The world is replete with examples of fisheries that once were. Whether it be bluefin tuna, coral reef fishes of southeast Asia, the northern cod of eastern Canada, Atlantic salmon throughout most of their range or the chinook and steelhead runs of California's Central Valley and northern coast and the Columbia, to name but a few, the story has been the same. The human animal has consistently placed a lower value on fish than the economies that have grown to compete for them and, eventually, against them. The end result—each generation of us lowers the bar and redefines a benchmark for the next. Regrettably, succeeding generations rarely understand or appreciate where the bar once stood.
Some isolated opportunities still exist to savor what little remains globally of the once abundant premiere river sportfishing opportunities for iconic species like steelhead and Atlantic salmon. Kamchatka is the last frontier for steelhead, albeit inaccessible for most of us. Across the vastness of Russia, at its opposite corner, the Kola Peninsula supports the best of what remains of Atlantic salmon fishing. Some might place the rivers of Iceland on equal footing. In North America the single remaining opportunity to reach out and touch a piece of past glory rests with the Skeena watershed in northwestern British Columbia. Alaska may boast more pristine environments than modern-day Skeena and it undoubtedly reflects abundances of anadromous fish no longer found outside its borders but it does not support the world record class wild summer steelhead of the fabled Skeena.
The Skeena steelhead fishery story began to unfold with the arrival of commercial fishing in the late 1870s. By the turn of the 20th century the commercial fishery and its inevitable proliferation of canneries had assumed ownership of fish and fishing. No one will ever know with certainty how many fish of any species, especially steelhead, once occupied the waters of the Skeena. Regulations governing fishing and catch recording lagged the blossoming fishery by several decades and "fisheries science" took even longer to develop, let alone be applied. Aboriginal people sustained themselves on the strength of Skeena fish for countless generations before the commercial fishery began but their numbers, distribution and technology were never a threat to fish, at least not until the European-descendent entrepreneurs arrived. There is no record of any description to suggest the era prior to the arrival of commercial fishing saw fish abundance influenced measurably by those who preceded it.