Digging deeper for native trout recovery on the eastern slopes

Assessing human impacts on fish habitat has never been easy, but thanks to a partnership between several organizations, we are digging deeper to learn more about sediment that is piling up on native trout habitat. Alberta Agriculture and Forestry & the Foothills Research Institute have teamed up with the Alberta Environment and Parks Fisheries Management team, Trout Unlimited Canada, Cows and Fish and the University of Calgary to learn how to assess the scope and severity of human-caused sediment deposition into native trout habitat.

With this training in hand, Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) and our partner agencies will be locating and assessing sediment deposition areas in native trout recovery watersheds this summer. This information helps us target reclamation activities that will make the biggest impact to recovering native trout populations.

Where does all of this sediment come from?

When off-highway vehicles are driven through the water, plants are removed from the shoreline, or when roads and culverts are improperly built or maintained, fine sediment such as mud and silt enters the river from its usual resting place.

Sediment poses problems for native fish, including bull trout, Westslope cutthroat trout, and Athabasca rainbow trout. Floating sediment travels downstream and impacts water quality. When sediment settles to the bottom of these waterbodies, it can kill fish eggs by coating and cutting off their supply of oxygen and can reduce the quality and quantity of spawning habitat for future generations of fish. Native fish need access to clean, oxygen rich water at every stage of their life.

Unfortunately, sediment isn’t the only thing making life hard for native trout. Alberta’s fish populations are already threatened by loss of habitat, hybridization with other fish and over harvesting.

There are several initiatives taking place across Alberta to lend native trout a helping hand. The new Alberta Watercourse Crossing Inventory Mobile Application (ABWCI) was designed to empower all Albertans to report infrastructure around waterbodies, including crossings and culverts, which could lead to sedimentation. Users can capture the location and condition of crossings and share their findings to support effective watercourse crossing management.

Westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout, and Athabasca rainbow trout are listed as Threatened or Endangered under the provincial Alberta Wildlife Act and federal Species at Risk Act. Addressing major sources of human-caused sedimentation is an essential part of native trout recovery and improves the overall watershed health with cool clean water for all our fish species.

How can you get involved?

Alberta’s Amazing Buffet of Fishing – All you can fish… within the regulations

Alberta anglers have diverse skills and desires when it comes to searching for their next big catch! From expert fly-fishermen, using only hand-tied flies suitable for art galleries, to kids using a Snoopy rod and reel set to catch their first rainbow trout from a stocked pond, this province offers a buffet of options for anglers to enjoy.

Meeting multiple needs can often be quite a tough one to reel in for fisheries biologists, who face several trade-offs between effective regulations, quality of fishing, and number of anglers on each waterbody. Given Alberta’s cold climate and low number of lakes and rivers, these trade-offs are a biological and social necessity that need to be tackled.

Alberta’s fisheries biologists aren’t wading around, they’ve cooked up a wide array of fishing opportunities and options to choose from – just like your favourite smorgasbord!

Your hankering may take you fishing close to home at a river bank, where you don’t mind sitting next to other anglers and don’t expect to catch a bucket full of tasty fish. Or perhaps you want a chance to catch a huge fish-of-the-summer at a lake but, of course, don’t expect to harvest that old-age beauty! Or maybe you just want a simple fish for dinner from a nearby stream but again, don’t expect to catch a whopper. The selection of fisheries in the province will definitely fill your plate and be able to offer you seconds!  Just decide what kind of fishery you want, and pair it with the right lake or river, and always remember that trade-offs… or trading bites will have to happen.

Similar to your favourite restaurant, every region in Alberta has selections of certain styles or types of fisheries – biologists refer to this as “Fisheries Management Objectives”. Check out the infographic below that describes some of the different opportunities Alberta has to offer. Although, it is a tricky choice to select what objective goes with what lake to make the perfect pairing, these decisions aren’t made alone as biologists work to consult as openly and widely as possible. Having a full and diverse menu of opportunities means that Alberta anglers get the best of all worlds, just not all at the same place and the same time!

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Alberta has one of the top rated fisheries buffets, an all you can fish style, but within the regulations! If you are looking to plan your next trip, decide what kind of fishery you’re yearning for and check out our new interactive menu. This menu (well… map) is part of a new initiative Alberta Environment and Parks is casting out to encourage Albertans to try out some reel local fishing opportunities and discover Alberta’s fish!

Check out all of the details, including the interactive map highlighting opportunities near you in this 5-star province!

Responsible anglers cut the carp in St. Albert

With many Albertans looking to spend time outside fishing, responsible angling is a
reel-y great practice to ensure we keep fish in our future. Stewardship is especially important for invasive species, like koi and goldfish, which have been caught throughout the province. Once introduced, these species can grow extremely quickly and survive through some of the toughest environmental conditions, including freezing! Their lack of predators allows these invasive species to outcompete Alberta’s fish for resources. Dedicated anglers around the province are casting the line to prevent disaster before it bites, especially in the City of St. Albert, which has had its fair share of fish-tails with invasive carp species.

St.Albert koi-Lacome Lake 1

The first catch of goldfish and koi infestations for the City of St. Albert, started back in 2015 when the City attempted to remove goldfish from the Edgewater storm water management facility. After multiple attempts of drawing down the water levels, electrofishing and even freezing the water, these hardy fish persisted throughout. To make matters worse, additional locations were also discovered, leaving more for the City to tackle. With previous removal attempts being unsuccessful, a chemical substance was the last defense and by 2017, an estimated 45,000 goldfish and koi were removed.

Then notably in 2018, Albertans were in utter koi-os when 11 year-old angler, Luke Hebb, caught a 16 lb. koi fish with hot dogs in Lacombe Lake (located in the City of St. Albert); this was the largest koi ever reported in the province. However, Lacombe Lake was no stranger to invasive species, such as koi and goldfish, as this was one of the previously identified locations found in St. Albert. Nevertheless, this record-breaking koi was a great ambassador for reconfirming that this species is merciless after its introduction and that’s no line.

St.Albert koi-Lacome Lake

Most recently, on May 29, 2020, a local angler noticed an individual heading towards Lacombe Lake with two buckets. The individual intended to release his two koi, but the responsible angler confronted him and told him dumping koi was illegal. He then called the Aquatic Invasive Species hotline (1-855-336-BOAT (2628)) to report the individual, and a Fish and Wildlife Officer was on the hook right away! The Officer followed up with the attempted dumper, who had since returned home. There the Officer learned that the individual had gotten the koi for an aquarium at home, where they grew too large for him. The owner of the koi often walks by the lake and thought it would be nice for other people to see the fish; however, he was unaware that dumping fish (invasive or not) in a waterbody is illegal. The Officer shared the environmental and ecological consequences of releasing fish into the environment. No charges were laid but IF the koi had been dumped, fines could be up to $100,000 – he was off the hook, thanks to a responsible angler!

Thankfully the local anglers in Alberta really give a flying fish and prevented koi from being reintroduced into Lacombe Lake. The City of St. Albert had recently completed their final treatments for goldfish removal in Lacombe Lake in September of 2019 – good thing we have responsible anglers on the line to help!

Always remember:

  • Be koi-ful, and don’t let it loose! Never release live animals, plants or aquarium water into the environment.
  • No need to wade around! Contact us directly through email, ais@gov.ab.ca, by phone, 1-855-336-BOAT (2628) or through EDDMapS Alberta to report aquatic invasive species.
  • Get reel about always Cleaning, Draining and Drying your gear before moving between waterbodies!
  • Caught a new species? Lure-n to identify Alberta’s 52 prohibited aquatic invasive species using our pocket guide.

 

Gearing up to tackle Family Fishing Weekend

Since 2001, Alberta has had two annual Family Fishing Weekends – an opportunity to grab your friends and family and try your hand at fishing – no licence required! While sportfishing regulations still apply, this is a great chance to get outside and reconnect with Alberta’s amazing lakes, rivers and streams, and the fish that call them home.

Family Fishing Weekend will run from February 15-17 in 2020. You’re off the hook for a licence on Family Fishing Weekend, so we encourage you to sit back, drop a line, and make memories with your friends, families, and maybe even someone new!

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Photo Credit: Curtis Nichol

The angling community is well known for welcoming newcomers and sharing their sport. If you don’t feel comfortable heading out on the ice alone (or don’t have your own equipment), find an event hosted by the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) or a local fish and game organization so your family can learn directly from the experts! For the avid anglers out there, we hope you’ll share all of your best tips and tricks with new anglers who are eager to try a new sport.

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Photo Credit: Vanessa Sherburne

If you are ready to head out onto the ice, check out the sportfishing regulations for your fishing spot and ice fishing tips in this video, or visit My Wild Alberta for more important information.

Leading up to the February Family Fishing Weekend, we’ll be sharing some great information to make sure everyone has a fun and safe weekend. We hope you enjoy the weekend responsibly angling, spending time with friends and family, and exploring the great outdoors!

Looking for more ways to participate?

  • Send in a photo to ACA’s Ice Fishing Photo Contest
  • Attend a local event – We’ll be sharing information about events across the province all week on our social media platforms! You can always start with the ACA’s Kids Can Catch Events.
  • Download the AlbertaRELM App and get ready to buy your fishing licence starting on March 14 for the 2020/2021 fishing season, which kicks off April 1! While you’re on AlbertaRELM, why not snap up one of the undersubscribed Special Harvest Licences for walleye, still available at Lac Ste. Anne, Pigeon Lake or Seibert Lake?

 

Measuring Alberta’s air quality…from space!

By Casandra Brown and Greg Wentworth, Alberta Environment and Parks
January, 2020

Albertans usually experience clean air, but from time to time we all go through bad air quality events caused by things like wildfire smoke or smog. One of the first steps to improving air quality is to understand what pollutants are responsible for poor air quality and where they come from.

Traditionally, air pollutants are measured by monitoring equipment that is stationary and deployed on the ground. However, it’s not feasible to install this equipment everywhere across Alberta, due to factors such as cost, accessibility issues and power requirements. Enter: satellite-based sensors that can measure multiple air pollutants simultaneously across large areas from space.

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Image of the satellite that carries the TROPOMI instrument, which measures air pollution from space (image courtesy of the European Space Agency)

Using Satellites to Monitor Air Quality in Alberta

Cristen has led collaborative research using satellites to help address specific air quality issues with other government agencies and universities across Alberta. She holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Toronto and has experience measuring atmospheric pollutants in the Canadian Arctic and Alberta.

Cristen has used satellite data to answer many different questions from large to small scale. For instance, satellite data was used to understand how much air pollution was emitted during the 2016 Horse River wildfire in Fort McMurray (check out this paper to learn more about this work). The team also used satellites as part of an investigation into increased sulphur dioxide concentrations at one monitoring station in Alberta’s oil sands region in recent years.

“Since satellites collect a lot of data over such large areas, they are able to capture events that scientists can’t predict or plan in advance for. For example, the first maps showing the full scale of the Antarctic ozone hole in the 1980s used satellite data,” Cristen explains. “Today, scientists continue to rely on satellite data to find and track air pollution sources, like wildfires and smoke plumes.”

Dr. Cristen Adams

Dr. Cristen Adams, atmospheric scientist, Alberta Environment and Parks

What’s Next?

In the next few years, a new satellite called TEMPO will be launched and held in position over North America. TEMPO will be the first satellite to take measurements of air pollution across North America every hour throughout the day. “Currently, satellites typically take snapshots of air quality about once or twice per day,” says Cristen. “With TEMPO, we will be able to track air pollution throughout the day. This will help us better understand the causes and track the movement of air pollution.” To that end, AEP is continuing to build capacity for using satellites to answer questions that will help us better understand, and ultimately improve, the air Albertans breathe.

“Satellites can help us fill in gaps between traditional on-the-ground stations and estimate amounts of pollutants being emitted. With new satellite instruments, such as TEMPO, coming online, we will be able to do this work with better spatial detail and shorter time periods,” Cristen adds.

Learn More

Chinese mystery snail in Alberta: a very spe-shell case

By Paige Kuczmarski, Alberta Environment and Parks

Although this isn’t our regular snail’s pitch of stopping the spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS) with “Clean, Drain, Dry” or “Don’t let it Loose”, we still need your undivided attention! We were shell-shocked to find our first location of the invasive Chinese mystery snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis) in Alberta this year in McGregor Lake! This species is one of 52 prohibited species listed on the Fisheries (Alberta) Act, meaning we must fight tooth and snail to slow this species from spreading. We need you to come out of your shell and help us with ANY information, such as dates, photos or locations of Chinese mystery snail you may have seen in the past few years. A photo was shared with us showing two people holding up the large snail shells, which gives us reason to believe it has been here since 2016.

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This snail is very noticeable with a large, globular shell that can reach sizes of 6 cm. Distinct sutures and fine growth lines on the brown to olive colored shell also help with identification. Chinese mystery snail can be found buried in soft muddy or sandy substrates in freshwater lakes, streams and rivers. This species of snail can tolerate less than ideal conditions and survive out of water for up to 4 weeks due to the protection provided by an operculum or ‘trap-door’ – this alone warrants concern for further spread through transportation of watercrafts or gear.

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In a nutshell, Chinese mystery snail is named after its mysterious reproductive abilities of giving birth to fully developed juvenile snails, which can happen as many as 169 time per year! This species can impact the growth and abundance of native snail species by competing for habitat and resources, as well as effect water intake pipes and other submerged equipment as their large shells can clog and stop water flow. Furthermore, Chinese mystery snail are considered edible and often sold in Chinese food markets despite it being an intermediate host to multiple parasites that could impact human health. Basically, its ability to rapidly reproduce, tolerate unfavorable conditions and out-compete native species shows that Chinese mystery snails have all the characteristics that make a species highly invasive – any details you may have would help us before this population spirals out of control!

Always remember:

  • To avoid snail mail! Always report aquatic invasive species through EDDMapS Alberta or directly through email, ais@gov.ab.ca or by phone, 1-855-336-BOAT (2628).
  • Don’t be shell-fish! Don’t let it loose – never release live animals, plants or aquarium water into the environment.
  • Take it slow! Always Clean, Drain, Dry your gear before moving between waterbodies.
  • If it’s a mystery to you, learn to identify Alberta’s 52 prohibited aquatic invasive species using our pocket guide.Lake McGregor 2019 NK_0041.JPG

Looking Back and Looking Forward: Catching up with Chief Scientist Dr. Fred Wrona

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist

Chief Scientists and Chief Science Advisors hold unique roles in federal, provincial or territorial jurisdictions across Canada, serving as trusted authorities on scientific matters. Through broad knowledge networks, these senior specialists act in the public interest and provide the public and elected officials the best available advice on relevant and emerging scientific topics.

In the Canadian context, Alberta has shown leadership in this area since 2016 when Dr. Fred Wrona was appointed Chief Scientist for Alberta Environment and Parks — the first position of its kind in the Ministry. The role of Chief Scientist was established in legislation through amendments to the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, representing a commitment to transparent and unbiased scientific reporting on the condition of Alberta’s environment.

Dr. Wrona brings more than 30 years of experience in the scientific community to the role, and the development and implementation of programs to monitor, evaluate and report on the condition of Alberta’s environment. As a champion of science, he promotes evidence-informed decision-making when it comes to the policies, programs and management decisions that impact Alberta’s natural resources.

CSPC Panel The Public Record 14 Nov 2019-Dr Fred Wrona

Dr. Fred Wrona speaking at the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) conference in Ottawa – November, 2019

Below, the Chief Scientist answers questions about progress made since 2016, and what the future holds for environmental monitoring in Alberta.

What has changed in Alberta’s environmental monitoring programs over the past three years?

FW: We’ve been systematically updating our program designs, targeting specific information needs and objectives while being efficient and effective in light of limited resources. For example, we updated our river monitoring program by reaffirming station placements across various watersheds and expanding monitoring in areas where we had limited information.

We’ve also run our programs through our two independent advisory panels, the Science Advisory Panel and the Indigenous Wisdom Advisory Panel, with national and international experts who are highly recognized authorities in their fields. There’s no textbook written on how to do this, but we’re looking at opportunities to braid and utilize multiple knowledge systems such as conventional western science, Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous wisdom.

We’ve released the Five-Year (2019-2024) Science Strategy – a first for this department – informing the public, internal and external science partners about the collaborative approach, tools, processes and priority areas of Alberta’s environmental science program. As part of the Science Strategy, I’ve been working very hard on fostering partnerships and collaborative opportunities, for example with the major universities in Alberta. I’ve co-located part of our program with the University of Calgary and created a Centre of Excellence in environmental monitoring and cumulative effects assessments.

We are also developing science integrity guidelines for what it means to be a practicing scientist within Alberta Environment and Parks. This highlights the importance of not only science, but what it takes to ensure that we demonstrate credibility and integrity in our science moving forward. I’m quite keen on that.

What has changed, over the past three years, specific to environmental monitoring in the oil sands region?

FW: The Oil Sands Monitoring (OSM) Program is one of the largest environmental monitoring programs in the world, monitoring and reporting on the environmental state of the oil sands region led by the governments of Alberta and Canada.

It’s complex because we’re dealing with air, water, land, biological and ecological resources, and engaging with First Nation and Metis communities in the affected areas. We’re also dealing with public concerns and perceptions both within the region and around the world.

One of the biggest changes in the last several years has been focusing the science design so that the data it yields helps address key questions from stakeholders. We don’t just monitor for monitoring’s sake – the information has to be relevant.

The recognition that Indigenous participation in the design and implementation of the program is also absolutely essential. We created an oversight committee that’s multi-interest and multi-stakeholder, involving governments, First Nation and Métis communities, and industry. Their job is to make sure the program meets approval requirements, and just as importantly, that it addresses whether regulations we have in place are protecting the environment.

As Chief Scientist, how important is connecting scientific information to the public and decision-makers?

FW: A really good medical doctor can make the implications and consequences of a complicated treatment understandable to a patient – even if it’s complex information. Environmental science communication is a similar scenario.

We need solid, proper, peer-reviewed and technically-robust papers and analyses that speak to what the science and data really mean. But when I try to explain those pieces of science to the public – or a tougher critic, my mother – how I convey that information will determine whether I succeed in getting the point across. How we translate information to the public and decision-makers matters.

We’re looking at developing accessible communications products using digital tools that can convey highly technical information in ways that are understandable and digestible. We’re also working on making our data systems more directly accessible outside the Ministry, so people can access them openly and run their own queries. Building trust is about being transparent – providing information to the public, other researchers and stakeholders so they can derive their own conclusions.

A final area is training. How can you be an effective communicator as a scientist? We ran a special workshop on science communication and we’re excited to continue to offer and expand on that to support our science community in more effectively communicating information.

What are you most proud of when you look back over the past three years?

FW: I’m really excited about utilizing what I consider more out of the box thinking for delivering our programs. Being open brings in innovation, creativity and excitement to the people involved in the programs. Networking and engaging with other people that have a passion for knowledge is a win-win for all of us.

I’m also pleased to see that people are curious about the role of the Chief Scientist and how we can help facilitate the way science is being done in the department. We’re getting more phone calls and we’re becoming more visible. Outside organizations are also asking more about working with us. I’m part of a national network working with the federal Chief Scientists and they’re very interested in Alberta.

The way our office was set up under legislation is unique in Canada, and internationally. This office doesn’t just have an advisory function, but a legislated responsibility for reporting. That puts a very different impetus on us. Alberta is leading on this front.

What opportunities and priorities do you see for environmental monitoring in Alberta moving forward?

FW: We’re in a new era of communication, but also of miscommunication and misinformation. We have to play a very important role of sharing good, factual research and ensuring it isn’t open to misinterpretation and distortion.

Timeliness is also critical. Data and data systems without qualified interpretation isn’t helpful, so we need to build rapid processes. For example, some of our new monitoring systems are sensor-based and can get information to the public and stakeholders in real-time. It’s challenging, takes innovative thinking, investment and resources, and we need to look at that.

People are keen to get engaged in the environmental issues and agenda of how we move forward. It requires standards, protocols and procedures to effectively use data we produce out of that kind of relationship and we are working on that.

I’ve worked hard on fostering the importance of knowledge networks, recognizing that we need to build on science and research strengths, both within and outside of government. We will continue integrating internal and external knowledge networks to help achieve our outcomes.

 

 

 

 

Monitoring Alberta’s air quality during wildfire smoke events

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist

2016 Horse River Wildfires_MartyCollins

Aerial photo of the smoke plume during the 2016 Horse River Wildfire in the Fort McMurray area. Source: Marty Collins

AQHI Map

37 Alberta communities report on the Air Quality Health Index, also known as AQHI, from Fort Chipewyan in the north to Lethbridge in the south, and from Beaverlodge in the west to Cold Lake in the east. The AQHI tool reports on health risks associated with air quality – low numbers in blue indicate low heath risk while higher numbers in red indicate high risk.

A 10 is a number no one likes to see when it comes to air quality – it means the air we breathe contains pollutants that can pose health risks. For much of the summer of 2018, for example, many parts of Alberta experienced smoke-filled air that made it hard to breathe, due to a record-breaking fire season in British Columbia.

As much as we wish for clear skies and clean air year-round, wildfire season officially runs from March through to the end of October in Alberta. The smell of smoke and hazy sights of our city skylines and mountain ranges are telling signs when fires are burning across Western Canada.

Wildfires in Alberta

It is common to see more than 1,000 fires during wildfire season in Alberta, many of which start early in the season, even when snow still covers the ground. As of October 31, 2019, Alberta has recorded 1,003 wildfires in the Forest Protection Area that have burned 883,415 hectares.

“In recent years, we saw bigger, more intense wildfires in the province that led to major impacts on air quality in affected regions and the province at large, for example during the 2016 Horse River Wildfire in Fort McMurray,” says Naomi Tam, Air Quality Specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP). Predictions show that Alberta will continue to see larger wildfires.

Air monitoring of top importance

Working together with Alberta’s Airsheds, air monitoring staff at AEP measure Alberta’s air and report air conditions to the public year-round. “During wildfire season, staff are on stand-by mode to quickly respond to emergency wildfire smoke events. We have several mobile analyzers ready to be moved across the province to measure smoke conditions,” says Marty Collins, Air Monitoring Manager with AEP.

Data from mobile analyzers and over 70 air monitoring stations permanently located across Alberta are used to inform the public, wildland firefighters, and the Ministry of Health about health risks stemming from wildfire smoke.

Improving wildfire smoke monitoring

“Air scientists at AEP are working to improve wildfire smoke monitoring, air quality forecasting and reporting to the public,” says Casandra Brown, Air Quality Specialist with AEP.

For example, in partnership with the University of Alberta, AEP is developing solar-powered micro-stations that could support early detection of forest fire smoke and fill gaps in Alberta’s existing air monitoring network.

In May 2019, AEP in collaboration with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and Natural Resources Canada, deployed these portable, low-cost micro-sensors for the first time to monitor controlled burns at a remote forest location.

 

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Dr. Quamrul Huda with Alberta Environment and Parks holds a prototype of the new micro-station

 

How Albertans stay informed on air quality

When you are on the Air Quality Health Index website or the AQHI Canada app, you see air quality readings for 37 Alberta communities that report on the AQHI.

The AQHI is reported on a 10-point coloured scale, where lower AQHI numbers in blue indicate low heath risk while higher numbers in red indicate high risk. All data is updated hourly.

An AQHI of 7 or higher will prompt air quality advisories, for example, when wildfire smoke causes poor air quality.

 

AQHI Scale

The Air Quality Health Index informs Albertans about the health risk associated with local air quality.

Learn more

More information on wildfires in Alberta can be found at wildfire.alberta.ca.

More details on air quality events related to wildfire smoke can found at environmentalmonitoring.alberta.ca

Explore more recent publications on air quality during the Horse River Wildfire in the Fort McMurray area:

Are you a policy practitioner interested in learnings from recent air monitoring studies? See the Briefing for Policy Practitioners

Bringing Back the Fish – International recognition for Alberta’s fisheries science

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist
September 2019

Equipped with balloons, a group of biologists traveled from across the province to Dr. Michael Sullivan’s lab in Edmonton for a special announcement. The Provincial Fisheries Science Specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks is the 2019 recipient of the Award of Excellence from the Fisheries Management Section of the American Fisheries Society, recognizing his inspirational leadership in the fishery profession and substantial achievements for fisheries resources.

“First, I thought it was a joke,” Michael laughs. “I’m honored that my colleagues think I did something good, but to me the award is nothing compared to a three-year old catching walleye at Lac Ste. Anne, or telling Néhiyaw high school kids in Wetaskiwin to go fishing because fishing is good again.”

By receiving the prestigious international award, Michael joins a group of 32 exceptional individuals awarded for substantial achievements in the fishery profession. The award recognizes his outstanding contributions to walleye recovery in Alberta, his leadership in systems thinking and his mentorship in developing the fisheries team at Environment and Parks.

 

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Dr. Michael Sullivan with a silver redhorse fish – a bottom feeder native to Alberta – on the North Saskatchewan River.

From local pressures to international recognition

When it comes to fishing, Alberta finds itself between a rock and a hard place. “We have the rock of low fish productivity and the hard place of lots of people, tons of development and road access,” Michael explains.

Alberta’s fisheries are busy places: with 800 naturally fish-bearing lakes and over 300,000 anglers, think of 375 anglers for every lake in Alberta compared to two anglers for every lake in Saskatchewan with its tens of thousands of lakes.

Alberta’s cold climate and short growing season also results in fewer fish species and fewer individuals compared to southern locations. This in turn makes Alberta fish more susceptible to being caught – ultimately increasing their vulnerability to overharvest.

“The enhanced catchability in northern locations compared to similar species in southern locations is because northern waters have fewer fish species and thus fish can’t be picky. Northern predators must eat whatever is available, whenever it is possible,” Michael explains. “Anglers see this as: these northern fish are easy to catch. They bite on anything!”

The dilemma hasn’t gone unnoticed. The international fisheries community is looking to Alberta for solutions.

“This weird combination of what we call northern style biology and southern style fishing pressure led us to be at the forefront of fish conservation. We didn’t have a choice but to solve this,” explains Michael.

Shifting the baseline

Growing up in northern Saskatchewan, Michael always knew what he wanted to be. It all started with tales told by his dad, a military helicopter mechanic with the Geological Survey Canada in Canada’s North.

“He told me tales of caribou herds stretching to the horizon, barren-ground grizzly bears coming to the camp, dropping biologists off in remote places in the tundra, and I just fell in love with the wilderness and the stories,” Michael remembers. “Right from my father’s knee I wanted to be one of these guys – a biologist.”

Michael’s passion for wildlife biology led him through three academic degrees at the University of Alberta, where he currently serves as Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Being from Saskatchewan, Michael also knew what good fishing looked like. During his first job as a junior biologist in St. Paul in 1983, however, he discovered fishing in Alberta wasn’t comparable to Saskatchewan.

“Fisheries had been collapsed so long in Alberta, people thought that poor fishing was normal – it’s called the shifting baseline,” he elaborates. “Luckily, I came from a different place without blinders on my eyes and I spent 15 years fighting to change the baseline.”

But shifting the baseline was no easy task.

“We couldn’t just tweak our way out of these problems. We had to throw some levers hard – for example, we had to go catch-and-release for years on the North Saskatchewan River,” explains Michael.

Part of the change was a new culture of fisheries science: “We changed the culture to one of systems thinking, critical thinking, hypothesis testing and adaptive management.”

The second part of the change meant having boots on the ground and waders in the water to test hypotheses in the field using scientifically-designed monitoring. Good data collection is essential to assess fishery status and inform effective management of Alberta’s fisheries.

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Michael and colleague Laura MacPherson seining for fish on Whitemud Creek using a fishing net called seine.

Heartfelt successes

The hard work has paid off in many ways.

“In the past decades, fishing in the North Saskatchewan River was so poor that anglers were mocked,” says Michael. “Now, with good water quality and science-based, effective fishing regulations, restored fisheries for walleye, goldeye, mooneye, northern pike, five species of suckers, and lake sturgeon support tens of thousands of anglers each summer in the Alberta Capital Region.”

For Michael, the restoration of healthy fish populations for traditional use is one of the fisheries team’s most heartfelt successes. “In the 1980’s and 90’s, of the 63 walleye fisheries in the traditional territory of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in the Lac La Biche area, only two fisheries were sustainable while the rest were overfished to the point of collapse.”

With scientific information, good communication and effective trade-offs – such as harvest regulations including catch-and-release fishing and seasonal or spatial fishing closures – designed by engaged stakeholders, recovery happened.

“Fishing is now better than grandparents remember,” says Michael. “By 2018, 20 of those 63 fisheries were fully sustainable, with another 17 close to recovery and Alberta’s Indigenous peoples can once again celebrate this culturally critical connection to the natural world.”

All peoples benefit

Changing the culture through actual successes on the water and ground takes effort and time. “It was decades of work and I tell my people that,” Michael says. “Change is difficult. The benefits, however, have been overwhelmingly worth it.”

“Knowing that kids are growing up in an environment where fishing and fish are part of their culture. Knowing that urban aboriginal youth are catching fish and urban seniors are watching fish spawn at the sweat lodge at Whitemud Creek – right in the city. That’s why we should care,” Michael says.

And while huge strides have been made and many lakes have recovered or are on the way to recovery, there is still a lot of work to be done, for example, recovering native trouts in the eastern slopes of Alberta. Michael is hopeful.

“Looking at my students who talk R-code, seeing them become adjunct professors themselves and seeing them training even younger people gives me huge hope. There’s a much more heartfelt desire amongst the younger biologists for Indigenous rights, for restoration, for reconciliation and it’s not that the policy says you must do this, it’s heartfelt.”

Michael and his team would also like to be more engaged with the public.

“Please stay tuned, please contact your local biologist. When you read the fishing regulation or hear us talk about closing fishing in an area, don’t just immediately come to a simple conclusion – sometimes the problem is more complex than it seems. But also understand that we’re going to make mistakes. We would really like to be much more engaged.”

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Michael and colleague from Parks Canada sampling Westslope Cutthroat Trout along tributary to Bow River. Westslope Cutthroat Trout are listed as Threatened under the Alberta Wildlife Act and the federal Species at Risk Act in Alberta.

Crossing the stage for Canada

Following his late mentor’s advice, Michael will travel to Reno, Nevada, to cross the stage to collect his Award of Excellence from the Fisheries Management Section of the American Fisheries Society on September 30, 2019. The ceremony takes place at one of the largest gatherings of fish and wildlife professionals – the first-ever joint annual conference of the American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society.

“My mentor Joe Nelson berated me: so few Canadians get these international awards, next time, you get an award, you’ll stand on that stage because you’re there for Canada,” Michael grins. “My hope is that this award will be used as a small box on which Alberta’s biological science family can stand to highlight the difficult changes, challenges and ultimate benefits of Alberta’s fisheries science success stories. Science!”

His advice to younger colleagues: “We’re in it for the long game. Don’t get caught up in the crisis of the moment. Remember we’re trying to restore these populations for the next seven generations.”

Playing by the rules; responsible pet ownership is a game changer

Responsible pet ownership is the name of the game when purchasing a new pet (or even a plant), and invasive species are the bad guys. Habitat, food and lifestyle are essential to know, but now you need to make sure your new pet isn’t trying to cheat the game by disguising themselves as an invasive species. Thankfully, the aquatic invasive species (AIS) team are no newbies when it comes to playing this game!

Just last December, a Fort McMurray woman purchased a pair of incorrectly identified turtles advertised on social media in Gibbons. After she brought home what she thought were four-month-old Sawback turtles, it was discovered that they were actually map turtles (Genus Graptemys), an invasive species in Alberta. This species is listed in the Wildlife Regulation as well as the Communicable Diseases Regulation (Alberta Health Ministry) as they can carry salmonella bacteria which can result in fever or diarrhea, sometimes even death to humans. It is illegal to buy, sell or own map turtles in Alberta.

Map Turtle

Its not just misidentification of species that can cause issues for single players in this game, sometimes stores receive the wrong species to sell! This summer, the AIS team discovered two prohibited species under the Fisheries (Alberta) Act – Fanwort and Oriental Weather Loach – being sold at a large pet store chain. The Oriental Weather Loach was for sale under its alternate name Dojo Loach, and the Fanwort was listed as a Green Cabomba plant. If you’ve purchased either of these two species, call the AIS Hotline at 1-855-336-BOAT (2628).

Whether you’re on the winning streak of pet ownership or just learning the rules, it’s important to be the game changer in this world full of players!

Hot gaming tips:

  1. Don’t be a noob! Before buying an aquatic pet, plant or invertebrate, doing a quick google search for the scientific name of the species can help you understand if the species is prohibited. A great place to start is Alberta’s prohibited species list.
  2. When it’s game over, take appropriate measures to protect the environment.
    • If you don’t want your pet anymore… Don’t let it loose! Many aquarium plants, fish and pets we purchase are not native to our ecosystem and if released, can cause harm to the environment. Donate your unwanted pet to a friend or return it to the pet store.
    • When the sad day comes that your pet dies, instead of flushing it down the toilet, consider burying it or throwing it in the garbage. Fish can carry foreign diseases and parasites that could spread through our water systems and affect native species.
  3. Level up and become a game master! Report aquatic invasive species to the aquatic invasive species hotline at 1-855-336-BOAT (2628). Find out more about aquatic invasive species.

Fill out Fisheries and Oceans Canada survey on aquariums to help them gain a better understanding of the use and movement of aquatic plants and animals associated with the aquarium trade in Canada.