Volunteers who scoop stranded fish from an irrigation canal northwest of Fort Macleod wonder why the province won’t do more to prevent fish from getting trapped in a waterway.

Southwestern Alberta is home to fish like bull trout and lake sturgeon that are on Alberta’s at-risk or threatened species list. Each fall, it’s a race against time to rescue thousands of fish like these and others and relocate them to the nearby Old Man River before they suffocate in a nearly one-kilometre cement flume.

This year’s event took place on Oct. 7. Some volunteers return year after year.

“I’m not the only one that keeps people coming back,” said Piikani Elder Harley Bastien about the annual tradition that only began with a handful of volunteers in 1990 now attracts hundreds of biologists, anglers, outdoor enthusiasts, students, academics and Indigenous people.

Bastien, founder and organizer of Peigan Friends Along the River Fish Rescue, believes their efforts would not be necessary if the province came up with a permanent solution to help keep the fish out of the irrigation system.

Volunteers with waders and rubber boots walk carefully to scoop up various kinds of fish into individual landing nets near a draining system at one side of the canal channel. PHOTO: ADELINE GLADU

“The province,” said Bastien, “won’t do a darn thing. If they were going to, they would have done it by now.”

The provincial government says it has added fish exclusion devices, including screens, to some of its reservoirs to keep fish out of the irrigation canals – and helps with the fish rescue each fall.

“At the end of the diversion period, the Alberta government partners with Trout Unlimited Canada to conduct a fish rescue at multiple sites in the canal,” said Tom McMillan, the director of communications for Alberta Environment and Protected Areas, in an emailed statement to the Calgary Journal.

“Fish are identified, counted and returned to the Oldman River. Any Bull Trout that are captured during the fish rescue are returned to the Oldman River,” added McMillan.

“Just leave it alone. Leave it natural. Stop, you know, thinking that we human beings can manage everything”

ELder Harley Bastien

But Bastien and his group say the province promised to build a fish exclusion gate when it constructed the Oldman River Dam in 1991.  They say a gate was also recommended by an environmental impact assessment in the early 2000s.

“Those recommendations have been sitting there for almost a quarter of a century now,” Bastien said.

During the irrigation season, fish migration is blocked due to their inability to navigate past the weir.

“The fish exclusion would allow for regular spawning runs each year,” said Bastien.

Harley Bastien gives volunteers safety precautions before beginning the volunteer-led fish rescue near a one-kilometre irrigation canal where thousands of fish get trapped once the irrigation system turns off for the winter season. PHOTO: ADELINE GLADU

The irrigation water system that is used for farming, communities and commercial gets turned off for the winter, and as a result, Bastien adds, “the Old Man Reservoir is at its lowest it’s ever been.” 

“Just leave it alone. Leave it natural. Stop, you know, thinking that we human beings can manage everything.”

Kevin Watson, a fisherman and a ten-year volunteer at the fish rescue, echoes Bastien’s concerns.

“I’m a fisherman and I want to make sure these fish survive so I can catch them,” he said.

“All these fish, they don’t know what’s going on, and when you turn off the tap,” he added, “they’re trapped, and they can’t fish out.”

The Peigan Friends Along the River Fish Rescue saved more than 4,000 fish earlier this month.

The organization estimates it has rescued over 250,000 fish since its inception more than three decades ago.

Two volunteers at the back of a line of about 8 people trudge slowly to more than halfway through the dark and cold cemented canal, as they prepare to set a much larger net to coach the stranded fish out. VIDEO: ADELINE GLADU

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