By Loreth Beswetherick
The summer of 2000 will not go down in the record books as having been a good year for the proliferous stickleback population of Alta Lake.
The Whistler Angling Club, under command of president Tom Cole, is waging war on the little fish and he is enlisting the help of a 4,000-6,000-strong army of cutthroat trout to do the dirty work.
The plan is part of a five-year strategy, in conjunction with stream rehabilitation work, to restore the Kokanee population in Alta Lake. There is a risk of losing the local Kokanee population, and, because of their predisposition to carrying disease, it is not likely the lakes could be restocked.
"If we lost the Kokanee in this valley we probably would never be able to get them back," said Cole.
The young cutthroat, named after a red slash under the jaw, are currently being cultivated by the Ministry of Environment's fisheries section. They will be sterilized and released into Alta Lake come spring. It will be their job to target the spiny stickleback as a key food source. The theory is, the piscivorous cutthroat will start predating immediately and, over a period of five years, significantly reduce the huge stickleback population which competes with the Kokanee for a food source. The cutthroat are toothier and better equipped than the rainbow trout to handle the three sharp spines on the backs of the little fish which have increased exponentially as the Kokanee population declined.
Cole said there is some concern the new cutthroat may feed on small rainbow trout but he said there are enough fry in the feeder creeks - its just that they are not finding their way into the lake. More creek work over the next five years should address that problem. As the biologically-limited cutthroat die off, the natural recruitment of indigenous trout and Kokanee fry from the feeder streams should allow the system to develop on its own.
Cole said no one can pinpoint why the Kokanee population has declined in such numbers. "It's probably a number of factors including wear on the River of Golden Dreams and the state of Lakeside Creek. We have only got three feeder creeks and one of them, 21 Mile Creek, was completely blocked off by the municipality eight years ago," said Cole. "The old Rainbow channel used to have a more dedicated flow.
"The stewardship group is trying to look at rebuilding these. I am saying, in the meantime, why don't we knock back the stickleback, increase the Kokanee and maybe we will get the balance of the lake back."
A spin-off of the program is that the cutthroat, in the meantime will create an exciting sport fishery. Because they are neutered they will focus on building body mass rather than worrying about reproduction, said Cole. "We could end up with an incredibly good fishery. Maybe we will have two, three and four pounders in the lake and that will get people fishing again."
Before that happens though, new catch and release regulations must be drafted. The cutthroat need to be put back so they can continue their work.
Cole acknowledges it's an experiment. "But doing nothing, in my mind, is not improving the situation. Maybe we can say, five years from now, after doing all the creek work, the system will develop in its own."
The introduction of sterilized fish that have a biological limit is a novel idea but not an untested one. Wahleach Lake, otherwise known as Jones Lake, in the Chilliwack area, was a successful test case. It was first stocked in 1996 by the Ministry of Environment after a B.C. Hydro dam resulted in the collapse of the Kokanee population.
Vic Swiatkiewicz, fisheries section head for the Ministry of Environment said the original stock of Kokanee appeared to have been extirpated at Jones Lake. In the Jones Lake case, Kokanee, sterilized rainbow and sterilized cutthroat were all introduced. Swiatkiewicz said the program was so successful, word got out there were big fish the lake. "The cutthroat were being fished out in incredible numbers," said Swiatkiewicz. "Yet the biologists needed them in the system so they continue to feed on the stickleback."
He said lessons have been learned from the Jones Lake experience and catch and release fishing regulations will first have to be implemented at Alta. Currently the standard regulation is a four fish per day limit in the lake, with only one over 30 centimetres. There are also no-bait restrictions.
Alta Lake was once rated among the top three lakes in the Lower Mainland in terms of productivity. "The angling club felt if there was one system in the valley that we tried to manage as a natural system, this was it," said Cole. "A lot of guides were having to go to Pemberton and even beyond to get any kind of level of fishery. It seemed ridiculous that these guys were taking visitors to Whistler out of the district to fish."
It was fishing, after all, that was the tourist draw card back in the days of Rainbow Lodge, noted Cole.
"Alta Lake is our premier lake. If we can't get that right - what can we get right?" said Cole.
The program has been endorsed by the Whistler Fisheries Stewardship Group which includes representation from the municipality, the mountains, the golf course, the angling club and Rotary. Cole said the next step is to inform local First Nations groups and place a public notice about the program to ensure all interest groups are represented.