Fishing for science
Research team studies state of the Sturgeon
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Aug 22, 2012 06:00 am
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon. Here by the railroad tracks near the Bilby Natural Area, among the trees, grass and fluttering butterflies, is a curious sight: three folks in safety vests with a giant net wading in a creek.
“Welcome to Kilini Creek!” says one of them, Joël Gervais, as he sloshes ashore in his hip waders. He and the other two scientists are here at this isolated spot to sample fish and water from the creek, part of their ongoing efforts to study the state of the Sturgeon River.
It’s been a lousy day for fishing – they’ve caught just two white suckers, one of which leaps out of Gervais’s hands into the creek when he lifts it out of the bucket. (He catches it before it escapes.)
“Last Friday we had 151 fish at one site,” Gervais notes – it took a long time to sort them all out.
Kilini Creek is a tributary of the Sturgeon River that runs through the Bilby Natural Area near Onoway. According to Mike Northcott, a local environmentalist who keeps a close eye on the creek, it supplies about 30 per cent of the flow into nearby Matchayaw (or Devil’s) Lake.
It’s also under pressure from gravel mining, says Northcott, who is familiar with Gervais’s work. Wash water from some of the mines is loading up the creek with sediment, which interferes with plant and animal life. “There used to be a lot of fish passage up there from Devil’s Lake,” he continues, but gravel companies built a dam across the creek decades ago, effectively stopping it.
Lac Ste. Anne County is now doing a cumulative impact assessment in this region to figure out how these mines may be affecting the Sturgeon.
Gervais is a researcher with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) based out of St. Albert. He’s one of a small group of people working on the Sturgeon River Watershed Habitat Enhancement Study, an ongoing project that aims to track environmental conditions throughout the Sturgeon watershed.
The team has seen a lot of cool stuff in the field this summer, he notes, including larval tiger salamanders and huge thunderstorms.
One time he even saw two red-winged blackbirds attacking a great blue heron. “It was a battle royale,” he says, with the blackbirds raking the heron’s back with their claws and the heron trying to fly away. “The sound (the birds) made was just blood-curdling.”
The site they’re at today is one of 22 locations he and his teams have been visiting this summer, Gervais says. At each site, they take water samples, test for indicators such as pH and oxygen, and capture fish for study. “Nothing here but white suckers today,” he says, but they’ve found pike, fathead chub and brook stickleback at others.
This particular site was picked because it’s relatively protected and has good fish habitat, Gervais says. But it’s not completely pristine either: a large ATV trail runs through the creek at this spot, cutting deep ruts in the bank and throwing sediment into the water. “That’s not as good for keeping the water temperature down,” he notes, and makes this area less hospitable for fish.
Helping him drag a big white seine net through the creek is Jamie Kalla, a conservation biology student at the University of Alberta.
The team is using nets and wire-cylinder traps to see what fish live in the water, she explains. “It’s mostly a presence and absence kind of thing,” she says, as the species mix reflects the state of the water.
Captured fish are weighed, identified and measured in the field, with some brought back to the lab for gender determination. (The team wants to see if hormones in the water are skewing sex ratios – so far, the answer is no.) Instead of just lobbing them back into the creek when she’s done, Kalla says she “resuscitates” them by moving them back and forth in the water until they can swim away on their own.
Past studies by NAIT and the City of St. Albert suggest that the Sturgeon may be close to an ecological tipping point, Northcott says, making research like this important.
“This, to me, is of prime importance to the City of St. Albert,” he says. “If they want to maintain a viable river flow through their area, they have to be terribly aware of what’s going to happen to [the Sturgeon] in the future.”
The NAIT team is wrapping up its fieldwork for the summer, Gervais says, and will spend most of the winter analyzing the data it has collected.
For details, contact Debbie Webb at 780-378-2859.