcotin and Thompson Rivers. “The rolling closures may be subject to change due to in-season conditions as the steelhead are returning,” according to Fisheries and Oceans.

Buy Taylor said he has seen this conservation tact before where officialdom stops short of an endangered listing, in favour of ‘action plans’ and added that there are as many as 50 fish species trapped in this designation limbo.

“The bottom line is these steelhead not being listed under the endangered species legislation, even though (the minister) accepts the decision, that they are endangered,” said Taylor.

“But they say we don’t want to invoke this legal thing because it’s going to impact too many people in a collateral way which they’ve done before for salmon species, but the reality is there’s fewer salmon now, certain species, than there’s ever been.”

COSEWIC is can independent advisory body to the minister of the Environment and includes approximately 60 biologists who are appointed by the government and serve under a secretariat funded by the department.