Rescuing Stranded Fish
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 lack a screening device or other mechanisms to prevent fish from entering through the headgates. Trapped fish cannot return back to their source waterbodies 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 waters 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 thousands of fish are lost annually to irrigation canals.
Typically, the event takes place over approximately 10 days of fieldwork in October and includes work at four canals between Calgary and the U.S. border. Each year, Trout Unlimited Canada pulls together a crew to electrofish (stun) and then net fish from the canals. Volunteers help to identify, count, and measure the fish that are captured. Fish are then temporarily held in a truck-mounted, oxygenated tank and are later released into the river or reservoir from which they came. To date, more than 1,050,000 fish have been rescued!
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 Agriculture and Irrigation, previously Alberta Environment and Parks, to rescue fish from irrigation canals and to better understand the issues surrounding fish entrainment. As much as we love to unite with our volunteers each year to take part in this feel-good project, we hope that this project will prompt the installation of more fish exclusion devices (like those installed at the Women’s Coulee Diversion and Mountain View Leavitt Aetna Headworks Canal), and that one day these rescue efforts will no longer be necessary.
Partners and Sponsors
The Fish Rescue is financially supported by the Alberta Government. Trout Unlimited Canada is grateful for the staff from Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation for daily support in the field including fish capture, processing, holding and release, as well as for providing a space to decontaminate gear to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. The rescue would not be possible without the help of the hundreds of volunteers that have dedicated their time and effort over the years.
If you’re interested in participating at Fish Rescue, keep an eye on our Eventbrite as registration for the yearly event typically opens in late summer or early fall!