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.”

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