Eileen Delehanty Pearkes. Photo submitted

THE LIVING LANDSCAPE: Kootenay Lake fishery — more funds needed for ‘boots in the boat’

Columnist Eileen Delehanty Pearkes says a lot has been learned lately that could help the fishery.

By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

Third in a three-part series on Kootenay Lake and the state of its fishery

The sunny side of the recent collapse of the Kootenay Lake fishery, if there is one, emerged from the scramble to figure out what happened. Ministry staff found a temporary source of funding for intensive monitoring of nutrient levels in the lake. They have learned a great deal that will assist them in better management decisions in the future.

It makes sense that the application of good science would help. This begs the larger question: why would monitoring money be temporary?

For thousands of years, the Kootenay Lake fishery managed itself. As a result of dams, the health and productivity of our region’s fisheries are now largely dependent on human intervention. History has proven over and over that when the culture intervenes with good science and well-funded programs, human effort breeds success.

The nutrient program adding nitrogen and phosphorus to the main lake is a good example, as are the three spawning channels at Meadow, Kokanee and Redfish Creeks.

Since 1992, the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program and BC Hydro have funded the north arm nutrient additions. In the past 15 years, American and Canadian interests have begun to cooperate on other innovative international enhancement programs. Beginning in 2003, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho (KTOI) began to fund nutrient additions to the south arm of Kootenay Lake, and additional monitoring for nutrients. Their added support has led to further understanding of and improved conditions in the lower food web of the lake’s eco-system.

The KTOI works with the B.C. Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations to guide the sturgeon re-introduction program.

The program has rapidly reversed the trend to extinction of the Kootenay River/Lake’s population. Recently, the tribe constructed a state-of-the-art hatchery and rearing facility for burbot (our region’s unique fresh water cod, Lota lota), in Moyie Springs, Idaho.

Burbot are difficult to rear in aquaculture. Using the technology, the new facility is doing it well, making use of brood stock caught in Moyie Lake. For the past two years, large numbers of hatchery-reared burbot have been released into the Kootenay River-Kootenay Lake system, as it crosses the international boundary.

In the fall of 2015, the hatchery released 100,000 six month-old juvenile burbot into the river/lake system. In 2016, the hatchery released 40,000 more. The survival rate of these fish to their first year was 10 per cent.

Though this seems low, I have been told by fisheries biologists that it’s a great result for young fish. For two to four year old burbot, the survival rate increases to 85 to 90 per cent. There is no sign yet of breeding in the wild, the goal of the program.

Anglers can help, too. At one point during the meeting last summer in Balfour, anglers heard that their well-intending catch-and-release behaviours may have contributed to the collapse of the fishery, returning too many Gerrard rainbows to the system when their numbers were already on the rise. Maintaining the delicate balance in the Kootenay Lake fishery between predator Gerrards and young kokanee calls for more monitoring and better communication between government managers and fishermen during the high-volume fishing season.

There can’t be enough communication between those managing the fishery with the anglers working to catch them.

But monitoring and staff time cost money. We need funding for more boots-in-the-boat presence. What are our taxes and hydro-power profits giving back to the region’s water, especially after all the water has done for us?

Not enough, I say. Not enough.

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes lives in Nelson. Selected as Nelson’s 2017 Cultural Ambassador, she has spent 25 years exploring the region and its cultural history and authoring various books: The Geography of Memory, The Inner Green (co-author K.L. Kivi), River of Memory (co-author William Layman), The Heart of a River and most recently A River Captured. This article represents her own views.

Earlier columns in this series:

The Kootenay Lake Fishery and why the kokanee are cranky

The Living Landscape: ‘It’s tough to be God’ — A story of wobbling fish populations

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