Since 1998, Trout Unlimited Canada has worked with the Government of Alberta to conduct annual Fish Rescues in several of southern Alberta’s major irrigation canals. These canals divert water, primarily for irrigation, from the Bow, Highwood, Oldman, Waterton, and Belly rivers throughout the summer. Most of these canals have no screening device or other mechanism to prevent fish from entering the canals. Trapped fish cannot return back to their home rivers without human intervention. When canals are drained in the fall, Trout Unlimited Canada mobilizes hundreds of volunteers to help capture as many fish as reasonably possible, and return them to their home rivers to carry out their life cycle.
Besides rescuing as many fish as possible, Fish Rescue provides a unique and valuable volunteer opportunity, helping to increase awareness of fish identification and handling and other conservation issues. Data collected during the annual effort has helped to confirm that many fish are lost annually to irrigation canals.
Typically the Fish Rescue takes place over approximately 10 days of fieldwork in October, and includes work at up to six canals between Calgary and the U.S. border. To date, 873,515 fish have been rescued! Each fall, Trout Unlimited Canada pulls together a crew to electrofish (stun) and then net fish from the canals. Volunteers help to identify and count every fish captured. Fish are then held in an aerated, truck mounted tank and are later released in the river or reservoir from which they came.
Although we know fish are being lost to canals, we do not fully understand the population level effects, nor do we know what proportion of trapped fish are rescued in the fall. We plan to continue to work with our colleagues at Alberta Environment and Parks to rescue fish from irrigation canals, and to better understand the issues surrounding fish entrainment in canals. We are also very encouraged to learn of plans to install fish screens to prevent the loss of fish at the Women’s Coulee Diversion on the Highwood River. This is a location at which we have often rescued Bull Trout, a threatened species and Alberta’s provincial fish, from the canal.
Partners and Sponsors
The Fish Rescue is financially supported by the Alberta Government, and staff from the Operation and Infrastructure branch of Alberta Environment and Parks. The rescue would not be possible without the help of the hundreds of volunteers that have dedicated their time and effort over the years.