Steelhead Seekers: Diving in the Name of Research

Here fishy fishy.

words & photography :: Ben Haggar

Gearing up with layers of fleece, down, neoprene hoods and astronaut-esque gloves air locking into his dry suit, Josh Korman, Ph.D. and fish expert, and his team of biologists are in for a cold day on the river. The water and air temperatures are only a few degrees above freezing, but what’s a little discomfort in the pursuit of science?

It takes a special kind of dedication and love for fish to jump into the Cheakamus River in search of steelhead—a curious piscis that straddles the line between salmonid and trout—before the snowmelt runoff clouds up the water in early spring. Steelhead are clever and skittish fish, so having at least 5m of visibility is key to successful spotting. 

The fishy game of cat and mouse begins south of the Cheakamus Canyon, in a region where the river flow relaxes to a more manageable Class 2 whitewater. The 14-kilometre swim will take around 4-5 hours, and Korman’s team of three might have 30 steelhead sightings each. While their float-and-see methods are simple, the issue they are studying is slightly more complex.

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Back in the 1950s BC Hydro created the Daisy Lake diversion dam. The agreement was that Hydro could take 55 per cent of the water flowing into the lower Cheakamus River and put it through the turbines, spitting it out into the Squamish River. It was a controversial decision to take more than half the water out of the Cheakamus, changing the timing and hydrology of a river which had no data regarding fish or any other animal habitat considerations. In its day, the Daisy Lake dam was a decent player in hydro generation, but now only contributes about 1.5 per cent of BC’s electricity.

Fast forward to the late ‘90s, the Ministry of Environment did some accounting and found that Hydro was taking more water from the Cheakamus than originally allowed, which led to the implementation of the Water Usage Planning Process (WUPP). WUPP seeks to strike a balance between competing uses of water, where the numbers for volumes of water being held up or diverted are based around actual scientific data regarding the health of the rivers that are being used for profit. 

Korman does escapement studies—enumerating how many steelhead are returning to the river each year to gauge the health of the Cheakamus population, which is estimated at around 500-800 fish.

“In wide rivers, swimming is the only way to get accurate counts of adult fish,” he says. “You can’t put gates or fences across big rivers like the Cheakamus, so three of us will fan out across the river and visually count the fish. Depending on water clarity and other factors, we can get population estimates based how many fish we see in the river that day.”

After nearly 20 years, Korman’s swim data is the only longstanding research that enables biologists to see a longer-term picture for steelhead. And that picture suggests the current flow regime has had a negative effect on the population.


Catching a steelhead on the fly is an anglers dream. Unless there are no steelhead..Photo: Marshal Chupa

Steelhead are a priority species because they spend more time—up to two or three years—in the river than other residents like pink or chum salmon which migrate out to sea much earlier. Steelhead utilize some of the best survival skills from their salmon cousins, like journeying to salt water to grow in size and strength, but also maintain the capacity to survive solely in fresh water and reproduce more than once—traits more common to rainbow trout. This combination, the best of both worlds, makes for a beautiful fish that is highly-prized by anglers and a perfect gauge of the health of the river.

Presently, the WUPP is in the review phase with the ultimate decision to be made by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Ministry of the Environment (MOTE), and BC Hydro. Government agencies are tricky entities: federal governments can change every four years, and so can their priorities. Past cuts to DFO and MOTE funding, combined with people sitting in the federal committees that have neither the experience nor the longevity and historical knowledge to properly judge the issues has not made it easy for fish in BC. As a crown corporation, BC Hydro’s focus on profit and customer affordability over stewardship doesn’t help either. 

Case in point: 2019 will be the final year of funding for Korman’s Cheakamus project unless the government moves to prioritize long term monitoring of fish stocks and taking care of rivers being used for resource and profit. 

Whether a more natural flow cycle (which would have periods of flood and drought), or keeping the minimum required flow is chosen, it’s researchers like Korman braving ice cream headaches in frigid waters that provide hard factual data in hopes that governing bodies can find a balance between recreation, resource and the environment. Whether Canada’s elected officials will act or not… that’s an entirely other upstream battle. —ML