The management of fisheries in Alberta is dynamic and challenging. Especially when considering that Alberta has experienced robust economic and population growth and has only 800 native sport fish-bearing lakes and about 300 waters stocked with non-native trout. In comparison, other provinces such as Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario have tens, or even hundreds of thousands of fish-bearing lakes.
In addition to meeting the rights of Indigenous peoples, Alberta’s fisheries are also relied upon to provide benefits to more than 300,000 anglers. Fisheries management in Alberta has had to evolve and improve to meet the challenges. The province’s fisheries management teams work together to meet the challenges of sustaining fisheries to provide the benefits Albertans receive. To be successful, they depend on the support of a concerned, knowledgeable, engaged and ethical community of stakeholders.
How many fish are in a lake?
Counting fish will always be critical to effective fisheries management, but the numbers of fish are difficult to measure.
In Alberta, significant scientific work has gone into finding efficient and functional methods to estimate the numbers of fish in our lakes and rivers. These estimates are necessary to determine if habitat work and harvest regulations are having the desired effect.
For lake fishes like walleye and pike, the current monitoring method is standardized index netting. Gillnets of a standard size are set at random locations at a standard time of year and the catch of fish in the nets is related to the abundance of fish in the lake. Because this method kills the fish, we also take the opportunity to collect needed biological data (age, gender, etc.).
In Alberta, about 50 per cent of walleye lakes and 20 per cent of pike lakes are monitored once every five years on average. This sampling kills about one-to-two per cent of the catchable-sized walleye or pike in the lake and is insignificant compared to natural and sport fishing mortality. After sampling, edible fish are required to be distributed for human consumption and are usually given to Indigenous peoples and those on approved subsistence lists.
In rivers and streams, standardized sampling of fish is done by electrofishing. Electrical currents are used to stun fish so they can be dip-netted, counted and sampled. This non-lethal technique works well in shallow flowing water. Some fish must be killed to provide necessary biological data, but many fish can be released unharmed.
As technology advances, we look for better and less harmful methods to count fish. Techniques such as sonar, fish traps, underwater photography, and snorkeling surveys have all been tested and may be used where their strengths outweigh their faults. Genetic analysis of lake and river water samples is a promising new technique, but is not yet fully developed for the scale of effective management needed in Alberta.
The limits of slot limits
Slot limits are popular with anglers because they seem to offer great promise; let anglers harvest small fish and simultaneously create quality fisheries for protected big fish. This can work in jurisdictions with warmer water and fast-growing fish, but with Alberta’s combination of naturally low productivity and increasingly high angler pressure, slot limits don’t succeed. Overharvest is inevitable, fisheries decline and anglers lose opportunities.
Fortunately, there is a proven solution; keep harvests at sustainable levels with simple minimum size limits. Minimum size limits protect fish to grow to adult sizes and let them spawn a few times. Once they’ve made their contribution to the sustainability of the fishery, they then can be harvested. Anglers get opportunities to catch and release fish, and have the chance to take home a larger fish, if luck is on their side.
While this practice does not satisfy everyone, minimum size limits are simple, work very well for Alberta’s biological situation and have good compliance by most anglers. Using minimum size limits, many of Alberta’s walleye and pike fisheries have recovered from being poor quality, collapsed fisheries to now becoming some of the best sport fisheries in Canada. This success has created new opportunities for anglers to go to local lakes and experience wonderful catches of fish that even our grandparents would have seldom experienced.
Rights of Indigenous peoples
Indigenous peoples have a constitutional right to fish. The Government of Alberta proudly upholds this moral and ethical obligation by ensuring this right remains the highest priority for fish use in the province. Only conservation efforts to recover fish populations would restrict these rights.
In practical terms, fish should be abundant enough that Indigenous persons should have a reasonable opportunity to catch and harvest fish. Those fish should also be healthy and wholesome as food. If fish populations decline or become unwholesome, the rights of all people to fish become impacted.
Releasing injured fish
We use size limits to prevent harvest of fish until they are old enough to have spawned several times. Sometimes, anglers accidentally injure an undersized fish. Regulations require that fish are released regardless of injuries. Certainly, it feels wasteful releasing a fish that will probably die anyway. Why not just keep it?
Undersized fish that are released typically have a 95 per cent or higher survival rate. However, if some anglers cheat and keep undersized fish, they have no chance of survival. Harvest becomes too high and the fishery collapses, this cheating is considered a form of poaching.
Careful release of protected fish is a key skill practiced by responsible anglers. Good information about fish handling techniques and other fish-specific information can be found on mywildalberta.ca.
Size limits restrict the harvest to a few anglers lucky enough to catch a larger fish. Those keeping undersized fish have been a serious problem at Alberta lakes. On average, about 20 per cent of undersized fish are kept illegally. At one carefully studied lake, Seibert Lake in 1992, nearly 70 per cent of undersized walleye were kept illegally. A very common reason for keeping illegal-sized fish was “it was injured and going to die anyway”. In truth, fewer than five per cent of these injured fish might die.
Education, ethical behavior and self-responsibility will always be the keys to successful conservation. By sharing their knowledge and leading by example, experienced anglers help make fishing in Alberta a fair, fun and rewarding experience for all.