Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish—Alberta’s Fish Crisis

Guest Blog: For many decades, Lorne Fitch was a respected fisheries biologist with the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division. He worked on the ground to maintain and improve Alberta’s fisheries, including rehabilitating fish habitat. Like many of us he has watched the quality of Alberta’s fisheries deteriorate over the years despite the efforts of many. When I was shown his unpublished essay on the subject, I knew it had to be read by all who cherish what used to be a rich wild heritage. I invited Lorne to publish the essay here.

This essay is long (9000 words) but well worth the read as it is packed full of historic information and insights into how the trajectory of our Alberta fisheries can be turned around. It is published here with the permission of the author.

Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish—Alberta’s Fish Crisis
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Copyright © 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Seuss’s One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish is a classic children’s story, a simple rhyming book for beginning readers. We need a similar rhyme to help people grasp the problems afflicting Alberta’s native fish species. It might read like this:

Two fish, one fish, dead fish, no fish,
No grayling or goldeye, something’s amiss.
This one has a tumor and a rotten fin,
There’s no home for that one to live in,
Say, what a lot of fish there used to be,
Where are the fish for my kid and me?

My apologies to Dr. Seuss, but what would he have thought of the sorry state of fish in Alberta? Would he have said, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere”? His words could have been prophetic, the funny things are actually very sad little tragedies that have morphed into a province-wide decline in fish abundance, distribution, diversity and health. Like convicts on death row, trends indicate dead fish swimming, where populations have been driven to perilously low levels.

The current status of fish populations cannot be appreciated until we acknowledge where we were by reviewing historical abundance and distribution. Only then, will we grasp where we are and be ready to see the losses and the potential for recovery.

Pembina River

Most anglers do not fully realize what has been lost.

Lost on the awareness of most Albertans are the missing fish. At best these fish are ghosts, apparitions of past times, rarely remembered and easily forgotten. At worst they are thought to have never existed.

It is sad but fish just don’t live here anymore. It was not always so for fish and the slide started long before Alberta became a province.

Grant us our daily fish
Fish were once a staple in the diet of native peoples and the fur industry, especially in the parkland and boreal forest regions. David Thompson, the Hudson Bay Company surveyor, fur trader and mapmaker wrote in the late 1700s, “…when a new trading House is built…everyone is anxious to know the quality of the fish it contains for whatever it is they have they have no other [food] for the winter.” The daily ration at the post at Fort Chipewyan was four fish and one potato.

In 1798 a Hudson Bay Company post was established on Lac la Biche. Lac la Biche is a big, shallow and productive lake located in the boreal forest northeast of Edmonton. Thirteen species of fish inhabited the lake, obviously in substantial numbers that encouraged first native settlement and then establishment of fur trading posts. During the first year David Thompson recorded their nets caught northern pike, lake whitefish, walleye and white suckers that the inhabitants of the post happily consumed. By 1819 lake whitefish constituted the main menu item of the post.

In her doctoral thesis Dr. Andrea McGregor painstakingly quantified the harvest of fish from Lac la Biche that supported the westward expansion of the fur trade and settlement. The annual harvest of lake whitefish increased from 85 tons caught in 1800 to over 1200 tons in 1875. But even subsistence harvest by a relatively small population was not sustainable and the fishery collapsed in 1878.

Memories are short and 34 years later, apparently undaunted by previous fisheries failures commercial fishing was introduced as an industry in 1912, shifting business from fur to fish. A rail line was extended to the lake in 1915, and by 1918 200 commercial fishermen were harvesting and processing lake whitefish, cisco, walleye and pike. Just as the subsistence fishery proved unsustainable so too did the commercial one.

As the Depression of the 1930’s hit, paradoxically the market for fur escalated; this drove demand for fish for mink ranching. Although the target was the cisco population (a diminutive relative of the lake whitefish) small mesh gill nets unselectively caught large numbers of perch, walleye, pike and lake whitefish. It is thought this was a crippling blow to the sustainability of the walleye population.

To add indignity to the injury of overfishing, by the 1950s the essential watershed integrity that supported the lake and its fish populations had been compromised. Excessive nutrients delivered from human changes in the watershed and from lakeshore developments provide too much of a good thing to an already productive or eutrophic lake.

Insult followed indignity and by 1970 walleye had effectively been extirpated and by the 1990s pike and perch populations had declined dramatically. The finny wealth of lake whitefish that encouraged settlement has been reduced to a fraction of historic levels.

Attempts to resuscitate the walleye population have gone on for some decades, including massive stocking of fry, derived from stock from other lakes. Re-establishing a predator like walleye has some challenges. In an ironic twist yellow perch, a prey item in adult walleye diets, eat large numbers of young walleye fry. Without a critical mass of adult walleye to reduce the perch population the prey species bites back hard on the predator.

Time will tell if walleye can be re-established at some ecologically relevant level. Dr. McGregor suggests the failure of the lake whitefish population to rebound over the last 50 years is a systemic issue of possibly irreversible changes in the lake ecosystem. We’ve influenced the ecological cogs and wheels of the lake’s delicate mechanism, tipped the balance too far and the lake may not have the capability to snap back to some previous steady state.

David Thompson would not be impressed.

Arctic grayling—going, going, gone.
The Arctic grayling is a dramatic fish, shiny with distinct scales and a large fin on their backs that is sometimes as tall as their body is thick. They shimmer, even in tea colored water and with their huge dorsal fin seem more to sail through the water than to swim.
A member of the trout family, grayling swim in the waters of the boreal forest of Alberta and in the northern foothills. Their historic range was the entire Peace, Hay and Athabasca river basins.

Arctic graylingThere has been a 40% contraction in the range of grayling waters, most of which has happened in living memory. More than half of current grayling populations have been reduced to 10%, or less, of historic population numbers.

Prior to the 1980s the Beaverlodge and Redwillow rivers of north-western Alberta were reported to support one of the largest spawning runs of Arctic graying in Alberta. No grayling have been seen in the Beaverlodge River since 1994 and are now considered extirpated from that watershed. Populations in the Redwillow River are noted as “declining”.

These astounding statements of fact are detailed in a massive investigative report entitled Redwillow Watershed: an Overview of the History and Present Status of Fish Populations and Fish Habitat and Recommendations for Restoration. The work was commissioned by the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division for the watersheds of the Beaverlodge and Redwillow rivers and completed in 2009.

Why did historically abundant populations of Arctic grayling, northern pike, bull trout and mountain whitefish disappear from the Beaverlodge River?

The finger of blame is usually pointed at fishing as the cause for population declines. It was legal from the 1920s to the early 1960s to use traps strung across the channel to harvest fish on the Beaverlodge River for subsistence use. Arctic grayling (and presumably the other fish species) were canned for later use to eke out an existence in the far off Peace Region. But even this extreme use combined with liberal sport fishing bag limits on grayling were not implicated as the sole or even the most important cause of the collapse of the population(s).

The authors of the report describe a “perfect storm” of cumulative, synergistic causes that resulted in crashes in fish numbers and distribution leading to the eventual extirpation of the Arctic grayling population. This is an insightful, cautionary tale of landscape scale changes over less than a century, coupled with customary human blindness to the rate, impact and consequences of a series of seemingly unconnected land use decisions.

The perfect storm came to be with a series of land use decisions. Settlement in the Peace Region began in the early 1900s but it wasn’t until the advent of powerful bulldozers in the early 1950s that significant changes began to appear in the watershed of the Beaverlodge River. Forest was rapidly replaced by agricultural fields, riparian fringes were narrowed and often disappeared. Wetlands were drained and now roads interrupt drainage, channel flow and send it to rivers faster, exacerbating floods.

The Beaverlodge River isn’t fed by glaciers or snow melt from mountains. The headwaters rise in the forested foothills, the “rain barrel” for catching, holding and slowly releasing water. As forest canopy was replaced by farm fields the flood peaks rose higher with a faster release of snow melt and rainfall to the river. Compared to memories of consistent flows throughout the year, now the Beaverlodge River experiences greater floods in the spring and subsides to very low flows in the summer, often shrinking into a series of isolated pools by autumn.

The new normal for the flow regime is further complicated by short-sighted shoreline use. Changes in water quality also accompany a landscape transformed from forest to farms. Livestock have unrestricted access to stream banks, winter feeding on or near the water is common and feedlots have been situated in close proximity to water. That combination plus domestic sewage disposal and runoff from cultivated fields brings not only sediment but an agrochemical stew of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

Up to the 1960s watershed residents talked of good quality water that was fit to drink and swim in; that signals water good for fish too. No one would voluntarily drink directly from or swim in the river now. The Beaverlodge River has been transformed from a low productivity watercourse to one with an excess of nutrients. A small amount of nutrients promote growth and are beneficial in producing more of the things fish like to eat. Too much overwhelms the system, oxygen is robbed from the water and fish suffocate.

Arctic grayling are creatures of cool waters. Changing the way water is delivered, reducing flows in warmer periods of the year and removing of the shading effects of riparian vegetation allows river flow to heat up, beyond the tolerance levels of fish.

Fish under stress, from temperature, low flows, impediments to movement and habitat losses become more prone to infections and disease. The majority of sites sampled by Fish and Wildlife staff on the Beaverlodge River revealed fish with deformities, disease, eroded fins, lesions and tumors — evidence of the toxic soup that flows down the river.

Arctic grayling hung on, tenuously in the Beaverlodge River until sometime in the 1980s and then they were gone.

It is perplexing that this happened in modern times, with some level of environmental consciousness and overlapping government responsibility. It speaks to institutional barriers that preclude action, poor communication between silos in government and, lack of oversight mechanisms coupled with a reluctance to regulate and enforce. Mostly it speaks to our failure to plan for tomorrow, using existing evidence that would guide us onto a path of better decisions.

If the changes in the Beaverlodge River and the loss of fish provide a lesson, it is that fisheries management — maintaining fish — often has little to do with how we manage fish, in terms of seasons, bag limits and harvest size. What dictates fish persistence or not is the integrity of the watershed and the elements that produce fish habitat.  The additive effects of land and water use in the Beaverlodge River eroded the ability of fish to persist and eventually several species disappeared.

The phenomena of Arctic grayling disappearance and the failure to react to this in any meaningful way plays out throughout the range of this native fish. In north eastern Alberta, in watersheds affected by tar sands development, the phrases most commonly used to describe rivers and their grayling populations are: “used to support”, “had abundant populations” and, “historically contained”. Harder to find are reports using the term “contains Arctic grayling”. Non-existent are ones where Arctic grayling are described as “abundant”, “large in size” and “distributed widely”. Sometimes the former presence of grayling has been discounted by industry as a fisherman’s tale, not to be believed.

It was reported that prior to the road being built to Fort McMurray you could catch hundreds of grayling in the House River. Now there are none. In the Christina River Martin Paetz, the first fisheries biologist hired in Alberta and the head of the Fisheries Branch for decades, reported catching, in 1967, 33 grayling from one spot in less than an hour. Twenty years later Martin returned and he and a companion, fishing hard for two days caught 7 grayling. Subsequently, over two hundred fisheries studies undertaken on the Christina between 2001 and 2010 have managed, in that decade, to have captured only two grayling.

A counting fence on the Muskeg River, intercepting a grayling migration in 1976 caught hundreds of grayling; 56 fisheries surveys between 2000 and 2009 caught one immature grayling near the mouth of the river. Populations of grayling in the Steepbank River were described in the 1970’s, as large and very abundant. Over 3000 were counted on spawning runs. More recently, 118 surveys between 2001 and 2011 caught just 63 Arctic graying.

In many watersheds Arctic grayling are but a distant memory and even worse, if that could be imagined, have been forgotten about entirely. It is likely knowledge of Arctic grayling gone missing has registered less in the public consciousness than the knowledge that water occurs in the Martian atmosphere.

Hunting for the last Goldeye
The quintessential Parkland river is the Battle River. It begins in Battle Lake, west of Wetaskiwin. A lazy river, it seems in no hurry to meet the North Saskatchewan River near Battleford, in Saskatchewan. The Battle, like the Beaverlodge, cannot depend on snow accumulation from high elevation forests to sustain flows. Instead, the 144 big and little tributaries provide the lifeblood of the river, the groundwater, springs, seeps and runoff. Most of these streams are unnamed and start in someone’s backyard.

Anthony Henday, possibly the first European to explore what would become Alberta, travelled up the Battle River in 1754 with a band of Cree natives. His journals report that on the occasion of his first camp in the watershed, probably near the present Alberta/Saskatchewan border they caught 17 small “trout” in one creek of running water. Henday was from Britain and presumably would have recognized trout. Unfortunately his route is difficult to put into modern context so the location of this stream with trout is a mystery.

John Palliser crossed Pigeon Lake Creek, one of the Battle River’s larger tributaries in October, 1858 travelling to Fort Edmonton. He recounted “they had to swim Pigeon Creek, which was deep, though it was only 20 feet wide.” One would be hard pressed to wade the creek now in October and do much more than wet one’s feet. Yet, the histories of early settlement of the Battle watershed are replete with stories of catching fish, lots of fish, and big fish in tributaries of the river, with traps, nets and spears.

Goldeye have a prominent place in the fishing stories from the past. Goldeye are deep-bodied fish, flattened laterally and silvery with large scales. They are named for their large, yellow-gold eyes which are adapted to dim light and turbid water.

The goldeye, when smoked, was considered one of the finest of all eating fish and figured prominently on the menus in the dining cars of the CPR. Then they were known as “Winnipeg goldeye” because of the original source in Lake Winnipeg. In an old bulletin of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada two biologists, Kennedy and Sprules described the fish in the following way:

“A ‘Winnipeg goldeye’ represents the triumph of art over nature. Its characteristic color results from an aniline dye. Its characteristic taste is essentially that of oak wood smoke. Its texture has been improved by freezing. Its name is derived from a lake where it is no longer caught in appreciable quantities.”

The goldeye of the Battle River were as tasty as those caught further east in Lake Winnipeg. Harley Louis of the Montana First Nations near Hobbema recalled fish traps in the 1940’s: “We’d catch enough fish [goldeye] to fill our saddlebags and ride back for a big feed of fish with our families.”

But, as is the case with the bounty of new countries, it did not last.

By 1977 when Dave Christiansen, a provincial fisheries biologist, floated the river he was told the big runs of goldeye were nearly gone and goldeye could only be caught near the lower end of the Battle River. Fishing was “so much better in the past,” said local residents. Other fish like northern pike were also suffering from low oxygen levels in the river which contributed to massive fish die offs. Dave recalls the Battle River was a stagnant stream by late summer. The Battle River was, he said, “a river on the ropes going through its death throes.”

Just as the goldeye population of Lake Winnipeg crashed, probably from over-harvest, the goldeye of the Battle River have crashed for a variety of reasons, probably the triumph of development over nature.

A fish biodiversity study of 128km of the river, from the headwaters at Battle Lake to the border and undertaken between 2005 and 2007, captured just 7 goldeye. A few pike and walleye were found but 80% of the catch consisted of white suckers and minnows. Suckers are tough, resilient fish capable of survival in reduced circumstances. Even they were suffering lesions, eroded fins and growths.

A provincial government river monitoring program found that over the span of 2009 to 2010 the Battle River had the lowest water quality of all river sites monitored in Alberta. The water’s so bad, goes the joke, that when the angler turns his back, the worm makes a break for it.

What’s the matter with the Battle River?

Dr. Michael Sullivan, Provincial Fish Science Specialist sums it up succinctly with, “too many nutrients coupled with too few filters spells big trouble for fish.”

Phosphorus is a nutrient and is the building block for plant growth. Amounts in excess of what plants require tend to wash into the river where the addition has the same effect on algal growth; one unit of phosphorus derived from animal manure or synthetic fertilizer can exponentially grow 500 units of algae. Large accumulations of algae rob water of dissolved oxygen, essential for fish respiration. Overwinter the die-off and decomposition of algae consumes oxygen, lowering dissolved oxygen concentrations to lethal levels for fish.

In February and March of 2010 the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the Battle River under ice cover was measured throughout its length. Not enough dissolved oxygen was present to support most fish species for over half of the river’s length. Excessive nutrients stimulate both growth and death.

What has changed from yesterday’s Battle River to the one of today?

The water retention capability of the watershed has been drastically compromised. Less than two percent of the watershed is now wooded and approximately 75% of the wetlands, the essential sponge and moderating influence for flow, are now missing. Many of the places referenced in historical accounts no longer contain fish or, in many cases, water.

The early wave of pioneers into central Alberta were attracted by a combination of good soil, water, wood for building and abundant fish and wildlife populations. They farmed with horses and steam equipment. This limited capability did not result in significant changes to the landscape.

After the Second World War and into the 1950s the countryside changed dramatically. Demand for feed grain for livestock increased at the same time that bridges and better roads provided access to more grain elevators. Higher farm profits sparked more mechanization with greater tractor horsepower and bigger tillage equipment. The availability of huge bulldozers of sufficient size to shear and pile aspen forests created larger fields. The use of synthetic fertilizers to boost crop production and the availability of herbicides and pesticides to combat crop diseases and pests began in the 1950s.

As the wave of settlement and development spread and the ecological integrity of the watershed became more and more compromised, fish numbers, distribution and health all declined. Profound shifts in water quality, especially nutrients from our activities followed clearing of the forests, drainage of wetlands, more cultivated acreage, more livestock and fewer natural riparian filters and buffers.

It wasn’t the space race, nor the arms race but the food production race, aided by the horsepower race in farming that lead to the decline and disappearance of native fish from watercourses in the settled portion of Alberta.

Curiously, there is safe haven for fish in the Battle River within the boundaries of CFB Wainwright, a military base. This isn’t a function of armed soldiers protecting fish, but rather a landscape that is relatively unchanged since the time of Henday. The military base, formerly Buffalo National Park, is uncultivated, uncleared native Aspen Parkland. The wetlands and tributaries within the base are intact and as a result nutrient loading to the river is closer to the range of natural variation. The absorptive capacity of the landscape also means springs and seeps provide a consistent supply of ground water to the river. Riparian areas are intact and well vegetated.

The Battle River through the military base is where the last few goldeye can find habitat conditions to their liking and where pike and walleye populations make their last stand. The lesson from this safe haven on the Battle River is that effective fish population maintenance and restoration is based on habitat. Everything else done on behalf of fish pales beside watershed integrity and is mostly feel-good, cosmetic window dressing.

Even a goldeye can see that.

It’s a bear market for bull trout
Bull trout look like baseball bats with fins, torpedo shaped and similarly dangerous. Think of bull trout as the aquatic version of a grizzly beara summit predator except with fins and gills.

And, as with grizzlies, the range of the bull trout has shrunk drastically. Historically bull trout ranged throughout the Peace watershed nearly to the Peace-Athabasca delta. In the Athabasca watershed they were commonly found to the confluence with the Pembina River and occasional catches were made downstream to beyond Fort McMurray. The North Saskatchewan watershed had bull trout well below present day Edmonton, to perhaps the confluence with the Redwater River. The range of bull trout in the Red Deer River watershed extended to almost Drumheller. In the Bow and Oldman watersheds the range extended to the confluence of those two rivers near Bow Island.

The huge geographic range in bull trout distribution isn’t surprising when one considers that adults will drop down from their home ranges in the upper reaches of watersheds into more productive waters to feed on other species of fish.

In 1890, the North West Mounted Police became interested in fish stocks in the rivers of southern Alberta and asked officers posted at various detachments for reports on the status of populations. Officer McIllree’s response, from the Calgary post was, “When I fished this section about fourteen years ago [1876], the rivers and streams teemed with fish. Now, it is very different.” One infers that he was talking about trout populations, especially the bull trout. That a decline in fish populations was observed so early suggests the beginning of a negative trend that persists to current times.

An image from 1893 exists in the Glenbow Archives, showing two anglers on Callum Creek, a small tributary to the Oldman River. Arrayed around them are no less than 60 trout, several of which are bull trout. If McIllree’s observations of change are correct, imagine the catch those two anglers would have had a decade or so earlier. There are no trout left in Callum Creek currently.

Anglers were catching bull trout in Waskasoo Creek, within the city limits of Red Deer in 1916. Wherever bull trout were caught there was antipathy if not outright aversion towards them. Red Deer anglers would catch bull trout, because there were no others, but would not recognize them as “official” trout. Fish yes, trout no.

In the meetings held by the federal Alberta and Saskatchewan Fishery Commission of 1910 and 1911 there were almost universal recommendations to get rid of bull trout, because of their “predatory” habits and perceptions they were a “weedy fish, unworthy of protection.” One local fish and game association suggested “these fish [bull trout] be destroyed by dynamiting the places they are known to infest.” As a consequence it wasn’t until 1927 that bull trout were offered the same regulatory protection as other trout and game-fish species had since the 1890s.

Elk Creek is a tributary of the Clearwater River west of Rocky Mountain House. In the early 1900’s, when this area was the back of beyond, it was reported to have large numbers of bull trout and mountain whitefish. Roads and trails were few, and in contrast to today, the Alberta Forest Service kept these roads gated and locked, allowing no vehicle access. This was the domain of the horseman and the very determined hiker.

In the early 1950’s the Forestry Trunk Road was constructed through the foothills of the Eastern Slopes, eventually connecting Coleman to Grande Prairie. Much of the previous un-roaded, undeveloped portions of Forest Reserve watersheds became subject to new roads, recreational traffic, logging, mining and petroleum exploration and development. All of these roads produce sediment; many deliver sediment to streams containing native fish.

According to early fisheries inventories Elk Creek supported a self-sustaining population of bull trout along its length in the 1950’s and 1960’s. By the late 1970’s a combination of overfishing, overgrazing and other land uses, including the close proximity of the Forestry Trunk Road to most of the stream had reduced the bull trout of the lower section to a few individuals. In the upper sections of the stream there were 80 bull trout/km in 1968, 13/km in 1979 and by 1987 only one bull trout was caught. Since it takes more than one fish to make a population, one might have considered bull trout in Elk Creek as missing forty years after the Forestry Trunk Road crossed it in the early 1950’s. But, bull trout are resilient.

More recent inventories in Elk Creek by provincial fisheries biologists have shown the positive effect of more restrictive angling regulations. In 1985 the bag limit was severely reduced at the same time the minimum size of fish that could be kept was increased. This was followed in 1995 with a zero bag limit which is the case currently. Bull trout have responded positively to a high of 316/km in 2008.

Since the rigor of fisheries science wasn’t applied in earlier times, it is difficult to know whether the increased numbers of bull trout found in recent inventories represents the full potential of Elk Creek or is only a fraction of historical abundance. While the trend is encouraging, issues like sediment from logging, roads and recreational vehicle use still present bull trout with challenges.

One might be tempted to conclude that overfishing stemming from better road access is the primary problem confronting bull trout. The extirpation of a unique bull trout population in the upper Crowsnest River tells another story. The trout survived a long time against the combination of overfishing and illegal fishing with nets, spears and dynamite. However, the cumulative effect of logging, mining, urban development, river channelization and blockages to critical spawning sites on streams tributary to the Crowsnest River wiped out bull trout in about one human life span. Bull trout might have coped with fishing but they were unable to overcome compounding, multiple, watershed scale issues.

Bull trout have now been eliminated from the Redwillow and Beaverlodge rivers, the North Saskatchewan River below Drayton Valley, the upper Crowsnest watershed, including Crowsnest Lake, the Willow Creek watershed, the Red Deer River downstream of Dickson Dam, the Rosebud River, the lower Bow River, the lower Oldman River and the lower St. Mary, Waterton and Belly rivers. In many watersheds bull trout may have gone missing before we recorded their presence.

Even within the current range of bull trout there are substantial contractions and more to come. In 2005, Travis Ripley, then a provincial fisheries biologist, predicted extirpation of bull trout from 24 to 43% of streams in the Kakwa River Basin subject to logging and roading in as little as two decades.

There are a few examples of bull trout reoccupying former range. Wayne Roberts, past curator of the Zoology Museum at University of Alberta, has recently found them in the North Raven River, where they had been missing for more than 80 years. Overfishing, habitat changes and competition from introduced brown trout likely contributed to the demise of bull trout in this stream. But, restoration of riparian habitats with stream bank fencing, starting in the 1970s, coupled with protective angling regulations has provided bull trout with the spark to resettle in old homes.

The jury is still out on other recolonization efforts. Bearberry Creek, a small tributary to the Red Deer River once had an abundant population of large bull trout. Long-time residents interviewed by Rocky Konynenbelt, a provincial fisheries biologist, recalled bull trout large enough to be “cut up and fried like salmon steaks” in the 1920s. The population dwindled and was reportedly gone by the 1950s.

In the 1960s the stream was channelized downstream of Highway 22 and a weir installed in 1980 to deal with chronic flooding issues in the town of Sundre. The weir was a barrier to upstream fish movement. A fish way around the weir was installed in 2004 which allowed bull trout to regain access to Bearberry Creek.

It is doubtful whether bull trout moving back upstream will find much resembling their former homes. In 1951 R.B. Miller and Martin Paetz surveyed Bearberry Creek and reported, “The banks are… mostly overgrown with a heavy tangle of willows and shrubs.” In an overview flight of the watershed in 2005 this expression of riparian health was the exception. Substantial riparian recovery will have to occur to provide necessary habitat conditions, to moderate stream temperatures and to filter sediment from farm fields before bull trout can truly be said to have reoccupied their former range in Bearberry Creek.

The provincial government’s recent Bull Trout Conservation Management Plan (2012-2017) (available through Alberta Species at Risk) summarizes population status for the species. Remarkably the report escaped the spin doctors of the province’s Orwellian Ministry of Truth. Its authors clearly make the case bull trout are in trouble. No wonder the species has been designated as “threatened”. Population trends indicate that 61% of bull trout core areas (there are 51 in the province) show declines and 39% are stable or increasing.

However, tucked into the tables and turgid narrative of the management plan are a series of red lights flashing out danger signals to be interpreted and decoded. “Stable” populations are still below their historical levels and the word doesn’t imply the population is healthy, only that there have been no changes in survey results over the short time of monitoring. A handful of populations were shown to have increased in numbers over time but most exist in areas protected from industrial land use pressures. A close examination leads to the conclusion that 94% of the provincial bull trout population is still in trouble.

In many ways the detractors of bull trout got their wish. Bull trout have been virtually extirpated in many watersheds. George Colpitts, writing on trout conservation in the early years of Alberta in Fish Wars and Trout Travesties, concluded bull trout “faced the brunt of pioneer vigilantism, the harassment of interbreeding foreign bullies and only a modicum of protection by fisheries officials.”

It’s a “bearish outlook” for bull trout, a pessimistic future given their range has shrunken, continues to do so and numbers are declining.

It’s a cutthroat world for the cutthroat trout
The trout is called a “cutthroat”, not from personality or behavior, but rather for a brilliant vermillion/orange slash on the underside of its jaw. In the clear streams of the upper Oldman and Bow watersheds seeing the flash of a cutthroat, a splash of liquid sunshine, is to experience a natural piece of art.

Duncan McEachran, a veterinary surgeon, traveled in 1881 from Fort Benton, in Montana, to Calgary along the foothills of the Eastern Slopes in search of possible ranch locations. Not only was he stunned by the potential of the foothills grasslands to support a livestock industry, he commented on the streams that ran clear and cold and were “full of trout…which are most delicious to eat”.

Cutthroat trout were described by the NWMP in 1890 as “speckled”, or “brook” trout with “the special mark is a red patch on each side of the throat, where it joins the mouth, and, in the fish of 12? lbs and upwards, a reddish tinge along the belly.” In living memory there are no examples of cutthroat trout of “…12? lbs and upwards…”

The archives of the Glenbow Museum contain an image of four anglers and a child on the banks of Trout Creek, a small stream that flows from the east side of the Porcupine Hills and is part of the Willow Creek watershed. Taken in 1902 it depicts two long stringers of cutthroat trout with an additional large pile of trout on the ground. There are approximately 125 trout, or nearly a hundred pounds of fish, taken in what appears to be a day’s fishing trip.

In 1948 R. B. Miller, one of Alberta’s first biologists to undertake systematic fisheries inventories, surveyed streams in the Willow Creek watershed. He commented on the productive nature of these streams and the overall abundant trout in contrast to other Eastern Slope streams he had surveyed, including ones in the Bow River watershed. However, on Trout Creek, within the Forest Reserve and downstream, he observed sheet erosion from overgrazing and poor livestock salting locations. He was able to catch only a few cutthroat trout in the stream.

Remarkably, cutthroat trout still persist in the extreme headwaters of Trout Creek despite logging, grazing, oil and gas development and unregulated off highway vehicle activity. But, they hang on by a tenuous fin.

Another image from 1902, shows three anglers on the banks of Willow Creek near Fort Macleod holding large stringers of cutthroat trout. No trout, cutthroat or other, have swam in the lower portion of Willow Creek for decades.

From the June 15, 1903 edition of the Calgary Herald comes this insight into cutthroat populations in the Bow River watershed: “Two sportsmen went out after trout at Fish Creek one day last week and as a result brought back 400 fish.”

Yes, anglers were greedy, wasteful and even rapacious, but the bigger impacts that destroyed most of the trout habitat happened at a landscape scale.

Although now a dim memory in the minds of older anglers, the Spray lakes and the Spray River were renowned for the number and size of cutthroat trout produced. R.B. Miller reported that anglers caught 1,058 trout, many up to 23 inches long from the Spray River in 1948. The cutthroat populations of this watershed were a unique blend of lake and stream dwelling species. All of this ended with the development of hydroelectric dams in the late 1940’s. In A Cool Curving World (1962), Miller wrote:

“One great dam converted them [two natural lakes] into a vast, barren reservoir, fifteen miles long and two hundred feet deep. The beautiful cutthroat trout that formerly made them famous has already vanished, and in place of the green wooded slopes is the now familiar desert of mud, trash and stumps.”

Jim Stelfox, a provincial fisheries biologist, points out that nearby, the cutthroat population in Lower Kananaskis Lake was gone by 1954, less than 15 years after hydroelectric development destroyed their prime spawning areas.

At the very least, when we flick a light switch on we might consider the trout that died so we could illuminate our homes. A dramatic change in cutthroat waters was dam development. In the Bow watershed ten hydro-power dams and four irrigation dams in the Oldman watershed have irrevocably changed these systems and dramatically reduced the cutthroat populations that used to exist.

The combination of overfishing and industrial land uses depleted cutthroat populations until a cry rose from sport-fishers to restock lakes and streams. Although cutthroat from the Spray system were used initially, non-native rainbow trout, which were easier to obtain and rear became the species of choice for stocking efforts. Cutthroat populations, already hit by over-harvest and habitat issues, were overwhelmed by the new, foreign neighbor in their midst.

Pouring rainbow trout into cutthroat streams resulted in unsafe sex because the species are so close on the trout evolutionary tree. Hybrids result from these interactions. The loss of genetic purity amongst cutthroat populations may seem insignificant but there is a problem.

Native cutthroat trout have evolved in streams of the Eastern Slopes for over 10,000 years. Their genetics contain the code that has allowed them to thrive and prosper in spite of the variability of these aquatic systems. They could have survived long into the future. Rainbow/cutthroat crosses have mixed and diluted genetics, untested in the crucible of time. They lack the “right stuff” for persistence. The remaining, remnant pure strains of cutthroat are precious.

Although Alberta still has not completed a comprehensive inventory of all cutthroat waters to determine the status of the species it is apparent that perhaps less than 5% of historical habitat is currently occupied in the Bow watershed, somewhat more in the Oldman. Cutthroat trout are now designated as “threatened”.

Early examinations of the fishery resources of the province lead to the statement about cutthroat trout, “…of all the indigenous fish of the western streams none are more worthy of preservation…” (Alberta and Saskatchewan Fishery Commission, 1910/11).

In spite of this sentiment, according to the Alberta Westslope Cutthroat Trout Recovery Plan (2012-2017) (available through Alberta Species at Risk), in all of the streams of the Bow and Oldman watersheds where this species used to be numerous there are only 51 genetically pure populations left.

That is approximately 5500 fish remaining in both watersheds, which is about the present human population of the Crowsnest Pass. Not so very long ago cutthroat trout outnumbered people in Alberta.

What happened to all those fish?
The simple answer is: we killed them. We may not have meant to, we may not have been aware of the consequences of our actions and we might have firmly believed more fish existed. To our disgrace and shame it happened anyway. So, to avoid repeating this we need to rethink the ways that fish are harvested.

There is the obvious: direct harvesting by anglers and commercial fishermen. But fish are also “harvested” by the way we develop and use landscapes.

Each unit of habitat, the sum of appropriate water quality, quantity and temperature along with abundant overhead and in-stream cover, clean substrate and riparian shading is capable of producing and sustaining a number of units of fish. Any activity that changes, reduces or eliminates units of habitat is effectively a harvest of fish because it removes the potential for fish to exist.

A sport-fishing license is an allocation of fish to the angler. More significantly we have also unintentionally and indirectly allocated fish to those who have never fished — like urban developers, dam builders, heavy equipment operators, bureaucrats, loggers and investment bankers. None of these interests ever cast a line, or even remotely thought about fish, yet have had a profound impact on fish abundance, distribution, health and inevitably their presence or absence.

A fish removed from the water on the end of a fishing line may die sooner, but death is just as inevitable when fish habitat is altered, compromised or destroyed. The difference is a fish removed by angling usually has minimal impact on the viability of the population. Lost habitat not only eliminates the existing fish but also any hope for population recovery.

In effect, through habitat changes caused by land and water uses the fish have been allocated before they were able to spawn, hatch, rear and mature. No bag limits were applied, no fishing license was required and no one even realized they were engaged in fishing. It was (and is) however a relentless exploitation of the fisheries resource, through habitat loss, to the full extent of the technology available to change landscapes.

Farmers, miners, off highway vehicle users, roughnecks, homeowners, politicians and a cast of thousands have devastated Alberta’s fish populations without ever catching or frying a single fish. Instead, large numbers of fish, populations of fish, and watersheds of fish were killed through habitat alterations, loss of critical habitats, water withdrawals, and pollution. It has been a death by a thousand cuts, not a thousand hooks. Individually there was no malice, spite or even intention — only the ignorance of fish ecology and cumulative effects.

Many of the problems encountered by fish come from actions that are hard, on the surface, to discern. Tracing and confirming the marginal effect of any one of a myriad of activities at a watershed scale is a herculean task. Often, none of these actions were intended to harm fish, or even thought to harm fish and may have been unregulated.

Yet, the fish are declining or gone. Connecting the dots between logging, mining, farming, irrigating, building our towns and cities and the impacts on fish is where to start to understand the declines in native fish populations. The net effect on fish of these activities is both cumulative and dramatic.

Fish losses in Alberta are not solely a function or an artifact of history — it is also a current event, happening as we speak in a watershed near you. The past has an annoying way of trespassing into the present. Every decision about how we use and develop land, water and other resources is a decision about the fate of fish. And, the myth of endless growth and the policy of multiple use without weighing the consequences of either sentenced many fish to an untimely end.

A prognosis for Alberta’s native fish
With a few tiny exceptions, there has been precious little movement towards actively managing or restoring fish habitat. The recent Fish Conservation and Management Strategy for Alberta contains good words on integration, planning, monitoring, use of science and stewardship to benefit fish. But, it is weak on implementation actions that would ultimately produce and sustain fish by protecting and restoring habitat.

Keeping fish swimming isn’t solely a fisheries management task as much as it is one of watershed management. It is not a simple matter of too few fish; it is there is very little suitable habitat left to produce fish. It is a problem fisheries biologists cannot solve on their own. It is one that all invested in land use and in landscape planning must solve.

The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (2014-2024) is part of regional planning under the Alberta Land-use Framework. This region, containing the Bow and Oldman watersheds, contains six threatened fish species, more than any other region in Alberta. Yet, none are mentioned in the regional plan, nor is there a specific goal to keep them and other species from winking out of existence.

Rather, timber trumps trout, potatoes are prioritized over pike and energy development (oil, gas, coal and hydro-power) foils fish. There is consistency in policy that favors economic development over environmental protection. What is noticeably absent is the spine to address the thorny issues of conservation targets and thresholds.

Provincially, instead of protecting habitat the management lever of choice is regulating the harvest of fish by anglers. This lever lacks a fulcrum to maintain critical fish habitat and critically ignores a myriad of compelling research on the connection between land use and fish declines. What it does do, obliquely, is raise the profile of fish decline amongst anglers. But, if only anglers feel the pain of recreational loss it is unlikely to spark changes to protect fish habitat. Angling regulations provide a thin veneer of commitment to fisheries protection, without any real pain to our economic endeavors.

Fish, like most species except us, live within a narrow slice of liveable conditions; a slight variation in water temperature, a nano-shift in the chemical makeup of water, low supply of sediment from the watershed and stream flows or lake levels that create optimal habitat conditions. These variables have to be within the range of natural variability that these species evolved with.

Fish biologists have begun to chant a mantra to explain the critical elements of habitat to maintain fish populations, the four Cs: cool, clean, complex and connected.

Cool water (or cold in the case of trout) is a function of watersheds with a high degree of ecological integrity where water delivered as rain or snow melt can be trapped and stored in shallow ground water aquifers for release later in the year. A combination of ground water storage and well vegetated riparian areas which provide shading minimizes the warming effect of direct sunlight. These mechanisms of keeping water cool are key to adapting to the impacts of climate change.

Clean is maintaining water quality in which fish survive and thrive. It is as simple as keeping nutrients, pesticides, herbicides, contaminants, pharmaceuticals and sediment out of the water, the same water we will eventually drink. Sediment is a pervasive problem, interfering with fish spawning, eliminating aquatic invertebrates (the building block of fish flesh) as well as being the carrier for many of the water quality contaminants.

Complex speaks to in-stream habitat as well as near-stream habitat and the niches provided with woody debris, channel diversity and flow regimes that provide the dynamic systems within which fish evolved.

Finally, Connectivity is ensuring fish populations have the opportunity to interact to maintain genetic diversity. As well, it is the ability to weather the natural catastrophes that can wipe out fish in one area but the population can rebound because of movement and migration from another.

The four “Cs” of fish conservation have to operate at both localized levels and at landscape scales. So far this is a dream unrealized in Alberta although some of the watershed groups formed under the province’s Water for Life strategy are attempting to inject large scale thinking into watershed planning and reach solutions to specific problems.

The cumulative effect of stressors on a fish’s environment and on fish may be more than the simple sum of the individual stress factors. Fish may be able to cope with human-caused sediment if water levels or flows are high. They may be able to cope with some water level or flow reductions but they can’t cope with multiple perturbations at once. Like pulling out the supporting walls of a house, multiple and synergistic stressors undermine the resilience of fish and both fish and house will eventually collapse.

The thing about fishery collapses is that these are not completely predictable and do not happen according to some recipe. All the fish don’t die at once (usually); instead they disappear in a series of almost indistinguishable whimpers, too quietly, too silently for most to notice.

However, we are getting better at defining thresholds, the crucial lines that once crossed, signal imminent fish population collapse. It could be phosphorus concentrations in the water from our land use activities. Adam Norris demonstrated this in his 2004 thesis related to predicting persistence or failure of Arctic grayling populations in the Wapiti River watershed. Higher phosphorous concentrations equated to declines and eventual extirpation of grayling populations.

Sediment from an eroding human land use footprint has long been recognized as a serious issue for fish. Biologists Cordone and Kelly documented, in a landmark paper published in 1961, the problems of sediment waves associated with post WW II logging in California and concluded:

“More than anything else we need to develop a philosophy of land husbandry that will avoid the creation of untreated and running sores on the earth’s surface. Man must acquire a responsibility to future generations that matches the power he has gained through the development of heavy machinery. Our observations in the field and our review of the existing literature leads us to the unshakable conclusion that unless this can be done many of our trout streams will be destroyed by the deposition of sediment.”

This relationship between road density, the land use footprint, sediment and fish population persistence (or not) seems clear. The research results are exhaustive, categorical and yet unconscionably ignored as our land use footprint continues to bleed sediment.

The measuring sticks we have can help us assess the intensity and the types of land use to which watersheds are subjected. We also have the tools to apply as mechanisms to predict outcomes of additional activity; they await our use to understand risk and to make better decisions.

Indicator species are creatures so dependent on and inextricably linked with living conditions in their environments that a decline in their populations signals a deterioration in habitat and reflects dire consequences for other species. Because everything we do in and on the land inevitably winds up in the water, and then runs both by and through fish, they are sentinels for us, signalling the success or the failure at managing watersheds for health, integrity and sustainability. They are our distant early warning signals. We should learn to watch for what they are telling us.

If we wait for a fisheries collapse to occur we may then find it is impossible to set the ecological clock back to midnight, to successfully restore ecosystem function and begin anew to rebuild a fish population.

The cumulative and, in many cases irreversible loss of native fish virtually everywhere in Alberta over our history of settlement should shock us. If anything approximating this had happened to most of Alberta’s charismatic mammalian species it would have made for banner headlines and some level of political commitment to action.

A call for action.
What I know as a Cree proverb goes, “only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.” Nor can we use our vast wealth, accumulated through the use (and misuse) of our natural resources to replace lost native fish with something else. We can’t recreate native fish species out of plastic, rebuild the genetics or find substitutes. Our sole hope is to retain them and their habitats as a mechanism for recovery efforts.

Sometimes the ability to envision what is out of sight is more important than merely seeing what is right in front of us. Fish fall into that category. Native fish are integrators of water quality, hydrology plus the intensity and frequency of the land use footprint. The presence, absence, abundance, distribution and health of native fish are indicators of landscape integrity.

Fish, given their watery homes, are largely invisible to us terrestrial creatures. It isn’t that fish are actually invisible, it is that people are unused to seeing them, of perceiving that they live beneath the surface of the water. Of course, if no one sees them, are they really there at all? And, if they somehow disappear, does anyone note their disappearance?

The slippery hordes of native fish no longer swim anywhere in the multitudes they did in the past. In many watersheds even the memory of them is gone. Sometimes stories remain but these are often seen as imperfect recollections, or worse, imaginings, not to be trusted or believed. This makes it easy to disregard the present plight of fish and the decline in habitat that supports fish, to ignore potential and lost capability and erroneously set goals for fisheries management.

As Dr. Andrea McGregor points out:

“…managers, scientists and citizens are likely to assume the ecosystem conditions of the intermediate and distant past resemble those of their own remembered history and thus can be ignored — a classic characteristic of the shifting baseline syndrome.”

In fishing dominated circles great debates rage. It is usually over whether or not a fish population is declining or increasing. Opinions are usually strong, though somewhat unsubstantiated by fact, and there is little wiggle room for compromise in the conversations. Experts are numerous on both sides. Just when the evidence seems to indicate in favour of a dwindling population, someone catches a big one and fuel is added to the fire of debate. While the angler responds to how many were caught and their size, the tools of fisheries science are more sophisticated and can tell a different story about the status of a fish population.

It is probably human nature that we are more inclined to listen for the bang of things going seriously, quickly and irrevocably wrong but tend to be deaf to the whisper, the whimper of the incremental pathway to the same endpoint.

There are theories of extinctions of the geological past that center on asteroids — massive, external events that precipitated a cataclysmic, catastrophic demise of creatures. Then, there have been the human induced extirpations and extinctions including a large part of the post glacial megafauna of North America, the dodo bird, right whales, the passenger pigeon and the bison. The last one, bison, probably still resonates in most minds.

But, it goes on. Only the scope and scale differ, and in the case of native fish, not by much. What is different is the retreat of fish is a largely silent, unseen and unheralded event. Fish are not only out of sight, they are out of mind. This is the modern version of the bison demise played out on an aquatic stage behind a watery curtain that is opaque at best.

Theoretically, fish species missing or in decline enjoyed some statutory safety, at least from angler harvest, but the watersheds that sustained them have limited protection. There is “intentional harm” — poaching fish for example. There is also “incidental harm” which alters habitat in ways to impair life cycle requirements —like sediment bleeding from logging roads. Most critically, if habitat is not being protected, things will not improve for fish.

A decision point for Albertans, before the last fish swims to a watery grave is this — shall we be bold and ask for some of the allocation of fish (through fish habitat losses) back? This will require habitat restoration, riparian revival, fewer chemicals leaking into the water and, less sediment to muddy the water. It will be a commitment to a watershed of watershed improvement, true integrated planning, full cost accounting and an ecological approach to decision making about future resource decisions.

Or, we could just suck it up, calling it, as we have become want to do — the price of progress. But that ignores Alberta’s fish crisis. On reflection we might find progress has too high a price tag, especially when applied to fish.

In the Dr. Seuss classic that opened this essay is found this: “So, open your mouth, lad. For every voice counts”. Native fish need acknowledgement, empathy, encouragement and friends. Otherwise the rhyme will continue as:

Over in the meadow where the stream ran blue,
Lived an old mother fish and her little fishes two.
Dug and cut and dumped did we.
So much money in our pockets, see.
Then there were none where there used to be two.
Fish used to live where the steam ran blue.

January, 2015

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary. Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I write a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine.
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8 Responses to Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish—Alberta’s Fish Crisis

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  5. Jim Jordan says:

    Excellent stuff Lorne however as humans we have forgotten how to see or hear.

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