Wabamun Lake Fishery
Some of the most frequent enquires the WWMC receives are from anglers who ask why they can no longer harvest fish from the lake. For well over a century, Wabamun Lake was known as a very productive fishery, supporting a vibrant commercial and sport fishing harvest. Over that time, Wabamun had a thriving sport fish community of Northern Pike, Lake Whitefish and Yellow Perch, not to mention ample forage-fish populations of minnows, young game fish, and aquatic insects and other invertebrates.
Then as a result of the 2005 CN train derailment, in which 560,000 litres of bunker C fuel oil and an unknown amount of pole treating oil (a carcinogenic [cancer causing] product) entered the lake, the Alberta government decided to close the harvest of all fish from the lake. Anglers could still fish but they had to release all they caught. Although Alberta Health gave the fish a clean bill-of-health a few months after the spill, the government continued the catch-and-release-only (C&R) regulation to the present.
The Alberta Government has long tried to reintroduce Walleye to the lake. They were present in the lake at the turn of the 20th century but apparently were fished out. Walleye are a highly sought-after fish because of their sporting and table-fare qualities. They are present in many lakes in Alberta and anglers lobbied to have them reintroduced into Wabamun. However, the introductions were not successful. This was most likely because the Wabamun power plant used the lake as its cooling pond since 1956, raising lake water temperature and causing walleye eggs to hatch too early in the spring for the fry to survive. The power plant ceased operations in 2010, so the government decided once again to introduce Walleye in 2011. This introduction appears to have been successful, as there is evidence the Walleye are spawning and the young are surviving. No further introductions have been made since 2014.
In March of 2017 Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) issued a long-awaited Wabamun Lake Fisheries Management Update (PDF). The document lists the fisheries management objectives for the lake and the current status of the fish populations. Numbers were estimated based on a 2015 Fall Index Netting (FIN) survey, and the population status was determined based on the Provincial Fish Sustainability Index. The risks to the sustainability of the fish populations in Wabamun Lake are rated as either High or Very High Risk. The following are highlights from the update.
Walleye: The Walleye introduction that began in 2011 appears to be successful as the population continues to grow. Although it was predicted back in 2012 that a harvestable population of Walleye might be possible within three to five years, the government now predicts a sustainable harvest will not be available until maybe 2020. Then it is hoped the Walleye now being produced in the lake will reach maturity in sufficient numbers to provide a sustainable fishery. For these reasons and a low FIN catch rate, Walleye are classified as Very High Risk, and the no-harvest regulation continues.
Northern Pike: AEP confirms that Wabamun is now a Trophy Status lake for Northern Pike. The status is based on the large Northern Pike being caught and a 2013 survey of anglers coming off the lake, in which more than 80% supported having opportunities to catch trophy pike. However, a low FIN catch rate places the Northern Pike at High Risk, and all pike caught must be released.
Lake Whitefish: Perhaps the biggest disappointment with this update is the status of the Lake Whitefish population. For much of the 20th century, Wabamun was one of the biggest commercial producers of Lake Whitefish in the province. In some years, commercial fishers caught from 200,000 to near 500,000 kg (440,000 to 1.1 million lbs.) of Lake Whitefish. It was also a popular sport fish, especially in winter. However, since the oil spill of 2005, the FIN catch rate for Lake Whitefish has been on steady decline. Thus, the population remains in recovery and the no-harvest regulation continues.
There was no mention of Yellow Perch in the update, but the FIN summary reports only one Yellow Perch caught. So, the lake remains catch-and-release-only for all species for the next few years. The status of the fishery will not be revisited until 2020 when another FIN study will be undertaken.
Meanwhile, anglers are catching many healthy Walleye they must release. They are also catching some thin and seemingly unhealthy pike, and very few whitefish and Yellow Perch. As a result, many believe the Walleye are negatively affecting the pike, whitefish and perch. On the other hand, government biologists believe the low number of fish being reported might be the result of natural fluctuations in populations as the result of a new predator (Walleye) being introduced into the system. Once the populations adapt, it is argued they will stabilize.
Catch-and-Release Mortality: The biologists also point out that the thin and unhealthy pike might be the result of rough handling or foul hooking of caught and released fish by anglers. Because the fishery is C&R, there is a “recycling” of fish. The chances of a fish surviving several handlings by anglers are reduced each time the fish is caught.
If that is the case, perhaps there needs to be more strenuous rules regarding C&R fishing, such as banning the use of bait and treble hooks. Fish tend to swallow baited hooks more readily than non-baited ones, and treble hooks are harder to dislodge from a fish’s mouth, increasing the chance of injury while handling. Instructing anglers about how to handle fish for release would also help.
Perhaps a limited harvest of Walleye should be allowed to help the other fish adapt to the new predator. If C&R has its own inherent mortality, anglers should be taking a few home to eat.
—Don H. Meredith (adapted from his 2017 column “Wabamun Lake Fishery Update”)