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Response To Your N C N T Recovery Plan Questions


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FAQ for Fisheries 2018

MG Sullivan and J Reilly 26 Jan 2018

  • Question: Is hooking mortality on released fish of concern?

Answer: If many anglers are catching many fish, even low levels of hooking mortality (as low as 1% or 2%) can prevent recovery of depressed populations. If populations are abundant, fisheries can sustain more angling and higher accidental hooking mortality.

Background: Calculating the effect of hooking mortality is a like calculating a simple household budget. First ask, how many fish are in the stream? If there are very few fish in stream, few can be allowed to be caught and die. E.g., if you have little money in the bank, you can’t spend much if you want the account to grow. Even small amounts of hooking mortality of 1% or 2% will keep a depressed fishery low if many anglers still keep fishing the stream. If the population is much higher, many more anglers can fish and higher hooking mortality of 15% or 20% can be sustained. E.g., if you have much money in the bank, you have many options to spend and still have adequate money for necessary things. Understanding the effect of hooking mortality must consider several factors; angler effort, catch rates, population abundance, population rate of increase, and hooking mortality.

There is a vast scientific literature on hooking mortality, showing that mortality varies with species, temperature, gear, techniques, etc. In our calculations of fisheries sustainability, we use a variety of modelled hooking mortality values for the specific question and situation. Using a single value for all purposes would be of little value.

Release mortality of fish can be a serious concern. Anglers should fish with techniques and at times that reduce mortality in that particular situation. No single law or gear restriction is adequate for every species, water temperature, depth, or weather condition. Educated anglers may limit their catch. Anglers who catch several or even hundreds of fish just for catch-and-release should consider the impacts of their actions.


  • Question: Does Alberta have adequate baseline data on fish status?

Answer: Yes, we have reports of distribution of fish species, and anecdotal information of size and abundance of fish. This is adequate when used at the scale of our management actions.

Background: It would be wonderful (and unrealistic) to have had scientists visit Alberta prior to settlement, but what we have is adequate to ask question like “Was this stream within Westslope Cutthroat Trout range?”, “Did walleye ever exist in this lake?”, “Was this a noteworthy fishery, or was it a poor fishery?”. Baseline data is information on the status of fish prior to being severely affected by human activities and threats. As with other jurisdictions, very seldom are there detailed scientific studies on fish or wildlife prior to settlement. Therefore, the historical record of fishing journals, diaries, interviews with experienced fishers (grandparents and great grandparents) and observations from their recollection, Indigenous peoples conversations, magazine articles, early scientific explorations and commercial records are all used. We also use reports from game wardens, trappers, commercial fishermen, and anglers.


  • Question: Do we have targets and thresholds for when recovery has occurred?

Answer: Yes. This is a new aspect of Alberta’s fisheries management process. Targets and thresholds for changing regulations and defining recovery are now specifically defined for each major project.

Background: We are changing Alberta’s fisheries management process to be much more consistent and rigorous with respect to quantified objectives. This is a major advance from the practices of the past decades. Our targets and thresholds are described as Fisheries Management Objectives. For walleye and pike, these are very rigorously defined in the management frameworks. For other species, the frameworks are being developed, but in the in-term, each major project must have quantitative thresholds and expected timing and sizes of responses.

As a general principle, most fisheries will be managed to a density of moderate risk (FSI of 3), which allows sustainable harvest. A few high-quality fisheries may have higher targets, and a few fisheries may be allowed to be fished to low levels. In very rare cases, a reference fish population may be studied and be maintained at its historical density (perhaps FSI 5), but these experimental situations would be exceptions.


  • Question: Have recovery of fishes caused an ecological imbalance that must be managed?

Answer: No. Native fish like walleye, pike, and whitefish are recovering from many decades of overfishing. Anglers may experience abundances of fish that are unfamiliar to them. Natural population regulation will prevent ecological imbalances.

Background: Fish populations will naturally recover to the appropriate natural balance of predators and prey. Fish populations achieved this balance in Alberta prior to intensive fishing. Fish populations are, by definition, in ecological balance at remote, unfished locations. These populations did not require, nor do they now require human intervention to achieve ecological balance. People go to remote fly-in fishing lodges to experience great fishing. These lakes obviously do not have (nor need) human intervention to maintain ecological balance.

Anglers at some lakes are experiencing catch rates higher than they have ever experienced, especially for easy-to-catch species like walleye. This is only unusual because the fisheries were collapsed for many decades and good fishing is a new experience. In fact, pike numbers are usually higher than walleye at most lakes, and pike numbers are expected to climb more as sustainable regulations are implemented.


  • Question: Are all of Alberta’s fisheries problems because of habitat destruction?

Answer: No. We have many clear examples of overfishing being an important cause of fish declines. We know this because of examples of strong and fast recovery of fish after we reduced overfishing.

Background: For trout, we saw strong recoveries after fishing reductions (with no associated habitat management) at Lower Kananaskis Lake (Bull Trout), Jacques Lake (Bull Trout), Pinto Lake (Bull Trout). We also see a major effect of fishing vs no fishing at Tri-Creeks (Athabasca Rainbow Trout). The recovery of walleye and pike at many Alberta lakes was directly a result of harvest restrictions alone, in the absence of habitat mitigation. That said, habitat destruction and invasive species remain important threats and will be addressed where and when appropriate.


  • Question: If catch-and-release works in other jurisdictions, why not just use catch-and-release in Alberta?

Answer: We do use catch-and-release in Alberta. It was the key regulation that recovered walleye and pike. However, if populations are fished to critically low levels or when effort is high, even catch-and-release can be too much mortality. Other jurisdictions also use fishing closures to protect vulnerable fish.

Background: At Alberta’s walleye and pike lake fisheries, catch-and-release regulations were generally adequate to recover fisheries. Sometimes, the fishery was so depressed that this was not effective. At these fisheries, closing fisheries was necessary (e.g. closing commercial fisheries at Pigeon, closing fisheries at Smith-Dorrien Creek, closing Pinto Lake). If effort and catchability are high enough, recovery will not happen. This appears to be the case with many Alberta stream trout.


  • Question: Will closing watershed simply shift angling pressure to other watersheds?

Answer: Yes. We anticipate shifts in angling effort and will act when necessary to put regulations and enforcement in place on vulnerable lakes and watersheds to minimize this risk.

Background: Each watershed is managed as part of a larger species-wide and landscape-wide management program. When regulations are applied to an individual lake or watershed, the expected shifts in angler pressure will be addressed where necessary.


  • Question: Why doesn’t Alberta use slot limits?

Answer: They are used. The walleye tag system is a slot-size-limit based on three sizes of fish, with harvest directed to the appropriate slot. Unrestricted harvest (e.g., bag limits but no restriction on numbers of anglers) using slot-size-limits has been tried several times in Alberta and has generally failed to sustain or recover fisheries.

Background: Slot size limits with unregulated harvest (i.e., bag limits per angler, but with no restriction on number of anglers) were tried at Touchwood, Seibert and Spencer lakes for walleye. Illegal harvest and overharvest were severe and these fisheries failed to recover. With pike fisheries, slot limits failed to sustain large fish at Amisk and Fork lakes. At lakes with low angling pressure (such as Calling Lake) slot limits may be as biologically effective as minimum size limits, however, enforcement concerns are notable.



  • Question: Would gear restrictions like barbless hooks recover fisheries?

Answer: Most gear restrictions like barbless or dry-fly only are far too minor to result in effective recoveries on their own.

Background: Barbless hooks may reduce hooking mortality by less than 1%. At moderate effort fisheries under catch-and-release, we can expect accidental and illegal fishing mortality to be in excess of 10%. Dropping this by 1% is ineffective.


  • Question: How can catch-and-release fishing keep trout population suppressed?

Answer: if enough trout are caught by enough fishermen, even low levels of mortality like catch-and-release must add up to overharvest. At very densities of trout, this can be severe.

Background: Catch-and-release regulations have not restored Athabasca Rainbow Trout fisheries near Hinton, with immediately adjacent and unfished streams having 6x as many trout. A basic mathematical budget shows that at moderate effort (1 truck of anglers per day), even catch-and-release mortality as unrealistically low as 1% can keep a suppressed population from recovering.


  • Question: How long will recovery take?

Answer: At Alberta’s walleye lakes, large increases in number of walleyes were evident within 5 years for many waterbodies. At intensively studied trout fisheries, increases were observed as soon as 3 years for Rainbow Trout and within 5 years for Bull Trout.

Background: If fish populations are not severely depressed, recovery is as simple as allowing existing young fish survive for a few years to become adults. At Tri-Creeks, rainbow trout recovered from severe flooding within 3 to 5 years. At Lower Kananaskis Lake, Bull Trout recovered from overfishing and increased from 60 fish to over 1000 fish within 5 years. If a fish population is near extinction, however, recovery is less certain and will likely take longer.


  • Question: Why are fishing closures at such a large scale (watersheds, rather than creeks)?

Answer: The scale of management must be at the scale of a fish population. If Bull trout migrate throughout a watershed, closing a single stream is ineffective.

Background: Stream and river fish in Alberta use far more than a single pool, or even a single reach in a stream. Most species travel to other parts of a watershed at some point in their life. If only a small portion of a population is protected, obviously, only a small portion will benefit. The objective of our trout recovery program is to learn what recovers trout at the population-scale.




  • Question: Why do Alberta biologists use models?

Answer: All people use models. For example, a mortgage analyst uses a model to determine if an applicant has enough financial resources to pay for the house. In Alberta, we have biologists that put those arguments into mathematical terms and consider all important factors. This is called “modelling” and is simply the formal scientific technique to present arguments as rigorous and defensible.

Background: The complexity of issues facing modern fisheries managers means that a simple verbal description of a fishery and regulation effect is inadequate. Many of our biologists are highly trained in modelling for cumulative effects assessments, for regulation effects, and for fisheries stock assessment. Two of our biologists recently received the highest marks in one of the toughest fisheries management courses in North America (University of Florida, Quantitative Fisheries Stock Assessment; Jessica Reilly and Laura MacPherson). This demonstrates our commitment to training and valuing highly skilled personnel.

“Almost all modern stock assessment methods require computation; the era when you could just take 15 data points and a hand calculator and “do” a stock assessment is long past. Dealing realistically with choice, dynamics and uncertainty requires computation – quite frankly, if you are not comfortable writing computer programs and playing with numbers you should not be interested in fisheries management!” Ray Hilborn and Carl Walters (1992)


  • Question: Why can’t Alberta just allow a harvest of 1 fish per person?

Answer: Simple arithmetic. Alberta walleye lakes can sustain a harvest of about 1 walleye per hectare. Typical annual angling pressure is 3 or more anglers per hectare. Our walleye regulations are all about how to share 1 fish with 3 or more anglers.

Background: Alberta biologists monitor two main aspects of a fishery; how many fish are in the lake? and how many fishermen visit the lake? For lakes, these are our Index netting assessments, and creel surveys. Index netting, and the associated biological data shows that an abundant walleye population can sustain a harvest of about 1 walleye per hectare. Creel surveys show that average angling pressure during the summer season is 3 anglers/ha, with popular lakes often being much higher. Additionally, fish are harvested by anglers in the winter, some are accidentally killed by anglers (incidental mortality), and Indigenous fishermen take some. This adds up to more fishermen than fish. Alberta fisheries management is about finding ways to share fish.


  • Question: Why doesn’t Alberta try short seasons and concurrent openings?

Answer: Short seasons (

Background: Intensive, short-duration fisheries were a standard technique of managing Alberta’s commercial fisheries. These fisheries were very costly to monitor and enforce. If many sport fisheries were opened on the same date, Alberta would need to hire a huge number of Enforcement Officers, just for those dates. Monitoring to ensure that overharvests didn’t occur would also mean that huge numbers of creel survey staff would need to be hired, just for those few days. The cost to Alberta taxpayers would be remarkable. None-the-less, this is a possibility that should be discussed with angler groups, as well as discussing the user-pay aspects of such intensive management techniques.



  • Question: Will fishing closures increase non-compliance because fishermen won’t be out on the landscape acting as watchdogs?

Answer: No. Fishermen are not currently reporting possible infractions. According to Report-a-Poacher, there were only 2 calls regarding possible infractions in the 7 focal watersheds in 2017. Enforcement officers have stated that complete fishing closures will actually be easier to enforce – as all fishing activities by all individuals will be illegal, it will be very clear to the public and officers if someone is poaching.


  • Question: Do older people complete online surveys?

Answer: Yes. As an example, for the NCNT angling closure survey, 34% of the 1200 respondents were over 55 years of age. Respondents over 55 years old tended to support fishing closures more than younger individuals.



  • Question: Why don’t we just stock native trout instead of worrying about habitat and angling issues?


Answer: Restoration stocking is a high-risk and high-cost management tool, and there is a considerable amount of evidence to indicate that the stocking of hatchery-reared fish in waters where a naturally reproducing stock of the same species exists can have significant negative ecological impacts. Like all recovery actions, the risks, costs and likely benefits of restoration stocking will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and implemented when appropriate.


Background: Experiences in Alberta and in other jurisdictions demonstrate that restoration stocking can be extremely costly and take decades to work, with inconsistent results. A recent analysis of stocking programs for bull trout in America indicates about a 50% success rate (Hayes and Banish 2017). The Westslope Cutthroat Trout recovery program is testing the feasibility and cost of new techniques for restoration stocking that minimize the risk to source populations and disease transmission. What we learn from these pilot projects will guide future efforts across the East Slopes for all species at risk. Following habitat remediation and angling closures, populations in the North-central Native Trout (NCNT) focal watersheds are expected to increase without the need of restoration stocking.


  • Question: Does Fisheries Management support the development of an angler education program?

Answer: Yes. Fisheries Management supports such a program to promote the ethical handling of fish, to disseminate information on Alberta’s fisheries, and to potentially provide more harvest opportunities to anglers who can correctly identify trout species that can sustain harvest. This program should not be viewed as a recovery tool.

Background: Previous actions by AEP to support fisheries education include: a fish identification quiz on the GOA website, in-person training provided by staff in the South Saskatchewan River to support Stewardship Licenses, an identification key in the Alberta Sportfishing Regulations, and the “No black, put it back” campaign. Development of an angler education program is a common request from anglers responding to the NCNT program and is currently included as a draft recommendation in the Bull Trout Recovery Plan. There could be a misconception by the public that education is the only tool required to recover fish populations; fisheries management strongly cautions that while such a program has great social benefits, it should not be viewed as an effective recovery tool.


  • Question: Will the science support behind the fishing closures be reviewed by the public and other scientists?

Answer: Yes. The Bull Trout Cumulative Effects Model was developed and reviewed by the Bull Trout Recovery Plan Public Advisory Committee (PAC). The PAC has membership from trained biologists, anglers, Environmental Non-Government, AFGA and industry representatives. In 2018, the model will be reviewed by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat on behalf of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A journal article on the model and Alberta’s approach to prioritizing recovery actions is currently in draft and will be submitted to an academic journal for peer-review in 2018.


  • Where are Albertans supposed to fish if you close down these watersheds?

Answer: 92% of flowing waters across the East Slopes will remain open for recreational fishing. In addition, Albertans can enjoy a network of 79 stocked ponds and 52 northern pike and walleye lakes in ES2, ES3, and ES4 in addition to the many other opportunities across Alberta.




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