Swan River FN working to protect grayling habitat

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

Swan River First Nation is working with industry to reduce sedimentation, and fix ‘hanging culverts’ and other non-compliant stream crossings in the Swan Hills. This is to protect grayling habitat.

“It’s (grayling) is a traditional food source of ours,” says SRFN councillor Dustin Twin. When the Alberta government closed off fishing for everyone, this had a direct impact Swan River’s treaty rights.

Dustin Twin is on the Swan River tribal council. Before he was elected, he was involved in field consultations, so has been involved with grayling habitat recovery for over six years.

“The harvest of arctic grayling was suspended in 2015,” says Myles Brown, senior fisheries biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks, in an email. “The completion of the first arctic grayling Fish Sustainability Assessment (FSA) in 2014 prompted the Alberta government to take action, implementing a province-wide catch and release regulation in April 2015 to support population recovery.

“Fisheries biologists, Indigenous peoples, anglers, and industry professionals also realized this action alone wasn’t enough to promote the recovery of arctic grayling. Ongoing work, such as the Pembina River Watershed Closure, Native Trout Recovery Program, and a number of industry-led and public-led habitat reclamation and remediation programs are also occurring in watersheds provincially in a multi-pronged effort to recovery high risk arctic grayling populations.”

Swan River First Nation is leading one of these programs.

SRFN is on the Swan River and the southern shore between the eastern and western basins of Lesser Slave Lake. It surrounds the Hamlet of Kinuso and is about halfway between High Prairie and Slave Lake off Highway 2. To the south are the Swan Hills. Swan River and other streams start in these hills and flow through Swan River’s traditional territory.

“Grayling exist over a broad distribution in Alberta and can be found across the boreal forest and along the eastern slopes (of the Rockies),” says Brown. “They prefer cool to cold flowing waters, with moderate to low turbidity (the degree which water becomes cloudy).

“Locally, grayling can be found in the headwaters and main stems of most river systems flowing into Lesser Slave Lake and the Lesser Slave River such as the Swan River, Driftpile River, Marten River, Sawridge Creek, Saulteaux River and Otauwau River.

“I (Brown) have talked to many locals who have caught grayling in the Lesser Slave River, in locations up and down stream of where the weir now currently sits.

“Population surveys have detected them in very small numbers (in Lesser Slave Lake), commonly near river mouths such as the Driftpile or Swan River and some historical news articles and stories of early settlement of Lesser Slave Lake indicate grayling were caught in the lake historically.

“It is likely the low numbers observed now are a product of natural changes to the system combined with consequences from decades of human use and alteration. Healthy populations of grayling can still be found in some systems like, Marten River and Sawridge Creek, but many are currently at low abundance.”

A grayling, which is a small endangered fish which spawns in streams which drain into Lesser Slave Lake. No one in Alberta is allowed to fish it.
Photo courtesy of Alberta Conservation Association.

The Swan Hills watershed is often used as an example of how not to develop a watershed, says Twin. It has a high density of stream and river crossings. Many of these were built in the 70s. Of these, 80 per cent are barring fish passage. These cause a habitat threat to grayling.

“We have an overarching focus on the watershed,” says Twin.

A watershed is the land and water which drain into a stream, river or lake.
The Swan Hills watershed is part of the Lesser Slave Lake watershed, which is in turn part of the Athabasca River watershed.

Brown says, “arctic grayling face the same challenges to sustainability as many other native fish species like – Athabasca rainbow trout, bull trout and mountain whitefish – that live in river systems.

“These threats to sustainability can be broadly categorized as habitat, over-harvest or ecosystem threats. Significant habitat threats include loss or degradation from additive sedimentation entering watercourses, fragmentation blocking movement within watersheds, increased nutrient loading changing water quality, changes in water temperature from land use and climate change, and spills of harmful substances into the watercourse.

“Habitat threats commonly arise from landscape alteration and resource extraction.”

Twin says, after the province-wide catch and release order for arctic grayling, the Swan River First Nation started investigating the grayling decline. They found Alberta Conservation Association research, which included data from the Swan Hills watershed. This identified hanging culverts as a big problem in the area.

A hanging culvert is above the stream bed, which causes a small waterfall, increasing the distance between the culvert and the stream bed. Fish have trouble jumping up the waterfall, which they need to do in order to spawn (lay their eggs, which is how they reproduce).

A 2008 article – “Landscape-level stream fragmentation caused by hanging culverts along roads in Alberta’s boreal forest” – by David Park et. al. was based on data collected from the Swan Hills, and three other boreal areas in 2002 and 2003.

The study focused on hanging culverts because the researchers identified it as the most prevalent and “persistent form of culvert-related impediment to upstream fish movement.”

The ACA study found that the Swan watershed had more hanging culverts per stream kilometre than the other three and that small stream habitat fragmentation was four times higher. Older culverts and ones on steeper slopes are more likely to be hanging. The median age of culverts in the Swan Hills was 40 years in 2002. The Swan Hills has steep slopes.

In 2015, ACA followed up, says Twin, but none of the crossings had been fixed. Swan River decided to take on the problem.

“We have a unique standing in our area,” says Twin. “We don’t do any work for industry.”

This removes the potential for conflicts of interest and gives Swan River a platform for negotiating when industry consults it on projects.

The roads are built and owned by Alberta Transport, logging, oilfield and other industry companies.

Twin says the response has varied, but some companies such as Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL) are a “shining example.” CNRL not only corrects each non-compliant crossing they figure out if there’s a way to use less roads, thereby removing the crossing. If there’s no road there’s a 100 per cent ability for the fish to swim upstream. This also means less roads for the company to maintain.

‘Hanging’ culverts like this one are believed to have contributed to the decline in grayling population. The Swan Hills have a disproportionate number of these, which Swan River First Nation is working with industry to correct. Photo courtesy of Alberta Conservation Association.

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