Since the mid-2000’s, the collapse of the Kootenay Lake fishery has been apparent, and well documented.
Prior to 2012, the Meadow Creek spawning channel has supported an average of 67.7 million kokanee eggs and an average of 693,000 spawners.
Since then, egg numbers have only averaged 7.7 million and spawner numbers have fallen to an average of 28,000. The end result is too many rainbow and bull trout and not enough kokanee - their primary food source - in the lake.
This predator/prey imbalance is known as a “predator pit”, a circumstance where the predators continue to suppress prey to very low numbers. Urgent measures are required to rectify this situation and restore the renowned, economically important fishery.
A collective effort (Kootenay Lake Action Team) was initiated eight years ago. Participants are: the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNROD), the BC Wildlife Federation, the Freshwater Fisheries Society of British Columbia, the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation (HCTF) and the West Arm Outdoors Club, along with First Nations partners.
As the legal entity with responsibility for fisheries management, FLNROD has now agreed that a reduction of predator spawners (Gerrard and bull trout) is a necessary action in concert with numerous others already underway. Initial efforts - ongoing nutrient restoration, the angler incentive program, kokanee egg stocking - undertaken over the past several years have had some positive impacts but more action is required.
Without an ongoing (two to three years) reduction of predator spawners - to levels which do not threaten the species ongoing presence and survival - measures taken to date have not been sufficient.
Specifically, for the upcoming third year of the action plan the following measures are being or will be taken.
First, the Ktunaxa Nation Council has been engaging in nightly tangle netting to reduce the Gerrard spawning population to between 50 and 100. This necessary action was ongoing during the spawner migration period between mid -March and the end of April.
Over the six week period, over 150 Gerrard spawners were removed.
The Kootenay Lake Action Team is also working with another of its indigenous partners - the Okanagan Nation Alliance - to support and facilitate their planned ceremonial capture and harvest at the Gerrard spawning site.
In conjunction with Gerrard spawner reduction, bull trout spawners on the Kaslo River will also be targeted. The goal would be to reduce the number of spawners to approximately 50 for the next few years, if sufficient funding is available.
Second, the extension of the Kootenay Lake Angler Incentive Program funded by HCTF for a third year has been agreed upon. The program motivates anglers to return to fishing on the main lake; fish caught in the West Arm do not qualify.
The chance to win monthly and grand prizes incentivizes anglers to turn in rainbow and bull trout heads caught in the main lake to identified depots (Wynndel Foods & Outdoor Gear, Crawford Bay Market, Woodbury Resort and the Gill & Gift in Balfour). It was extremely successful in its first year, with over ten thousand predators removed.
Unfortunately year two, ending May 31st, saw a substantial decline in entries.
This is regrettable, as the monthly prizes, $1000 in gift certificates to area businesses, and the grand prizes - boats, quads, trips to coastal fishing resorts - are excellent. So too are the odds of winning a prize through regular angling that reduces the number of predators in the lake. It is a win-win situation.
Aiming to substantially increase angler participation, the grand prizes for Year Three of the program are truly exceptional: a mid-year draw in November for a fully loaded 2023 Polaris Ranger SP 570 Premium Side by Side, and in May of next year, a 2022 Ford F150 Tremor!
Advertising, in the form of posters and radio spots, for the upcoming year will begin once the second of this year’s grand prizes is drawn on June 1.
There is still time for anglers to submit the heads of your catch. There will also be a children’s derby with lots of prizes available in Year Three.
Another important change to the Kootenay Lake Action Plan is a revision to the fishing regulations specific to Kootenay Lake. Anglers are now permitted to harvest up to five rainbow trout daily versus a previous maximum of two greater than 50 centimetres. This will assist in reducing the existing imbalance between predators and kokanee.
The ministry intends to stock five million kokanee eggs from off-site sources, if that number is available, into the Meadow Creek spawning channel this fall. It is also committed to continuing the ongoing nutrient restoration program that provides food for kokanee. The addition of nutrients boosts zooplankton levels, enhancing the aquatic food chain within the lake. It has been running for almost thirty years.
The improved measures, particularly predator spawner reduction, will help to restore Kootenay Lake species balance. It is critical to do so, as the collapse of the fishery can be directly translated into reduced tourism-generated dollars.
“A healthy fishery means people will travel, spending money locally doing so, specifically for the opportunity to catch unique, trophy-size rainbow trout,” Gill & Gift owner Randy Zelonka notes.
“Right now, the imbalance between predators and prey means there are no more trophy Gerrard's in the lake. They are undersized, lacking the girth they used to have prior to the collapse. That translates to lost revenue for us and all the businesses around the lake.
“Reducing the number of the predators through the angler incentive program is important. It’s why I volunteered the store as a depot. But without a significant, ongoing reduction in Gerrard and bull trout spawners, which thankfully has started now, the lake won’t return to the way it was 20 years ago. And frankly, that is what we need.”
West Arm Outdoors Club president Gord Grunerud echoes Zelonka’s thoughts.
“Kootenay Lake is a special fishery. It was known world-wide by anglers for its unique rainbows (Gerrard's). It is critical that all the involved partners work collaboratively, collectively and flexibly to restore the lake to what it was.
“Consensus-building and the willingness to take necessary measures based on science and experience are absolutely essential if we are going to be able to restore the lake to its former state. That will take time and effort.”
His last statement is undeniable. Even if, as anticipated, the enhanced measures continue for several more years, the return to a proper predator/prey balance will take time. It could be upwards of a decade or more before a successful result is apparent, according to experts.
For the Kootenay Lake Action Team and those who live, work and recreate on and around Kootenay Lake, it needs to be done, regardless of how long it takes.
The public can be part of the solution by getting out on the lake to fish.