Local fish improvement projects start to take shape 

Take a step back in time and imagine the Whistler area 80 years ago. There are no ski runs or chairlifts on the mountains and there is no village.

Meltwater makes its way down from snow-capped peaks and drains into the valley’s system of lakes and rivers. Tourists step off a train at what is now Rainbow Park for a weeklong stay at a fishing lodge. Trout rise to the surface of Alta Lake to take a fisherman’s fly. Salmon crowd into the Cheakamus and Birkenhead rivers on their way to ancestral spawning grounds.

The Whistler area has a long been considered one of British Columbia’s top fishing spots. Now, sportfishing’s popularity – and its importance to the local economy and residents’ sense of place – is once again on the upswing as a number of programs aimed at boosting fish populations in the area start to take shape.

In Alta Lake, members of the Whistler Angling Club are reaping the rewards of a fish-stocking plan.

"We’re pretty excited about it," says WAC past president Tom Cole. "Alta Lake can produce nice, big fish."

About 4,000 cutthroat trout were released into the lake last year and, according to Cole, the program is aimed at restoring the number of once-thriving kokanee, a species of land-locked sockeye salmon, in Whistler’s historic and most popular fishing spot.

"It’s like trying to figure out a puzzle," he says. "We haven’t seen kokanee in Alta Lake for about seven or eight years."

Kokanee numbers have been dwindling because they compete with the lake’s large stickleback population for food. Since being released, the cutthroat have been preying on the sticklebacks and have substantially reduced their numbers.

"Cutthroats will eat anything that moves," he says.

Besides restoring kokanee numbers, there’s an added benefit to having the lake stocked with cutthroats, says Cole. "Right now, you’d be lucky to find a nine- or 10-inch fish. Next spring, the cutthroats will be around three pounds and 19- to 20-inches long."

Resident populations of rainbow trout and Dolly Varden can be found in the lake as well.

"Everyone’s excited about fishing Alta Lake again," says Cole.

On the Cheakamus River, B.C. Hydro’s Bridge-Coastal Restoration Program announced a trio of fish habitat improvement projects last week.

Spawning and rearing channels for coho salmon and steelhead trout will be created, pink salmon numbers will be jump-started with hatchery fish and rearing habitat for juvenile salmon in the river’s estuary will be improved.

"Some of the largest wild salmon to be found anywhere return to spawn in the watershed," says Ehor Boyanowksy, a director of the Vancouver-based Steelhead Society of B.C. But salmon populations are in steep decline, especially in the Cheakamus.

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