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.
Threats to the bull trout
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):
- 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:
- 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.
- Avoid fishing in and disturbing bull trout spawning areas between mid-August and mid-October.
- 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.
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.