Struggling to Protect Fisheries

[Note: The following was first published in the May 2015 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

As I stepped out of the drift boat into the cool waters of Vancouver Island’s Elk River, my eyes caught the flashes of many rainbow trout circling in the eddy of a side-wash pool. Our guide, Gene Berkey of Sea Beyond Adventures, pointed to the relatively calm water above the pool and told me to place the fly there and let it drift down. I peeled out line and casted as instructed, the fly landing lightly on the surface. Sure enough, a nice rainbow hit it with authority and I soon brought it to net. We admired the iridescent colors of the fat fish and then gently returned it to the water.

fishing Elk River

The author fishing the fly-fish only Elk River on Vancouver Island.

As we continued floating down the river casting from the boat and then from shore, my wife and I enjoyed a pleasant day catching many beautiful fish in the mountain wilderness of Strathcona Provincial Park. All during the trip, I couldn’t help but compare what I was experiencing with the fishing waters of my teenage youth.

Gene Berkey and rainbow

Guide Gene Berkey showing one of the fine rainbows we caught that day.

As a teenager growing-up in 1960s Los Angeles, I discovered the adventure of backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, the granite mountain range that forms the backbone of central and northern California and most of which is protected from development by national parks and forests. In those days, advances in backpacking technology (aluminum frames sculptured to fit your back) were just coming on the market and the trails were not as crowded as they were soon to become. The result was that most populations of native trout (rainbow, cutthroat, golden) were still relatively untouched. Few people who hiked the trails brought fishing gear, but those of us who did had some great fishing experiences. In those days, fishing regulations were liberal even in the national parks, and we had many meals of fresh trout in our trail camps.

When I moved to Alberta in 1970, I found similar situations in the mountains and foothills of the Rockies: trout eager to take a fly in some spectacular country. Creel limits were relatively generous (compared to today), and the waters were not crowded with anglers. It was possible to have an enjoyable day of fishing and keep some fish for dinner. As we all know, that’s no longer the case, as it is no longer the case in the Sierra Nevada (where all native trout must be released).

We’ve all heard the mantra of the government that there are only some 800 sportfish-bearing water bodies in Alberta, and with an ever-increasing number of anglers, more restrictions on what anglers can take are necessary to conserve fish stocks. We are not blessed with the multitude of lakes other provinces are, so we have to adapt to ensure future generations can have the experience of catching a wild fish. Otherwise, we won’t have any fish. Right?

Well, to a point. Too many anglers taking too many fish will eventually collapse a fishery. However, as retired fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch wrote in a recent essay on why our fisheries are collapsing, “Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish—Alberta’s Fish Crisis”, too many anglers keeping fish are not the sole reason we are seeing less quality fishing in our streams and lakes. If that was the case, then the restrictive regulations we have experienced over the last few decades should have returned our fisheries to their former glory. That obviously hasn’t happened.

The numbers aren’t coming back because we have failed to protect habitat. It is a lot easier for government to create new fishing regulations that restrict the actions of anglers than it is to enforce habitat-protection regulations that restrict the actions of developers and resource extractors. The latter actively lobby governments to reduce regulations so they and their shareholders can make as big a profit as possible.

One of many examples Fitch cites is a study of Lac La Biche where walleye were extirpated from the lake by 1970 as a result of overfishing. However, there was also an increased nutrient flow (largely phosphorous and nitrogen) into the lake from development in the watershed that started in the 1950s. Several efforts to reinstate walleye over the years have largely failed because the changes to the habitat caused by the nutrient loading and other factors changed the way the ecosystem functions.

As I’ve related in this column, a similar situation occurred at Wabamun Lake, where walleye were fished out of the lake in the early 20th century. Efforts to re-establish walleye also failed but most likely as a result of the warm water outflow coming from the Wabamun power plant before it was decommissioned. The plant was constructed in the 1950s and used Wabamun Lake water to cool its generators. The warm water kept a portion of the lake ice-free all winter. As a consequence, the reintroduced walleye spawned in that water weeks earlier than normal and the resultant fry did not find enough food in the colder portions of the lake to survive. Since the plant closed in 2010, walleye stocked since then have successfully reproduced and their offspring appear to be thriving.

Although Wabamun does have a nutrient load in its water, it is not yet at the levels of Lac La Biche and other lakes in central Alberta. So, there is hope for Wabamun’s fisheries if the three levels of government ever get their acts together to control the development around the lake.

Fitch also documented how our trout populations in the foothills and mountains (e.g., cutthroat and bull trout) have suffered from mismanagement and habitat destruction that has been occurring for decades. However in terms of what is happening today, perhaps the saddest of Fitch’s examples is that of Alberta’s Arctic grayling that historically ranged throughout the Peace, Athabasca and Hay River basins. This beautiful fish that thrives in cool pristine waters and is a fly fisher’s dream has lost 40% of its range and 90% of its numbers in many waters, mainly as a result of habitat changes on a landscape scale. This has all occurred within the living memory of old guys like me and has been well documented. Yet, the government continues to allow habitat-destructive development in these watersheds without consideration of the consequences to the fisheries and other resources like caribou. It’s like the right-hand not only does not know what the left hand is doing—it doesn’t care.

lunch

Many of the world’s problems are discussed at lunch in the Canadian wilderness.

Sitting on a gravel bar in the Elk River eating lunch with our British Columbia guide Gene Berkey, the conversation eventually drifted to how this beautiful mountain river came to be designated both a fly-fishing-only and catch-and-release-only stream. Berkey described a process where conservation organizations and outfitters got together and lobbied the BC government to protect streams and water bodies like the Elk River to provide quality fishing experiences, conserve the native fish species and ensure quality water for all. He said it was an ongoing struggle and often governments have to be reminded of the value of recreational fisheries to the economic and general well being of citizens when other developments are considered.

Protecting our outdoor heritage is indeed an ongoing struggle. However, after experiencing fishing in many other jurisdictions, and reading Lorne Fitch’s essay, I can’t help but feel we are losing the struggle here in Alberta.

Comments are always welcome (below).

www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out  The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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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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