Salmon Watersheds Program

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Steelhead: Snapshots of BC Populations and Their Habitats

Photo by Mike Bons

British Columbia (BC) supports hundreds of populations of steelhead, the ocean-going form of coastal rainbow trout. Similar to salmon, steelhead migrate to the ocean and return to freshwater tributaries to spawn. But steelhead are unique: they can spawn multiple times, repeating their epic ocean migration between spawning, whereas salmon spawn once at the end of their life cycle. Steelhead are an important traditional food source for many First Nations in BC and, like Pacific salmon, are central to the cultural practices of Indigenous communities. Recreational fishing communities regard wild steelhead as an elite fish and world-renowned steelhead populations in BC’s Fraser and Skeena River watersheds support local tourism and sport fishing opportunities.

Despite widespread interest and investment in steelhead conservation, there is mounting concern for the health of BC’s steelhead populations. In 2018 and 2020 two populations of steelhead, the Thompson and Chilcotin Rivers, were assessed as Endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and 2021 marked the lowest recorded returns for steelhead to the Skeena River watershed since record keeping began 66 years ago. The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources has identified the Skeena River summer steelhead run as in the Extreme Conservation Zone.

Lack of standardized and easily accessible information for steelhead populations and the state of their habitat in BC undermines efforts to support healthy steelhead populations and plan recovery for those at risk. To fill this gap, the Pacific Salmon Foundation is collaborating with the Province of BC, First Nations, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and independent steelhead experts to pursue the following activities:


  1. Compile and synthesize available data on steelhead populations (e.g. spawning locations, spawner surveys, catch and run size, run timing, enhancement)
  2. Quantify the extent and intensity of freshwater habitat pressures (e.g. forest disturbance, road density) in known spawning areas
  3. Analyze and summarize population data for steelhead populations at relevant spatial scales
  4. Integrate the above information into an online data visualization tool called the Pacific Salmon Explorer
  5. Make all data readily accessible through the Salmon Data Library, PSF’s online public database



Traditional Wet’suwet’en dipnet fishery for steelhead at Moricetown Canyon on the Bulkley River, a tributary of the Skeena River. Photo by Paul Colangelo