Burbot fishing at Balfour circa 1960. Photo courtesy of Ron Kerr

Burbot fishing at Balfour circa 1960. Photo courtesy of Ron Kerr

COLUMN: The Kootenay Lake fishery and why the kokanee are cranky

How power dams and pollution changed the Kootenay Lake fishery

By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

First in a two-part series about the Kootenay Lake fishery

If you have any anglers in your life who like to fish for kokanee, you might have noticed they are cranky. No wonder! Two years ago, Ministry of Environment technicians counted only 18,000 kokanee in the lake, the lowest since counts began in 1964, and only one percent of the highest number ever tallied.

That’s right: one percent of kokanee remained in the system. That autumn, ministry technicians planted half-a-million kokanee eggs in the Meadow Creek spawning channel. In spring, 2016, more than 90 percent of those eggs emerged from the gravel beds as fry and entered Kootenay Lake.

After a brief opening, however, the 2016 fishery closed down. The fish had all but disappeared. Rumours surfaced about a mysterious infection. Some anglers blamed overpopulation of a key kokanee predator, the northern pikeminnow. Frustrated locals packed a Balfour meeting in June last year. I was at that meeting and walked out when it was over, thinking about the past. Today’s woes are not the first struggle for kokanee anglers. It’s possible that a closer look at the history can help sort out what needs to happen next.

At one time, Kootenay Lake supported the largest inland fresh-water fishery in the world. The star of the show was the Gerrard Rainbow, an oversized trout maturing at over 10 kilos. Supporting this sport-fishing star were bull trout (once commonly known as Dolly Varden and still called that by many locals); Northern pikeminnow (once known as squawfish); whitefish; sturgeon; burbot and kokanee. People came from all over North America to fish on Kootenay Lake.

They seldom left disappointed.

Many old-timers have shared stories with me about the glory days of the 1950s to 70s, when the fish practically jumped into the boat. It was not hard to catch one’s limit for kokanee in a day. The fish were big, healthy and delicious, especially the burbot. Stories abound of Americans who once brought their own chest freezers with them in RVs, to stock them with burbot before returning to Spokane. It seemed there were enough fish for everyone, and then some.

The healthy fishery in the 50s to 70s is, for many, the gold standard. Ironically enough, it was not entirely natural. During that era, the cold, clean waters of Kootenay Lake received a big charge of nitrogen and phosphorus from industrial pollution discharged into the upper Kootenay River system in Kimberley and Cranbrook. While we don’t tend to see pollution as a positive thing, this effluent made its way 400 kilometers downstream to Kootenay Lake waters.

The “polluting” phosphorus and nitrogen can wreck havoc in warmer waters by causing algae blooms that gobble up oxygen. In a cold, clean water system like Kootenay Lake’s, the nutrients offer habitat rather than taking it away.

As with human beings, when fish have food, they can prosper. And prosper they did. Until the next phase of human intervention caused the opposite: a fish famine.

Duncan Dam, completed in 1967, closed off a natural source of nutrients flowing out of the Duncan River valley. Libby Dam, upstream of Kootenay Lake in Montana, blocked more natural nutrients from entering the lake when it was completed in 1973. Environmental laws ended the discharge of effluent on the upper Kootenay River.

Dams have had a crippling effect on the function of the Kootenay Lake fishery. In my book, A River Captured, I describe how the local wildlife federations and fishermen resisted them in the early 1960s, knowing that they would have a negative impact.

Their protests fell largely on deaf ears in the midst of national political and economic enthusiasm over the Columbia River Treaty. B.C. Hydro easily received water licenses to construct the dams, with only a few small conditions. The government required B.C. Hydro to construct two spawning channels — Meadow Creek on Kootenay Lake, and Hill Creek on Arrow.

Initially, the spawning channel helped. But the millions of fish entering the system found themselves in water that had changed.

Industry no longer pumped phosphorus and nitrogen into the system. Dams blocked most of the remaining natural nutrients from circulating in the system, and decreased oxygen. By the late 1980s, the floor had dropped out of the kokanee population. It was clear that the Kootenay Lake system was on the verge of complete collapse.

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes is author of A River Captured: the Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

School District 8 says a COVID-19 exposure has occurred at Nelson’s Rosemont Elementary. Photo: School District 8
Class at Nelson’s Rosemont Elementary in isolation after COVID-19 exposure

It’s not clear if any students or teachers were infected

FILE — In this March 31, 2021 file photo, a nurse fills a syringe with a dose of the Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose COVID-19 vaccine at the Vaxmobile, at the Uniondale Hempstead Senior Center, in Uniondale, N.Y. The U.S. is recommending a “pause” in administration of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots. In a joint statement Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said it was investigating clots in six women in the days after vaccination, in combination with reduced platelet counts. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
72 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

This brings the total number of cases in the region to 9,666 since the pandemic began

BC Assessment stats show the majority of Baker Street properties are likely to be locally owned. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
Data shows Nelson locals own majority of Baker Street properties

BC Assessment provided mailing address stats for the city’s main street

The toxic drug supply crisis was announced on April 14, 2016. File photo
Nelson demonstration to mark five years of toxic drug supply crisis

An information booth will also be available at ANKORS

Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison. Photo courtesy Conservative Party of Canada.
MP Morrison hopes for economic recovery plan in upcoming federal budget

Kootenay-Columbia Conservative looking for post-pandemic recovery plan in next week’s Liberal budget

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has restricted indoor dining at all restaurants in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 indoor dining, drinking ban extending into May

Restaurant association says patio rules to be clarified

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. Premier John Horgan speaks at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
Tougher COVID-19 restrictions in B.C., including travel, still ‘on the table’: Horgan

John Horgan says travel restrictions will be discussed Wednesday by the provincial cabinet

Protesters occupied a road leading to Fairy Creek Watershed near Port Renfrew. (Submitted photo)
B.C. First Nation says logging activist interference not welcome at Fairy Creek

Vancouver Island’s Pacheedaht concerned about increasing polarization over forestry activities

Flow Academy is not accepting membership applications from anybody who has received a dose of the vaccine, according to a password-protected membership application form. (Submitted image)
B.C. martial arts gym refusing patrons who have been vaccinated, wear masks

Interior Health has already issued a ticket to Flow Academy for non-compliance with public health orders

Guinevere, lovingly referred to by Jackee Sullivan and her family as Gwenny, is in need of a gynecological surgery. The family is raising money to help offset the cost of the procedure. (Jackee Sullivan/Special to Langley Advance Times)
Langley lizard’s owners raise funds for gynecological surgery

The young reptile is scheduled for operation on Tuesday

Facebook screenshot of the sea lion on Holberg Road. (Greg Clarke Facebook video)
VIDEO: Sea lion randomly spotted on remote B.C. logging road

Greg Clarke was driving home on the Holberg Road April 12, when he saw a large sea lion.

Defence counsel for the accused entered two not guilty pleas by phone to Grand Forks Provincial Court Tuesday, Jan. 12. File photo
B.C. seafood company owner fined $25K for eating receipt, obstructing DFO inspection

Richmond company Tenshi Seafood is facing $75,000 in fines as decided March 4 by a provincial court judge

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson speaks in the B.C. legislature, March 2, 2021. (Hansard TV)
B.C. NDP ministers defend ‘air tax,’ latest COVID-19 business aid

Empty home tax doesn’t apply to businesses, but space above them

Most Read