Controlling Aquatic Invasive Species with new Technology

A first-of-its-kind machine in the country is in Alberta to help seek out in controlling Aquatic Invasive Species

In the fall of 2019, while walking the shoreline of Lake McGregor, a diligent Albertan reported coming across some unusual looking shells. Lake McGregor, located within the Lake McGregor Provincial Recreation Area, is situated 100km southeast of Calgary in the Vulcan County. Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) staff investigated the report and discovered these shells meant a presence of the Chinese Mystery Snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis). To date, this is the first and only documented location of the snail in the province.

The Chinese Mystery Snail, discovered for the first time in the province in the fall of 2019.

Native to Eastern Asia and known to alter water quality and disrupt food chains, the Chinese Mystery Snail is one of the 52 prohibited species under the Fisheries (Alberta) Act. As a prohibited species, it is illegal to possess, import, sell or transport the snail into our province.

 “Research shows the Chinese Mystery Snail can pose both an economic and ecological threat to freshwater ecosystems. The snail is known to have the ability to host multiple human parasites and diseases, and pollute beaches with shells that can injure beach users, outcompete native species, and clog infrastructure,” said Nicole Kimmel, Aquatic Invasive Species Specialist with AEP.

Populations of the snail abound across the country. They are typically found in British Columbia, Quebec, southern Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland.

With limited information on effective eradication methods, AEP has focused on helping people identify these snails to stop further spread of this invasive species to other water bodies in the province. To do this, the government helped install a CD3 machine at Lake McGregor last September, which made Alberta the first jurisdiction in Canada to have a machine of this kind.

“We’re proud that Alberta is leading the way in the use of modern technology to control invasive species in Canada. These machines have previously been used in a number of US states and have had very successful results,” added Kimmel.

CD3 machine at Lake McGregor.

The CD3 machine is used as a tool to help boaters clean, drain and dry their watercraft and equipment at the Lake McGregor Recreational Area boat launch.  In addition to being powered by solar energy, the unit is a waterless, free-of-charge cleaning equipment that includes an array of tools to clean, drain and dry watercraft as they exit Lake McGregor. The machine is equipped with a wet/dry vacuum, blower system, tethered hands tools and lights.

“The machine is easy to use by boat users with instructions displayed on the unit that walk them through on how to use all the various tools provided. The state-of-the art CD3 machine is also equipped with technology that logs tool use, provides automatic reports, and maintenance alerts,” said Kimmel.  

A person using the CD3 machine to clean their boat.

Getting this modern machine to Alberta required many partners working together. AEP collaborated with the Invasive Species Centre and the Bow River Irrigation District to ensure this machine arrived to Alberta.

“Getting the CD3 machine here in Alberta was truly a national collaborative effort. The Invasive Species Centre initially purchased the unit, with funds from the Canada Nature Fund provided by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to be installed in the prairies region. The Bow River Irrigation District is helping us store and properly maintain the unit, while Alberta Parks provided the location for public use,” expressed Kimmel.

Preventing the spread of invasive species while protecting species at risk is a share goal for each of the partners. The machine is also monitored, well cared for and stored appropriately year-round as a collaborative effort. 

The installation of the CD3 machine is one example of how collaboration can help us maintain the health of Alberta’s lakes and continue to allow for memories to be made. But remember that we still need your help! If you spot any invasive species in an Alberta waterbody, please report them promptly, either through the AIS hotline at 1-855-336-BOAT (2628) or on EDDMapS Alberta.

Ensuring the Protection of Alberta’s Environment – the 2020 Compliance Assurance Annual Report

The compliance team within Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) is responsible for responding to known or potential environmental emergencies or complaints from the public.

“We deal with everything from the release of toxic substances into a waterbody to the unauthorized use of public lands in the province,” says Owen Butz, AEP Compliance Manager.

Responding to environmental emergencies

The compliance team tracks every complaint or report received and its related response. This action not only tracks trends over time but also ensures that compliance work is open and accessible.

All the compliance activities conducted over the last year by AEP are listed in the publicly-released Compliance Assurance Annual Report, providing documented statistics that show how each reported incident is acted upon.

“We take every report, complaint and call very seriously – we’re all stewards of the environment,” adds Owen.

The Compliance Assurance Annual Report includes the work of the department’s Support and Emergency Response Team (ASERT). This team – as the name implies – is responsible for responding to environmental emergencies.  A key part of that work is to ensure preparedness and coordination of response with other agencies, partners, and provincial or federal governments.

The ASERT team continually seeks out new technologies or best practices to improve Alberta’s emergency preparedness and response. For example, last year they used drone flights to document the appearance of an aquatic invasive species in Alberta. Drones have also been used to assess the extent of environmental contamination in the event of a collision, and to identify spills and their extent.

“Drones have made safe and affordable to access difficult-to-access or unsafe locations. In the past, it would have been very costly to get aerial image or video because you would need a plane or a helicopter,” expressed Owen.

Compliance isn’t just about responding to emergencies, though – a significant part of the compliance team’s work involves education and prevention to promote compliance long-term. If education and prevention efforts aren’t enough, the team is equipped with a diverse enforcement toolkit to track and reverse non-compliance, and if required, punish offenders. 

“We want to be as proactive as possible and use education to increase awareness and compliance,” says Owen. “Regulatory requirements are in place to protect our environment – and Albertans.  Most people want to do the right thing. However, we do have tools in place to ensure enforcement and we will use them if necessary.”

Enforcement measures include the use of creative sentencing in the court process, such as taking the funds from paid fines and diverting them to environmental improvement projects.

For example, the Edmonton Native Plant Society received creative sentencing funds to re-establish natural vegetation in two former farmers’ fields that are part of the Wagner Natural Area near Spruce Grove.

Creative funds were also diverted to the Telus World of Science following an air pollution incident in Hinton. The funds are being used to increase air quality awareness and knowledge among Alberta students, teachers and the public. The funds will create a classroom-teaching unit on air quality, a hands-on monitoring tool to allow students to take real time air quality measurements. More examples of creative sentencing projects are listed in the annual report.

To learn more about environmental response and preparedness, while ensuring the accomplishments of Alberta’s compliance team are accessible to everyone, visit:  Compliance Assurance Annual Report.

Quick stats about the 2020 Compliance Assurance Annual Report

From April 2019 to March 2020, Alberta Environment and Parks:

  • Received almost 10,000 environmental emergencies or complaint calls – every complaint and report is followed-up
  • Completed more than 2,000 inspections
  • Sent 130 warning letters
  • Issued 36 orders to either prevent and/or correct damages, compel parties to prevent environmental harm, properly manage water or vacate public land.
  • Issued 16 administrative penalties
  • Completed nearly 200 surface material lease royalty audits
  • Charged one company, seven individuals and three municipalities for offences under legislation administered by the department.
  • Concluded four prosecutions

Stocking fish into remote access lakes – one heli of a ride!

Another year, another completed season of fish stocking into Alberta waterbodies!

Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) stocked a variety of fish species into various waterbodies across the province in the spring and fall, as water temperatures are too warm in the summer. Stocking is simple: fish are transported from provincial fish hatcheries directly to a waterbody that doesn’t usually see these game fish species. Fish are traditionally stocked into the water through a large hose; however, if road access is challenging, these fish need an extra lift to get there.

Fish are transferred from the hatchery truck into buckets, which are then carried onto the helicopter.

Helicopter stocking (or heli-stocking) is the ideal choice (and just plane awesome!) to stock waterbodies that cannot be accessed with a vehicle. Access can be remote and require hiking, ATV, snowmobiling or other methods. However, it is worth the journey as these areas are well-used and loved by anglers since they provide a unique and secluded destination for fishing. The use of heli-stocking allows fisheries biologists to deliver these exclusive angling opportunities whilst reducing angling pressure on natural fish populations. This year, AEP staff documented the stocking process for Lily Lake in the Slave Lake region.

Approximately 3,600 brook trout and 325 tiger trout fish first took off from the Cold Lake Fish Hatchery to arrive for stocking in Lily Lake. But first, the hatchery truck had one stopover: the Marten Fire Tower on Marten Mountain where it would meet the helicopter and specially-trained Agriculture and Forestry wildfire staff to bring the fish to their final destination. Marten Mountain is a well-known look out point with access to a popular hiking trail down to Lily Lake. This is also the perfect location to meet, land and load the helicopter for fish stocking.

The helicopter hovers about 1m from the water surface in order to release the fish into Lily Lake.
Alberta Wildfire staff stocking Tiger Trout into Lily Lake.

Three loads transported a total of nine buckets of fish on a short 1km flight down to Lily Lake. This was an especially exciting trip as the tiger trout were first-time fliers in Lily Lake, whereas the brook trout are known as frequent fliers and have historically been stocked in this area. Once the helicopter arrives, it hovers about a 1m from the water surface, so the staff can dump around 1,800 fish from the buckets into the waterbody (per trip!) – now that’s one heli of a ride for these fish!

One of the 325 Tiger Trout ready to be released into Lily Lake for the first time, alongside 3,600 Brook Trout.

Staff and fish were literally flying high! For anglers, this provides you with diverse fishing opportunities within Alberta, as 240 waterbodies are stocked every year.

Always be sure to #KnowBeforeYouGo as sportfishing regulations differ at each waterbody! If Lily Lake is on your radar, a fishing licence is required and only two brook trout are allowed to be kept, whereas tiger trout are solely catch and release.

Safe travels!

Peregrine Falcon Recovery Taking Flight in Alberta

Peregrine falcon – taken by Gordon Court

Did you know that in Alberta, we are successfully recovering peregrine falcons, a predatory bird at the brink of extinction?

Species at risk recovery is not easy – but it is possible – and very rewarding for all involved.

In the late 1960s, the pesticide DDT had devastating impacts on a number of organisms, including predatory birds like peregrine falcons. The pesticide caused peregrine eggshells to be thinner than normal. The egg shell broke before the baby birds could be born. As a result, the population declined significantly; almost wiping out peregrine falcons across the world. By 1970, only one pair of peregrines existed in Alberta and by 1975, they were considered extinct locally in Canada south of the boreal forest and east of the Rocky Mountains.

“I was only 12 or 13 years-old when they announced the disappearance of the last pair peregrines to nest in the prairies in Canada” says Gordon Court, Provincial Wildlife Status Biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks. Gordon is now one of the provincial leads on peregrine falcon recovery in the province.

DDT was banned in Canada in 1969 and in the early 1970s, provincial and federal governments started the peregrine falcon recovery program. They took every pair of peregrine falcons they could find and brought them to Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, Alberta. At the Base, they started a captive breeding program. The peregrines were bred and held at the Canadian Forces Base until the pesticides disappeared enough from the landscape to re-introduce the birds. Peregrine falcons were slowly introduced back into their habitats starting in 1976 until the mid 90s.

More recently, Gordon and his colleagues are continuing the work on peregrine falcon recovery – and they are seeing success.

“We have seen tremendous success” said Gordon “There are now over 500 pairs that have been re-established across southern Canada.”

The City of Edmonton has nine peregrine falcon pairs. They sometimes like to nest on industrial buildings and wildlife biologists keep a close eye on those pairs. For example, one adult female laid five eggs on top of the Bell Tower in Edmonton. She successfully laid and hatched all five – something that would never have been recorded during the DDT era in southern Canada.

A brood of peregrine falcon young on the Bell Tower in downtown Edmonton.

Peregrines seem to be making themselves right at home across their former habitats. “We hear of so many interesting peregrine stories,” says Gordon. “This year, we had peregrines return to nest sites they haven’t occupied in over 60 years and came back to nest within metres of where their ancestors nested.”

Even though these birds never nested in these sites themselves, whatever attracted them to the cliffs in the 1950s still attracts them to the same cliffs today.  

One of the more interesting facts about peregrine falcons is they have a fantastic flying ability. “Peregrines were recognized as the fastest thing that ever lived – before airplanes were invented” said Gordon. “Nowadays, people go skydiving with them. One skydiver took a GPS with him and recorded a peregrine diving at 389 kilometres per hour!”

When asked what a typical day of peregrine falcon recovery looks like, Gordon said “we make sure as many young peregrines that are born every year fledge successfully from their nests.” Fledging is the stage in a flying animal’s life between hatching or birth and becoming capable of flight – the more young birds fledged, the faster the recovery.

“In nests that show high mortality, we take them out and move them to release sites where they are more likely to survive. We do lab work – measuring peregrine residues and tissues to make sure the species is doing well – and we have the best peregrine tissue studies in Canada. It really explains why the bird is recovering so well now.”

A technician prepares peregrine falcon eggs for analysis.

The biggest task though is the peregrine population survey, which happens every five years – and the next step for peregrine falcon recovery in Alberta is to count them one more time.

“We had three recovery goals for peregrine falcons in Alberta. Two of them have been met already and the third is to count more than 70 pairs in Alberta. If we meet the final recovery goal, the species could be re-listed from Threatened to a species of special concern” said Gordon.

The next provincial survey is scheduled for 2020-21.

This is great news for the species – and for Alberta. Peregrine falcon recovery has given us important information about species recovery in general. “As a young person, the sense of doom that we had regarding peregrine falcons was very present. We got the sense that the issue was way bigger than we could control. What we learned though, is that the world is remarkably resilient. Who would have thought we could recover these birds in less than 50 years? It’s very encouraging.”

When asked what advice Gordon would have for younger generations, he said “what this teaches us is that no issue is too big to tackle. If you have the right momentum, you can turn things around. This is a story I like to tell young people who are facing similar concerns in the world right now.”