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Fish Kill Story Exaggerated, says District Engineer
by Garry Allison

The fact there are two or more sides to every story applies to the sportfish and irrigation canal experiences.

There is second side to the issue of sportsfish being trapped in irrigation intake canals, says the District Engineer for the Bow River Irrigation District. Richard Phillips and other representatives of the BRID do not agree with words and phrases like holocaust, staggering losses, villain and total devastation when they are applied to sportfish losses in main irrigation system intakes.

Numbers like millions and hundreds of thousands are being bandied about concerning the losses, and insinuations that thousands of large rainbow, brown and bull trout have been trapped and killed in the canals are totally unfair, says Phillips.

It is not that Phillips or the other BRID representatives deny there are fish losses in the canals, it is the fact they feel the problem has been greatly distorted.

“We have been there during the rescue operations, helping out”, Phillips says of Trout unlimited-initiated fish rescue projects in October the past few years along the BRID’s main intake canal near Carsland. In reality, the canal belongs to Alberta Environment and is known as the Carseland-Bow River Headworks System Main Canal. Phillips says the BRID is by far the biggest user of water diverted in the canal, though the Siksika Nation does use some, about a 20th of what the BRID uses. “Two years ago we helped with the project, and this past October we were helping again”, says Phillips.

“We first learned about the project three years ago, after the fact. Certainly we are concerned about what is happening and we saw this as an opportunity to develop a better relationship with Trout Unlimited and the other organizations involved.”

Phillips, Emil Johnson and Rolf Schwabe, all key BRID personnel, as well as avid fishermen in both winter and summer, say most people are missing the silent facts concerning the fish rescues. In regards to numbers, this year’s unofficial total of rescued fish was 75,000 to 80,000, while 1998 figures reached 124,859″.

Of those 1998 figures, 89,757 were sportsfish and 35,102 were non-sports fish, such as suckers, Phillips says. The sportsfish included 86,384 Rocky Mountain whitefish, 1,425 brown trout, l,470 yellow perch and 400 rainbow trout.

There were also 17 lake whitefish, not to be confused with the Rocky Mountain variety, six burbot, four northern pike and one bull trout. While those numbers sound high, Phillips says size must be considered.

“The average mountain whitefish were four to five inches, and the rainbow were mainly under 12 inches, most being seven to 10 inches, though one was 26 inches”, he says. “There were a few of those larger beauties, but the vast majority were in the under 12-inch-and-less range.

“Of the six bull trout recovered in 1997, two were under four inches, one under five inches and the largest was six inches”.

“In 1998 the lone specimen was a good sized adult, 20 inches or so. The 1999 bull trout was a mid-sized adult”.

Phillips points out that of all the fish under six inches, it has to be asked just how many would have survived in the river itself, growing to a significant size for the angler to enjoy.

“I’m not saying things like the brown trout losses are not of concern, but you do have to look at the entire picture”, he says.

“In 1998 the majority of the brown trout were under 6 inches, with the occasional big one. The average though was four to five inches. Rainbows were averaging bigger than the browns being saved”.

Johnson says things like the newspapers and television taking pictures only of the extremely large fish, not the buckets containing fingerlings, helps create the perception all the trapped fish were lunkers.

No matter what, the figures and sizes are far from a holocaust or even the staggering losses which are being depicted, he says.