Returning numbers of Steelhead amaze in Northern BC

Collaborative efforts rescue Steelhead near Houston

By Joseph McDaniel, Summer Conservation Scientist, Northern BC

June 28, 2023

“Teacher, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”
“Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Whenever you really feel called to do something, you invest yourself in it. You pour your heart and soul into it. You labour at it to an extent that others will not understand. And sometimes, you seem to come up empty: seeds sown that haven’t sprouted, nets cast into the sea with only emptiness filling the spaces between the lines. 

But occasionally, God will send us a sign: an unquestionable appearance of grace that reassures us of God’s presence as the one who both calls us and journeys with us along the way. 

At A Rocha’s Buck Creek Hatchery and Nature Centre here in Houston BC, we began receiving reports of Steelhead sightings in tributaries of the Upper Bulkley watershed towards the end of May.

The Steelhead, Oncorhynchus mykiss, is an iconic fish. It is a sea-run rainbow trout that is prized by anglers and known for its beauty. Here in Houston, a larger-than-life model fly rod, in the centre of a park appropriately named Steelhead Park, pays homage to this heritage. The Steelhead is also an increasingly rare fish: habitat loss and other environmental pressures have taken their toll on Steelhead populations across the Pacific coast. 

Growing up in Vancouver, I had always heard of the legendary steelhead. But I had never actually seen one. Until one evening at the beginning of June when I saw a spawning pair gracefully swim up the glide in Buck Creek adjacent to the nature centre.

conservation staff holding a steelhead trout

The Steelhead did not stop there. They kept coming. And coming. And coming. They would grace school children with acrobatic routines while we were doing invertebrate sampling. They would sit casually in the pool while walkers on the dyke passed by unaware. 

The most stunning moment of all came following our Coho fry release, when a great school of Steelhead, with a sense of graceful choreography, swept by our group of observers that included longtime residents of Houston and staff from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. No one among us had ever seen such an impressive school of Steelhead before, and perhaps never will again. 

Amazement is the best word that could describe our reaction. The same amazement that gripped a group of Galilean fishermen at the great catch hauled in at the word of a carpenter’s son. 

As with all signs, this sign appeared for us at a moment in time as a reminder that the same Lord who was present to those Galilean fishermen is still present to His creation and those who undertake the work of caring for it. It is a sign of God’s enduring love for us, a sign of the Kingdom. 

But it is not the fulfillment of the Kingdom. History continues, along with our task of undertaking the work within history that has been given to us. 

In our time, Pacific salmon and the ecosystems that sustain them are under significant stress. The same low waters that enabled us to see this magnificent school of fish were also a sign of the pressures upon them. It’s June, and the waters of Buck Creek should not be this low and this warm. 

In cooperation with the Pacific Salmon Foundation, we reached out to a Steelhead biologist from the Province of BC. Together we inspected the site, and concluded that because of the low waters, a log jam that would usually be passable for Steelhead migrating back downstream had become an impasse. The best option would be to move the fish to cooler, more freely flowing waters.  

On June 26, we rustled up a team of volunteers, and together with staff from the Province and the Toboggan Creek Hatchery, moved 40 to 50 Steelhead from Buck Creek to the Morice River. Beyond the amazing scene of so many Steelhead being corralled in a seine net, the collaborative nature of this effort was what impressed me the most. So many stories were interwoven on that day like the fibres of a net: seasoned fisheries workers, staff from A Rocha just beginning their careers in the conservation field, longtime volunteers and Houston residents, children setting out on their journey of life. The good things of God’s creation, like the fish that brought us together on Buck Creek, can be powerful signs and instruments of grace through which bonds of communion are tied. 

Significant challenges remain ahead of us in the work of Pacific salmon conservation. This was perhaps foreshadowed by the fact that not all of the fish, despite our following best practices for fish transport, were able to survive the rigours of being moved from one waterway to another.
But the majority that did swim away gracefully into the waters of the Morice were a sign of the hope that inspires our task. 

In the work that has been given to us, Christ did not promise us that our work would come without labour or cost. There will be nights where we cast out and our nets sit empty. But God will indeed grant us days where our nets are filled, with fish, with friendship, with high-fives and smiles, to remind us that the Lord of all creation who sat in the boat with the disciples indeed is present in the boat with us until the end of time.

May the same Lord who calls us to cast out into deep waters fill our nets and our hearts with the abundance of God’s love.

Joseph McDaniel is serving as a Conservation Scientist this summer at A Rocha’s Buck Creek Canfor Hatchery and Nature Centre in Houston BC. 

youth holding steelhead in river
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