No black? Put it back! You can help the bull trout recover in Alberta

When we announced the recovery of the trumpeter swan last week, we had some not-so-great news as well: four species have been added to Alberta’s Threatened Species List. One of the species added to the list is the bull trout, Alberta’s provincial fish.

Photo of a biologist holding a bull trout.

Photo credit: Blair Reilly, ESRD.

Threats to the bull trout 

Photo of bull trout habitat in Jacques Lake, Alberta.

Changes to the bull trout’s native habitat have contributed to its decline.

Bull trout were once abundant in at least 60 of Alberta’s watersheds, including downstream of pretty much all of our mountains and foothills. Today, only seven of those watersheds have healthy populations – all of which are found in national or provincial parks. The fish is now absent from 20 watersheds where it was once found, and the total number of bull trout remaining is estimated at only 20,000 province-wide.

Over time, the bull trout’s habitat and spawning grounds have been impacted by dams and weirs and development; competition with other species has also played a role. Bull trout take a long time to mature, produce relatively few eggs, and may spawn only every second year – so recovery is a slow and delicate process. Although fishing restrictions have been in place since the 1990s, illegal harvesting may be interfering with recovery efforts.

Some of this harvesting is due to poaching, but much of it is probably due to simple misidentification – Albertans may mistake the bull trout for other species of fish that are not at risk, like char and other types of trout. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to recognize our provincial fish when you see it.

“No black? Put it back!”

Unlike char and other types of trout in Alberta’s waters, the bull trout has no black spots or markings on its dorsal fin – if you don’t see these marks, your fish may be a bull trout and you should release it. Other identifying features to look for (click on the photo to enlarge it): Bull trout diagram

  • A relatively large (“bull-like”) head and jaw and a forked tail.
  • Olive-green to blue-grey in color, sometimes with silvery sides
  • A back with yellow, orange, pink or red spots
  • 30 – 80 cm in length, weighing up to 10 kg

What we’re doing to protect the bull trout:

  • Controlling fishing pressure by establishing a zero harvest limit for this species
  • Creating a standard bull trout monitoring program, so we can better understand what habitat protections are needed to help existing populations recover
  • Making bull trout recovery an important feature of our land use planning in key areas, like the Foothills. Since a gradual decline in habitat is responsible for the threat to this species, we’ll need to take long-term planning measures to make sure habitat is protected and restored.

What you can do:

  1. Learn to correctly identify bull trout and if you catch one accidentally, return it (see above). Consider going barbless – if a bull trout is accidentally injured by a barbed hook, it may not survive after you release it.
  2. Avoid fishing in and disturbing bull trout spawning areas between mid-August and mid-October.
  3. Avoid hiking and ATVing in water bodies and along shorelines. This can cause silt to enter rivers and streams, which can smother fish eggs and fry. When you need to cross a water body, make sure you use a bridge.
Photo  of a biologist holding a large bull trout

You can help the bull trout recover by making sure it’s not harvested accidentally. Remember: no black? Put it back! Photo credit: Blair Reilly, ESRD.

In addition to the bull trout, three other species – the Athabasca rainbow trout, pygmy whitefish, and western grebe – have also been added to Alberta’s threatened species list. Click on the name of a species to find out more about why it’s threatened and what we’re doing to help it recover.

3 thoughts on “No black? Put it back! You can help the bull trout recover in Alberta

  1. Congratulations for listing bull trout, Athabasca rainbow trout and pygmy whitefish but what is the status of Arctic grayling that have also been in severe decline since the 1980s? ‘No black – put it back’ has been around since 1995 when bull trout were subject to catch & release with season closures to protect them from angling during vulnerable periods such as early spring (in wintering pools) and fall spawning.
    Your description of watershed occupation doesn’t make much sense without some numbers such as occupied stream length and fish density summarized for the last 3 decades.
    Could you please quantify all the problems with “dams and weirs and developments” and maybe describe the number of road stream crossings (pipelines, power lines etc) and riparian damage producing sediments and hanging road culverts creating barriers to spawning fish movement.
    Your article homes in on anglers, that have been punished with a diminishing resource, despite restrictive creel limits, size limits and a very short window of angling opportunity because of two or three month seasons on most flowing waters. You barely mention the extensive habitat damage and losses caused by forest harvesting, petroleum activity and coal mining along the Eastern Slopes.
    Why doesn’t Alberta have legislated protection of riparian areas, at least on public land and some restrictions on the density and location of road stream crossings and enforceable regulations to stop ATV damage of stream crossings? These should also apply to ephemeral or temporary streams that when damaged contribute a heavy silt load that destroys spawning habitat.
    The decline of most stream/river populations of salmonids has been recognized for at least 20 years and this ‘new initiative’ does nothing to identify the real problems or offer any concrete solutions.
    Please spare anglers and Albertans the ‘SPIN’ and start protecting renewable resources including fish habitat.
    Carl Hunt

    • Hi Carl,

      Thanks for commenting. We first assessed Arctic grayling in 2005/2006, when it was designated as a Species of Special Concern. Since then, biologists have collected a lot more information and a reassessment has been initiated. An updated status report has been drafted and is entering review stages. We expect the species to be reassessed by the Endangered Species Conservation Committee and its Scientific Subcommittee sometime in the next six months to a year.

      The data that you mention regarding Bull Trout watershed occupation and land use will be available when the 2014 Bull Trout Fish Sustainability Index (FSI) is released. Until then, please feel free to get in touch with the Provincial Fish Stock Assessment Specialist, Laura Macpherson, who is leading the FSI assessment process and can speak directly about the specific analyses that led to some of the statistics provided in the blog. Laura can be contacted at

      The purpose of our blog is often practical education – to help Albertans understand what’s going on with particular environmental issues, and what they can do to help protect our landscape. The purpose of this post wasn’t to blame anglers for the threat to this species – which is why we list dam and weir development and habitat loss as the causes. Anglers who are young or new to the sport may not have heard the “no black? put it back” slogan and they may not be aware that the species is at risk. Informing them was the purpose of this post.


  2. Pingback: Nature Canada – No Bull: Native Trout Threatened in Alberta

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