“There’s something wrong when I can list off the species of fish that we caught on one hand.”
Alberta Fish and Wildlife
The word “shocking” can have two different meanings, and both apply to a recent study of Alberta rivers, says Mike Sullivan, provincial fisheries scientist with Alberta Fish and Wildlife.
The department uses “electrofishing” to temporarily shock fish so that they can be counted and the health of their population assessed, and the study results were shocking as well, Sullivan told a Cows and Creeks day held here recently at Caroline.
In 2005, the Battle River watershed advisory approached Sullivan to do a fishing study on the Battle River, one of the major tributaries of the North Saskatchewan. Sullivan conducted an electro-fishing study on the Battle River in the summers of 2005, 2006 and 2007. Researchers went to several key locations and shocked fish within two kilometres of each location along the entire Battle River.
“We shocked nearly 128 kilometres of river and captured about 3,473 fish,” said Sullivan.
The picture gathered from this study was rather dismal. This tributary was once teeming with goldeye, according to many locals. Sullivan and his research team were only able to find seven goldeye in all of the lengths they surveyed. “We caught a lot of fish but it was white suckers, cichlid suckers, and little minnows,” said Sullivan.
Goldeye and other species such as walleye have almost disappeared from the river system. “There’s something wrong when I can list off the species of fish that we caught on one hand,” said Sullivan. “Of the 19 fish species that local farmers and ranchers had told us were in the river, we only caught 14, and only six in any numbers. The river has really changed,” he said.
Sullivan said the fish population in the Battle River has degraded for many reasons. Forests became fields and these fields were plowed right to the edge of the river, which allowed sediments and nutrients to run into the river. Wetlands and springs were destroyed and shorelines were heavily developed, which means natural filters and habitats were destroyed.
Towns have developed near the rivers, which contributed to over-fishing and sewage runoff. Sullivan said fertilizer nutrients and runoff have also caused a problem for the North Saskatchewan river.
Degradation of the river has also occurred due to livestock roaming in the river, eroding the banks and dropping manure in the water.
Development the culprit
By tracking the fish population and graphing it, Sullivan was able to determine that fish health was poorest around areas with heavy municipal and agricultural development.
“This isn’t the banks of the river, this is six miles from other side. I can look at the bucket of fish and tell you whether we were in ranch country with native pasture or whether we were in a city with black fields right up to the edge,” he said.
From running a cumulative model, Sullivan found that the quality of the river will continue to degrade.
The loss of streams and wetlands has had a major impact on Alberta’s rivers. In order to improve the help of the rivers, Sullivan suggested paying farmers and ranchers for maintaining good water practices.
“It’s a pretty simple idea. We know that natural shorelines and good wetlands can make clean water,” he said. “Right now the City of Edmonton spends about $90 million a year treating river water.”
Sullivan suggested that producers who maintain shorelines and wetlands that help keep water clean could be financially compensated for their efforts. Counties need to take control over their municipalities and zone land in order to maintain clean air and water, he said. “We pay for clean water,” he said. “We should pay the people who grow it.”