Kootenay Lake fishery could be fixed in less than a decade
“Kootenay Lake was a world-renowned sport fishery for decades because of the large (15-25-pound) Gerrard Rainbow trout – just like everybody else, I don’t want to fish for a two-pound trout anymore,” said former Director of Fisheries for the Province of British Columbia, Harvey Andrusak.
Harvey is not alone. Local fishers frequently comment on the smaller size and poor health of the Kootenay Lake trout in comparison to 10 years ago. The principal prey of the trout is kokanee, which are at historic lows in the main body of Kootenay Lake. Scientists and experts agree that the low numbers of kokanee are the main reason why the trout are so small.
Can we get large Gerrard Rainbow trout back in Kootenay Lake? Past President of the B.C. Wildlife Federation (BCWF) and member of the West Arm Outdoors Club (WAOC), Andrusak, says, “Yes – the Kootenay Lake fishery can be brought back in balance within a few years if we base our approach on the successful fishery recovery program in Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho.”
A major part of the Lake Pend Oreille Fishery Recovery Program was reducing the population of predatory trout significantly. The BCWF and local WAOC idea for the Kootenay Lake Angler Incentive Program (KLAIP) was based on the Lake Pend Oreille science.
What is the background of the predator-prey imbalance in the main Kootenay Lake Fishery?
Gordie Grunerud, President of the West Arm Outdoors Club summarizes: “Prior to 2010, Kootenay Lake fisheries were in balance. The return of Rainbow trout to Gerrard spawning area averaged 350-450 spawners per year and kokanee returns averaged 0.5 -1.2 million. When in balance, the number of predators caught each year averaged about 25,000.”
These numbers are based on the FLNRORD Ministry Kootenay Lake Kokanee Recovery Update from January 2021.
Science-based efforts to maintain the predator-prey balance in Kootenay Lake had been going on for decades prior to 2010. For example, in the 1980s, fisheries scientists noted declining nutrients that are important for kokanee survival. As a result, Kootenay Lake has been “fertilized” with these nutrients since the 1980s to support the kokanee and therefore the trout.
But, according to Grunerud and the January 2021 ministry update, “The numbers of Gerrard trout started to increase and peaked in 2012 at 1,600 (3-4 times the 50-year average). With the increased number of predators, scientists and fishers saw a rapid decline in kokanee to only 12,000 in 2017, way down from the more than 1 million returning kokanee in 2012. The reported catch numbers of Rainbow and Bull trout was also decreasing. In 2018, approximately 3,400 Rainbow and Bull trout were caught – well below the average of 25,000 per year of previous years.”
Gerrard Rainbow and Bull trout populations had increased so much their predation forced kokanee to near extinction, and consequently the predators decreased in size and condition. The FLNRORD Ministry states: “Abundant kokanee predators [Gerrard Rainbow and Bull trout] are the main factor in kokanee collapse and continue to significantly reduce kokanee survival.”
By 2018, “Predators were actually eating themselves out of house and home, and fishing effort had greatly declined,” stated Gord. “No more trophy-sized fish were being caught.”
“In a similar fishery challenge in Idaho, Lake Pend Oreille biologists knew what to do. Using a multifaceted approach to predator reduction, it took them just six years to bring back a balance between predators and prey,” said Andrusak. Today many former Kootenay Lake anglers travel to Idaho instead of being able to fish their heritage and support local businesses.
How does the Kootenay Lake Angler Incentive Program (KLAIP) fit in?
In 2019, the WAOC had become frustrated with lack of ministry action to implement measures to reset the imbalance. “Timid regulation changes were made with little action towards seriously reducing the predators,” said Andrusak.
Based on the science from Lake Pend Oreille’s Fish Recovery Project, the West Arm Outdoors Club took action in 2020. They secured funding from Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation and the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C. to launch the KLAIP aimed at reducing predator numbers by providing major prize incentives for fishers to keep more trout and char. In the first year of the project, 12,000 trout and char were retained, a considered success story.
“The West Arms Outdoor Club remains deeply concerned that kokanee recovery is moving too slowly. After nearly 10 years there has been no appreciable change to kokanee numbers. The science-based solution is at hand: reduce the predators to the point when kokanee survival in the lake starts to increase,” writes Grunerud.
Andrusak says: “The ministry seems paralyzed to implement what the science already tells us as evidenced with the Lake Pend Oreille story. The Pend Oreille Project did not just rely on angler derbies to reduce the number of predatory trout; they also used gill netting and trapping for predator reduction, and yearly egg planting to increase kokanee. On Kootenay Lake the ministry seems to want to rely solely on the club’s (WAOC) project.”
The WAOC has stated that its project is only part of the solution, and that the FLNRORD Ministry must do a great deal more. Short-term kokanee egg plants and aggressive removal of predators must be done to return Kootenay Lake back to the once world-renowned fishery for giant Rainbow trout.
How can fishers help? Phone and write to the Honourable Katrine Conroy, the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development and call for concrete action on further removal of predators and regular planting of kokanee eggs in spawning channels. Here are the BCWF Best Practices for Meeting with Elected Officials: htttps://www.bcwf.bc.ca/advocacy/
Read the full “Kootenay Lake Kokanee Recovery Update” by the Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development from January 2021.
Photo credit: Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism, Balfour, by Bryan Webb.
B.C. Wildlife Federation and West Arm Outdoors Club