As new fishing regulations get set to go into effect on the Kettle and West Kettle Rivers east of Kelowna, making the two rivers catch-and-release only, a stream rehabilitation project is underway on the Kettle River system as stakeholders, communities and anglers come together to try and revive the fishing in the Kettle River watershed.
As of April 1, the West Kettle and Kettle River will become 100 per cent catch-and-release fisheries, meaning the age old practice of (legally) catching and killing fish in the Kettle system will come to an end, as fisheries biologists move to protect a fishery that has been in decline for at least the past 10 years.
The rivers will also both be closed completely for a month in the hottest stretch of summer—from July 25 to Aug. 25 in the Kettle and Aug. 1 to Aug. 31 in the West Kettle—a time when low river flows and high temperatures by themselves can kill fish, making trout very susceptible to threats from predators and anglers.
“This is the only river-style fishery in the region and is utilized by avid fly-fishermen,” said Tara White, senior fisheries biologist in the Thompson-Okanagan Region. “The river is managed as a quality fishery. These changes will not only help conserve and protect wild stocks, they will help maintain and enhance angler opportunity on this unique river-style fishery. Hopefully it will also help address compliance concerns associated with it, which has been identified as a significant issue on the system, by simplifying the regulations.”
Previously only about 44 kilometres of the 260 km river was catch-and-release, meaning anglers had to use signs or markers to figure out where those locations were. Now both the Kettle and the West Kettle are entirely catch-and-release only, a move angling groups had been calling for over the past several years.
“I applaud the ministry for changing the regulations,” said Travis Lowe of the Kelowna-based Trout Unlimited chapter. “The truth is killing fish in the Kettle was never an environmentally sustainable model. The fishery is on the brink of collapse and it needed these regulation changes. Hopefully they stabilize the fishery for the future and hopefully they can find a way to police and monitor the river.”
Raise your hand if you’ve heard of a fish known as the speckled dace. OK, good. Now stand-up if you have ever caught one. And that my friends would be quite the fish tale.
You see the speckled dace is a member of the minnow family and only grows to a maximum four or five inches in its short four-year lifespan. Believed to be one of the first fish to re-colonize B.C. waters after the Ice Age, there are healthy populations of the speckled dace in the Western United States but here in Canada it lives in only one river system. That system: The Kettle River and its two main tributaries of the West Kettle and the Granby River.
Close to the Canada-US border, the Kettle River flows over Cascade Falls and into the US. Due to the falls, the Canadian speckled dace is cut-off from its relatives south of the border and has even developed different characteristics from its American family.
The specked dace is abundant in the US but in Canada it is a much different story. It is an endangered species, listed as an aquatic species at risk by the federal government and protected under the government’s Species At Risk Act (SARA).
“The dace are really cool because they are able to live in amongst the rocks,” said fisheries biologist Darryl Arsenault from his Kelowna office. “They are very stocky and strong and can get in amongst the rocks. They are an important part of the food chain. It’s all inter-connected. They feed on algae and small invertebrates. They live on those and are able to transfer the energy up to trout and birds that feed on them. One of the biggest pressures on them is sediment coming down the river that takes nice clean rocks and fills it with sand so they can’t access food or hiding places.”
Those rocky hiding places and natural habitat of the speckled dace is the same habitat that rainbow trout need to spawn in. And because dace are listed on the SARA, there is federal money available to try and help them. And that in turn will help trout, the Interior of B.C.s top angling target.
“Anytime you reduce sediment moving down the system you also help rainbow trout because rainbow trout spawn in the same type of gravel these guys live in,” said Arsenault. “If you protect the speckled dace you also help the rainbow trout.”
According to Arsenault, past and current logging practices in the area have resulted in increased sediment heading down the river and other practices like agriculture and bridge-building have long allowed too much sediment to enter the Kettle system.
The logging wouldn’t even have to be in close proximity to the Kettle to have an impact. Sediment is fed into the Kettle system from feeder streams, many of which come through cutblocks or other areas that have been logged and dump sediment into the main river channel. Over time the sediment impacts the river by eroding the banks and widening it, and lowering the water level as the sediment is deposited on the river bed.
Put together with low flows in the summer, intense agriculture practices that remove water from the river and a history of over-fishing and the Kettle system is hurting.
To fight the sediment problem, Arsenault, is working on a project to improve habitat for the speckled dace, a $116,000 project with funding through the federal government, in-kind donations as well as a $20,000 boost from Trout Unlimited (TU) in Kelowna. Travis Lowe with TU says his group has been sitting on the money for years, looking for an appropriate conservation project to put it towards.
“I think this project dovetails nicely with what our goals at Trout Unlimited are in terms of conserving Canada’s freshwater and coldwater resources,” said Lowe. “It really fits in with what we are trying to do on the Kettle River especially with the rainbow trout fishery because the speckled dace needs the exact same thing as rainbow trout need which is clean water free from sediment. We have had that money sitting in the bank and have been looking to try to find a project where we can put the money on the ground. It feels really good to see that happening right now.”
The project, underway this month, will see willow, cottonwood, dogwood and other plants re-planted on certain stretches of the Kettle, West Kettle and Granby rivers. As the new plants grow they will create a new forest and new stability on the banks, catching the sediment as it flows downstream and also stopping the erosion of the banks. It is expected to eventually create deeper pools in the river, improving fish habitat.
“This is the first crack at creating some enhanced habitat,” said Arsenault. “I’m not going to say it’s going to fix the problem. This is really the first effort by people in the watershed to get together and put their effort together to restore habitat. It’s a small effort. It needs to keep going. This is just a first step in a long process of trying to do some restoration and education for people.”
Over-fishing, illegal fishing, water licenses, agriculture use, logging. There are many things affecting the Kettle River. But as new fishing regulations go into effect on April 1, there are more and more people working to save the Kettle and revive a unique fishery that is a shadow of what it once was.
Last November the Regional District of Kootenay-Boundary endorsed a Kettle River Watershed Management Plan, setting a plan to work towards four main strategies:
1. Increase community understanding, support and capacity for stewardship of the watershed,
2. Improve the quality, reliability and security of water supplies through sustainable management of water resources,
3. Improve watershed health and function,
4. Maintain or enhance recreational, cultural and amenity values.
“Now that there is a management plan that is really important,” said Arsenault. “They are looking at taking that management plan to the next level as a way to keep getting funding and keep things moving forward.”
Along with Arsenault’s speckled dace protection project, other work is also underway and being guided by the strategies laid out in the plan.
The Christina Lake Stewardship Society is planning a lakeshore restoration demonstration and native plant nursery, and funding proposals have been submitted for bank stabilization and fish habitat improvement on the Kettle River near Grand Forks.
A plan is being developed to bring together all of the water suppliers in a water conservation strategy and education program, and a ‘learning garden’ at the Grand Forks Aquatic Centre will demonstrate water conservation, soil improvement, and an ecological landscape design system called permaculture.
And while those projects may seem like they are a ways away from Kelowna, the importance of the Kettle River stretches far away from the land it crosses.
“There is a strong passion and a strong interest for that watershed,” said fisheries biologist Tara White of the Kettle. “There is also a strong sense of ownership amongst the locals which goes a long way to help protect and maintain fish habitat. Its those kinds of joint efforts where you have stakeholder engagement and community interest that at the end of the day makes a big difference.”
For more on the Kettle River go to www.kettleriver.ca.