Conservationists call for changes to Arrow Lakes fishery

Compensation program agrees to scale back Hill Creek Spawning Channel after human-spawned fry found to be pressuring natural kokanee runs

From left: Jeff Burrows

The Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program is being urged to re-think the way it manages the Arrow Lakes fishery, with a greater focus on restoring wild spawning streams over operating artificial spawning channels.

The advice came from a meeting in Nakusp last Monday, Mar. 31, where four biologists from the FWCP made presentations about the state of the fishery. They spoke about the nutrient restoration program and presented charts on the number of people fishing and the fish being caught. They spoke about the Hill Creek Spawning Channel and about what the program plans on doing in the future.

What they heard back is that they need to re-think and re-focus their efforts, because what they’re doing doesn’t seem to be working.

The FWCP presentation focused on three things — the nutrient restoration program, the angler survey, and the Hill Creek spawning channel. Here’s a look at all three, followed by the feedback they received.

Nutrient restoration program

Marley Bassett, a fish biologist, spoke about the nutrient restoration program.  It started in 1998 with the aim of adding phosphorous to the Arrow Lakes reservoir to improve the food web from the bottom up, she explained. Phytoplankton eat phosphorous, zooplankton eat phytoplankton, kokanee eat zooplankton and the bigger fish eat kokanee. The reservoir is monitored to show how the phosphorous is moving up through the food web.

Bassett told the group that phosphorous levels in the reservoir were remaining steady, indicating the nutrients are moving up through the food web.

“In general, since the nutrient restoration project is going on, we’ve had a three-fold increase in biomass for kokanee, but unfortunately the last few years have not been so great,” she said.

The chart she presented showed a huge increase in kokanee in the first five years of the nutrient restoration program, followed by a general decline since then.

“Same as the other guys, we see these cycles. It’s a bit concerting, but one thing that’s happened in 2013 that changed the pace a little bit, is we see an increase in the size,” she said. “Bigger fish is good, it means better in-lake survival and it means better reproductive success.”

Angler survey

How much are people going fishing and what are they catching? That was the topic of Steve Arndt’s portion of the presentation.

Arndt, also a fish biologist, presented several graphs on the angler survey that he runs. They showed how many people were fishing, what they caught and the size of the fish. The graphs showed data from Shelter Bay, Nakusp and the Castlegar area.

Before the nutrient restoration program started in 1998, Castlegar was the busiest fishing spot on the lake, followed by Nakusp and Shelter Bay. After the program was started, Nakusp numbers climbed while Castlegar numbers fell to similar levels as Shelter Bay.

“Overall, if you look at these three sites together the last few years and you follow it across, we’re definitely below the peaks before and after nutrients, but we’re still above these worst years before the beginning of the nutrient program,” Arndt said.

He also showed harvest data for four different fish — burbot, bull trout, rainbow trout and kokanee.

For burbot, catch levels have remained steady. For bull trout and rainbow trout, the harvest increased after the start of the nutrient restoration program, but have since fallen back down. There are more rainbow trout that are more than 50 centimetres long being caught, but no rainbow trout weighing more than 15 pounds have been caught since 2005.

“I’m not saying nobody’s caught one, they just haven’t brought them into our station, so it’s not as common,” said Arndt.

As for the kokanee harvest — “This is where we’re doing really poorly on Arrow,” he said, noting the kokanee catches has declined steadily since the start of the nutrient restoration program

Reflecting what many local anglers would tell you, Arndt said not a single kokanee catch was recorded at Shelter Bay and Nakusp last year. However, he added that kokanee are generally fatter.

“The biomass has been three times higher on average since we started nutrients,” he said, adding later: “Either you can have a whole lot of very small fish and not much of a fishery, or you can have fewer but bigger fish and have a bigger fishery.

“If you want to have a kokanee fishery, you need to have bigger kokanee.”

Hill Creek spawning channel

High kokanee spawning in the Hill Creek Spawning Channel is a detriment to wild kokanee spawning in other streams, said Jeff Burrows, who manages the channel.

He said a meeting was held in Nelson last July where a group of experts reviewed the operation of the Hill Creek. Their goal was to look at the data and come up with a new strategy to improve the kokanee numbers in the Arrow Lakes.

“It was clear to us from the evidence that high Hill Creek fry production decreases production of all those other streams,” Burrows said.

The new goal is to reduce kokanee spawning in Hill Creek with the hope that the fish will return to other streams.

“When Hill Creek fry suppress the wild fry and too many shrink down the size of the kokanee, there’s not much point of going at maximum capacity at Hill Creek,” said Burrows.

He said Hill Creek will keep operating but at lower numbers in order to optimize the number and size of kokanee for fishing and feeding predators like bull trout.

The feedback

Once the FWCP biologists were done talking, the floor was open to questions, and they heard an earful about their programs.

There was questions about the sturgeon release, the presence of invasive fish species, and the impact of water flow on the fishery. The biggest critique came from a group from Revelstoke, who said the FWCP needs to completely re-think how it manages the Arrow Lakes fishery — particularly above Shelter Bay, where the Columbia is still a river for most of the year.

“At this time of year the reservoir is low enough that from Revelstoke to Shelter Bay is actually a river, and the fishery is being managed as a lake fishery,” said Brian Gadbois, a former BC Hydro biologist.  “If it was managed as a river fishery, there would be closed seasons, especially at this time of year, especially in the fall.”

Gadbois’ point, that was echoed by several others, is that by allowing fishing in the river between Revelstoke and Shelter Bay all year, lots of fish are being caught as they’re swimming upstream to spawn.

“Right now there is a slaughter going on up there,” he said. “If you want a bull trout fishery in Arrow Lakes, that fishery needs to be managed differently, because it’s wiping out those populations.”

He said a boundary needed to be set where the river would be treated like one, so that it is closed to fishing when the water is low, and open when the water is high and the river turns into a lake.

Gadbois also took issue with the graphs that were shown, saying they essentially represented a flat line, with a little spike in the early 2000s. He said that indicated the nutrient restoration program wasn’t working.

“I think that everyone at that front table on day one of this fertilization program would have said that if we fertilize, that graph would look like Mount Everest,” he said. “Everything’s going to go straight up and it’s going to be a great success and everything would look wonderful.

“I’m not seeing that,” he continued. “What I’m seeing is exactly what you’re saying. You cranked production in Hill Creek for a few years and it basically wiped out production in all our tributary streams.

“I’d really like you to re-think these programs.”

Hank Scown, the president of the Nakusp Rod and Gun Club, said more effort should be made to have lots of fat kokanee in reservoir.

“Cutting back the numbers would only make sense to me if there was a food shortage for the kokanee, and if there’s a food shortage for the kokanee we can do something about that,” he said.

He said that instead of spending money on sturgeon recovery, it should be invested to improve the kokanee fishery.

“We’re allocating $35 million to white sturgeon,” he said. “$35 million to a fish that can’t prove that it will survive. It can’t spawn. It was doomed the day the dams went in. It’s going extinct. Let Darwin do his work and lets get working on the fish we can fish for and enjoy here.

“There’s the money. It’s going down the rat hole and we’re not focusing enough of it on the fish. The fish that we can use and we’d like to see sustainably regenerated in this system.”

Kim Doebert from Revelstoke said money needed to be invested to clear spawning streams of sediment that has built up while the reservoir has been in operation. Debris that used to flow downstream in the river now simply settles and blocks the channels that fish use to access their spawning grounds.

“We have to start moving rocks to make these channels more open and accessible.”

Gadbois said the goal should be to get the wild spawning streams back to their previous numbers rather than rely on Hill Creek.

“Whether it’s problems with tributary access, whether its populations that have been decimated — I think that’s where the priority has to be right now,” he said. “Get the populations back where they belong and then let’s start managing these tributaries.”

He mentioned Bridge Creek, a kokanee spawning stream in Revelstoke where school children are brought every fall to learn about the fish. Last year, the students were brought there, but there were no fish around.

“Something is very wrong with the management of this resource,” Gadbois said.

“Let’s get it back to a natural state.”

 

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