North Central Native Trout (NCNT) Recovery Program

Trout Unlimited Canada recently released its official position on the contentious North Central Native Trout recovery program.

For some background, Dave Jensen has written a lengthy piece on the history and current state of fisheries management in the Ram system, specifically, and Alberta, in general.

When you've finished with that, make sure you speak on behalf of fisheries in our watershed, too: fill out AEP's Eastern Slopes Zone 1 (ES1) management survey here

And before you begin to draft angry letters to fisheries biologists, we are happy to share some thoughts from Lorne Fitch in his essay, "Fisheries Management - Complex, Complicated and Poorly Comprehended."

Fisheries Management- Complex, Complicated and Poorly Comprehended

Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.

Fisheries management isn’t rocket science- it’s vastly more complicated. Divining information on how fish live, their habitat requirements and their status is, by no means, simple. “Counting fish is just like counting trees — except that they are invisible and keep moving,” says John Sheperd of the University of South Hampton. What we do know about the fisheries of the watersheds of Eastern Slopes is that westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout, Athabasca rainbows and Arctic grayling populations are all in trouble. Mountain whitefish populations may be as well.

Fisheries collapsed before there was the province of Alberta and before the advent of fisheries biologists. A natural calamity might wipe out fish populations in a segment of a watershed. Connectivity, the ability of fish to move freely within and between watersheds allowed populations to re-establish. Any lake with a fur trading post had both an awesome and unsustainable tonnage of fish removed. In those simpler times, without the added footprint of development, cessation of fishing resulted in a rebound of fish populations. It is not as simple anymore with the double whammy of angling pressure and habitat loss.

Every living thing eventually dies, except zombies perhaps, and does so from the extreme risk of youth, to the stagnation of middle age and the acceleration in old age. Fish begin dying as eggs lain in the stream gravels; only a tiny fraction will survive to the fry stage. Young fish suffer death from competition over food and space. All age classes will suffer predation from kingfishers, mergansers, mink and bigger fish. Non-native trout compete with the natives for resources and may hybridize, reducing fitness for survival. Fish are tested every day within the dynamic systems they live, by flood, drought, fires, landslides and cold snaps that can freeze streams down to the rocks.

Overlain on this landscape of extreme variability is a land use footprint that is extensive, expansive and cumulative. For some species of wildlife there is opportunity to prosper with some types of land use. For fish, any land use footprint increases the risk to populations and often results in declines. An additional complication is the impact of human-induced climate change, especially on water temperatures. Therein lies the conundrum for fish and, for fisheries biologists to manage populations with the combination of a natural range of variability and human-induced cumulative effects.

A contributing problem is we lack benchmarks for healthy, abundant fish populations so it is difficult to know what is in the realm of the possible. If there is a watershed in Alberta that still contains historic levels of trout, it must be well hidden and virtually inaccessible.

Many people have become so inured to the damage in our watersheds it becomes difficult to see that essential riparian buffers have become too thin and are unhealthy. Beyond the riparian zone logging has changed the hydrologic regime to produce higher spring flooding followed by less water available in critical times for the summer, fall and winter. This can persist for decades. Too many roads and trails lace watersheds, each a conduit for speeding runoff and acting as silt pumps. Culverts, diversions and dams block upstream passage, dams turn stream habitats into sterile reservoirs and divert water from the system.  Many streams are subject to excess nutrients, herbicides, pesticides, selenium, mercury and pharmaceuticals.

If overwintering pools fill with sediment, mud coats and permeates spawning and rearing gravels which also produce fish food, algae growths rob the stream of oxygen and critical overwinter flows are too low, no amount of tinkering with angling regulations will successfully restore trout populations. Until we address the fundamental, underlying problems related to our historic and current land use decisions, fish populations don’t have a ghost of a chance of recovery.

Today, the trout of the Eastern Slopes are not dying exclusively of natural causes. They are bleeding to death from a thousand cuts inflicted upon them by us.

So, when it comes to declines in fish populations and the need to recover them fisheries biologists are first in line to have the cross hairs of outrageous fortune targeted on them. Everyone seems to have an opinion, generally contrary to the management strategy offered by biologists. Most are fixated on their corner of the fishing world and on their particular desires. Because of the phenomena of shifting benchmarks many cannot believe we have a fish crisis. This can include bureaucrats who haven’t studied history or reviewed archival photographs.

Anglers may carry a fishing rod and have fishing experiences but fisheries biologists wield some truths about fish. A fundamental one is that land use has changed the watersheds fish live in, sometimes irrevocably. Another one is, all angling results in fish mortality, either intentionally through legitimate creel limits, or illegal poaching. Even catch and release fishing causes a collateral mortality. In some watersheds trout may be vulnerable to any level of angling related mortality because of a depressed population size.

We are now at a point where we have traded off healthy, sustainable fish populations for economic development. If anglers and others sense this imbalance has robbed them of recreational opportunity and of watersheds of health and resilience they should start addressing the issue with their elected representatives. Blaming fisheries biologists for scuttling your angling pleasure (and freedom) is as nonsensical as blaming your doctor for your misspent youth.

Today’s fisheries biologists are also anglers and got into their profession as a result of their association with the sport. They are kindred spirits.

Their goal is to reverse the negative trends in fish populations as this is job one as articulated in the Fish Conservation and Management Strategy for Alberta. Angling and harvest of fish can only come after the prime directive is met. Yes, data on fish population status is often inconsistent, sparse and dated. In fisheries management the materials are living objects, existing in a dynamic environment. No one condition is uniform from lake to lake, from watershed to watershed and no problem is capable of exact solutions.

If we wait to fill all those gaps, fish populations in some watersheds will surely wink out, not a desirable outcome. That’s why we need to rely on the professional judgement of fisheries biologists who have gathered and assessed what data exists, used it to model responses to various activities. Models are a surrogate for reality, useful for delineating the actions that have the most potential; the test is applying and monitoring the actions at a scale appropriate to the desired population response.  Perfect- no; expedient- yes.

To modify an old aphorism slightly, it takes fish to make fish. Natural mortality, loss of critical habitats for spawning, rearing and overwintering plus harvest, incidental, illegal or minimal may create a bottleneck that doesn’t allow a trout population to reach, and exceed a critical mass. But, how does one distinguish which factors or combination have the greatest influence on populations?

Cumulative effects analysis shows fisheries biologists the likely extent to which habitat or harvest (or both) are the bottlenecks holding population recovery back. It is a systematic way to work out the issues, especially the habitat ones and not look for answers exclusively in modifying angler harvest.

Fisheries biologists are gifted in the application of science, not in the art of communication. If there is a flaw in the debate about fisheries management look there instead of the science. Better transparency on decisions in fisheries management would be helpful and create a foundation of understanding.

Trout in the Eastern Slopes are subject to many stressors, natural and human-induced. The degree to which a stressor impacts a population, or a combination does is intertangled. That complexity needs to be dissected so a realistic response can be undertaken. Will a little bit of intervention work, or does the medicine have to be stronger? Catch and release might be on the level of an aspirin; watershed closure a major painkiller.

Some contend that harvest is essential, to attract and keep a constituency of anglers. The theory is- what you catch and eat you will support and defend. While there may be a kernel of reason in that, killing fish to defend them, especially those species already at risk seems contrarian. We would not consider any level of additional harm to wildlife species deemed at risk, including limited harvest and harassment (which is what catch and release fishing is to an imperiled fish species). A large number of people who are wildlife enthusiasts, vigorously defend wildlife populations even though they do not hunt. Surely we can do the same for fish under circumstances of their imminent demise.

Like a hanging, closure of a watershed focuses one’s attention. Closures are risky; they divert angling attention and pressure onto other trout populations. Among other things it is a signal fisheries biologists have done all that is in their power to restore a fish population, and it isn’t enough. In effect fisheries biologists have met their due diligence for species at risk recovery, now the rest of government and industry have to respond. The “hot potato” of decisions on land use to meet a fish recovery strategy now is in another court, where it properly needs to be because, the conservation of fish populations isn’t the sole responsibility of fisheries biologists, nor are they equipped to deal with all the economic and social issues affecting fisheries declines. Fisheries biologists do advocate for better land use decisions through planning and work with other agencies, industry and conservation groups to facilitate solutions to habitat issues.

Fisheries biologists can control a few things: when people angle; where they can angle; how they can angle (tackle used/restrictions); what they can harvest (species, numbers, and sizes); and whether to stock to bolster native populations and/or remove non-native species. What they have no control over includes: the number of anglers (including those under 16 and over 65 who don’t require angling licenses); where anglers fish within areas open to angling; the experience, proficiency and ethics of anglers; how anglers access areas to fish; regulation enforcement; and what anglers find when they reach a fishing spot (e.g. logging, wellsites, polluted water, low stream flow, dams and diversions, compromised riparian health, off highway vehicle (OHV) misuse, gravel mining, random camping…).

Anglers, the conservation community and even those that don’t fish, but want to know someone is looking after their environmental interests need to work together on recovery, recognizing fisheries biologists are their allies, not the enemy. A start would be to recognize the stewardship obligations we all have. Supporting mandatory angler education (especially fish identification) and using our voices to ask elected representatives to prioritize habitat restoration through better land use guidelines, oversight and enforcement would be essential.

It’s time we face the music with fish populations, especially along the Eastern Slopes. The chickens of development and human population pressure have come home to roost.  A focus on treating symptoms will not achieve recovery; only a painful recognition of the link between land use, habitat and fish will bring us there. To restore native trout populations requires strong medicine that many may find bitter. Everything else is just window dressing. In fairness, loggers, miners, grazers, drillers, OHV users, developers and others who engage in activities in East Slope watersheds need to feel the pain anglers currently do and make the changes necessary to allow trout populations to recover.

There is an old Arab philosophy about health which goes, health is the digit one (1), love is zero (0), glory is zero (0), and success is zero (0). Put the one of health beside the others and you are rich (1000). Without the one of health, everything is zero.  This can be modified into a fish context. Habitat is digit one, catch and release is zero, stocking is zero, barbless hooks are zero, seasonal closures are zero and bait bans are zero. Put the one of habitat beside the others and you have abundant, healthy fish populations. But without the one of habitat everything else is zero. We would all be wise to remember this.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.