The cringeworthy history of Alberta’s Fisheries- And how we are barely hanging on.

The cringeworthy history of Alberta’s Fisheries- And how we are barely hanging on.

The best part of having a mind that wanders is stumbling across something completely random and having it fascinate you and change your outlook on something. This happened to me last night as I lay up in bed and read through an article discussing the historical abundance of Alberta’s native trout, and it dawned on me how widespread the destruction really was, and continues to be.

You see, most of us get this feeling when we are on one of Alberta’s productive trout streams that we are connected with something pure- something unchanged for thousands of years. This however, I now know, is only true in rare circumstances. Over the past hundred and a bit years, Alberta’s fisheries have been decimated and tampered with to the point where they are literally a shade of what they once were. And the truth about the pioneer days is enough to make any conservationist cringe and also bring attention to how susceptible these systems are to human impact.

When you catch a wild, native trout in its natural habitat, you truly are connected to something pure; something that has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years; something evolved with a distinctive genetic code that allows it to survive within a set of parameters, and withstand a certain amount of natural variation and change. Any extraneous, unnatural impact on these systems can swing the pendulum of variation a little to much, and the results can be the complete extirpation of entire populations.

Basically, Trout live in very specific places for very specific reasons, and these places happen to be the most beautiful places on earth. And, it doesn’t take much to make them disappear.

Alright, so the article I stumbled upon is written by U of C Biology Professor, Lorne Fitch, and was published on another blog by Don Meredith. It is quite long but I highly recommend giving it a read and having your mind blown, about A) the extent of overfishing in the pioneer days, and B) how fickle trout systems are. I have posted the link below. For those not interested in chugging through the whole article, I have compiled some of the interesting parts and more eye opening quotes to give you an idea of what Lorne Fitch  is talking about.

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

By: Lorne Fitch

“anglers were greedy, wasteful and even rapacious…”

Yes, the above quote sumarizes how i felt about the anglers of early days upon reading this article. It is truly astonishing to think about days when cutthroat got up to 12 pounds, Bullies were roaming the creeks of Red Deer, and 100-200 catch days were commonplace. Lorne discusses the collapse of Large Lake Settlements like Lac La Biche, the disappearance of goldeye populations, and just how widespread native trout  and grayling used to be. It is a interesting past to consider, and one that hopefully can be learned from.

The article discusses the decline of Grayling populations… 

There 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.

He describes his findings of the decline as a “perfect storm” of a bunch of different factors. The loss of Grayling population is a perfect example of how slight changes to the environment can come with pronounced changes to ecosystems. An example is the Beaverlodge River, a once prolific Grayling River now considered to have no Grayling left. He describes the main reasons…

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.

I found the part about Cutthroat Trout and Bull Trout to be the  most relevant to me personally. Especially when describing little creeks that I fish now. With these fish, over harvesting certainly played a significant role. Has anyone ever fished Fish Creek? Up in the headwaters, its not bad. I fish it sometimes with decent luck, for rainbows and brookies up to about 10″. But do you ever wonder how many fish you might have been able to catch in your favourite creeks in the early 1900’s?

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.”

Geez. 400 fish in one day! Talk about ruining the fun for future generations. And, has anyone ever caught a Cutthroat Trout of 12 lbs? Well, apparently thats how large they used to grow.

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…”

Many times I’ve driven past Trout Creek. When I was younger, I thought it must be great creek for fly-fishing, as early explorers must have named it Trout Creek for good reason. I searched a little more, only to discover that there is essentially no fish in Trout Creek. Well, isn’t that a shame. But after reading Lornes article, we find out that that was certainly not always the case.

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.

Lorne goes on to suggest that the trout population was largely gone in Trout Creek no more than 50 years later, by 1950, due to overfishing, cattle grazing, and livestock salting locations.  Similar stories unfold in many smaller creeks all across Alberta, including Willow Creek, which I still fish today, for almost exclusively tiny fish. Essentially, if there is a small creek that doesn’t have fish today, chances are it used too, in abundance.

Now, the poor old Bull trout. Back in the day, they werent even considered Trout; more like invasive, weed dwelling sucker fish, that were to be exterminated. Lornes findings support as much. What is even more startling is the extent of the Bull trouts native range before the onslaught.

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.

Public perception towards Bullies…

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…. 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.”

Hard to believe this is how sportsmen viewed the apex predator of all our Native streams. It is well known that the health of apex predators such as Bull Trout are great indicators of the overall health of the ecosystem. The article suggests that the decline in populations was already noticeable in the late 1890s,

“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.

As we all know now, Bull Trout are a protected species and Albertas Provincial fish, and are catch and release only. This has helped curb the decline, however, Lorne concludes that 94 % of the provincial Bull trout population is still in trouble.

Lorne does maintain that while the greedy, wasteful approach of sportfishermen was a major contributor, the major cause of the shrinking range of both Bull Trout and Native Cutthroat is development, like the dams on the Bow and Oldman Rivers, and habitat loss through agriculture and ranching.

Finally, I enjoyed the description of what is called the 4 C’s, or the 4 critical factors for maintaining that small window of liveable conditions for trout.

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… 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.

These 4 principles are good factors for anglers and conservationists. What I love about the trout fishing environment is how dynamic it is; turns out, this dynamic environment is exactly why the trout can exist there in the first place, and any sort of switch to the more mundane will also lead to the loss of the trout.

So, what does this all mean? Well, firstly, it means that old-timers are very justified in saying things like “they just don’t grow as big as they used to” or “back in my day this was loaded with trout.” It also means our generation is very justified in saying, “god damn, you idiots ruined this precious resource for all of us.” And, like climate change and other cases where we bear the responsibility of having to balance things back to a sustainable level, we are also the ones who have to protect the crucial resource of trout populations going forward.

Generally, I would say things are back on the right track. But I think more efforts have to come on the land use and development side, where government officials have to consider the effects of development on fish populations and how much of a runaway effect can occur from things like agriculture, oil and gas development, and forestry.

Hopefully you all found this as interesting as I did. And hopefully it inspires you to take care of the resource and maybe support some sort of cause like Trout Unlimited that is working to protect our fish.

For now, when you’re hooked into a nice cutthroat or Bull Trout on your favourite high country stream, enjoy that little sliver of a resource that used to seem so plentiful it would never go away. Until it does; and all that is left of it is memoirs and excerpts from a long, forgotten time.

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