Are Fishing Laws Bunk?
What use are closed seasons and creel limits, biologists ask, when we make our fine rivers unfit homes for fighting fish?
C. FRED BODSWORTH
CANADA'S game fish are in retreat. Messrs. Trout, Salmon, Muskellunge, Black Bass and their kin, those fighting fellows with the Joe Louis punch who have kept Canadian angling from degenerating into a glorified form of sunbathing, are becoming as scarce as the sea serpent in many a watershed where they were once as plentiful as minnows. Their clumsy weaker cousins like pickerel, rock bass and pike are moving in to replace them.
In the coastal rivers of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the Gaspé and lower St. Lawrence, the Atlantic salmon and his fresh-water cousin, the hard-fighting ouananiche, have been on the decline for many years. Thirty years ago the ouananiche of the Saguenay attracted wealthy anglers from all over the world. Today, with the Saguenay water level raised by large dams at Ile Maligne and Chute à Caron, the ouananiche and the anglers too are gone.
Scores of once-famous salmon streams along the St. Lawrence and down into New Brunswick and Nova Scotia see nary a salmon today. Salmon still swim some Maritime rivers, but old-time anglers say they’re just a feeble remnant of the hosts of yesteryear.
Quebec is one of the finest speckled trout provinces in the Dominion but power dams have routed the speckleds from many of the more accessible waters and lumbering has ruined many more. In the Laurentians, north of Montreal, 2,000 lakes which a few years ago abounded with speckled trout are now, according to the Quebec Department of Game and Fisheries, overrun with perch and smallmouth black bass, both of them much less popular as a sport fish. The bass and perch gobbled up the trout faster than an army of anglers could have caught them.
Southern Ontario, which once boasted a speckled trout stream every second mile, has become a gamefish desert. Although there are still some fish within an hour’s drive or two of the provincial capital, Toronto anglers usually have to travel almost to Algonquin Park, 150 miles, to find speckled trout of respectable size and in sizeable quantities.
It’s a similar story for muskellunge. This battling tiger of the waterways was taken in hundreds of Ontario lakes a few years ago. Now, if you want a muskie and haven’t a week to go hunting for him, the only place you’re sure to find him common is in the far northwest, in the waters which drain toward Lake Winnipeg.
On the prairies the anglers have their worries too, for the goldeye, a variety of herring popular with anglers as well as a money-maker for commercial fishermen, has declined rapidly during the past 10 years. Today he is rare on many a stream that a
few years ago provided excellent goldeye fishing. The commercial goldeye catch in Lake Winnipeg in 1945 was one thirteenth of the 1939 catch and the decline still goes on.
Much of British Columbia’s angling is fathered by the sea. Pacific salmon and the steelhead and cutthroat trout, fattened by a diet of salt-water life, swarm into the coastal rivers for spawning. Probably the game-fish decline is less here than elsewhere in Canada, but tell that to a British Columbia angler and he’ll shrug and say: “Must
be a bad state of affairs out East, then; ’cause it’s serious here.” Logging in most coastal areas, but especially on Vancouver Island, is responsible for spring freshets which have torn out spawning beds. The ashes of forest fires have poisoned many waters. Commercial fishermen with their catch-everything purse seines have taken a heavy salmon toll. Vancouver Island’s chief trout, the cutthroat, has skidded badly during the past 20 years and the day when a fisherman could knock off his legal limit in half a mile of water is all but forgotten.
Must the fish retreat go on and on until an angler needs an airplane and a two-week trip to the sub-Arctic before he can hook into something that will give him a fight for his money? Many anglers are beginning to fear so, but there’s good news in the making. The situation shows more hope today than it has at any time since the game-fish decline began 50 years or more ago.
Canada has an army of wild-life experts who are learning tricks of fish management that were undreamed of a few years ago. These biologists are
a years confident that, with the
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co-operation of anglers and public, they can stem the retreat, even bring game fish back to waters that haven’t known them for many years.
It isn’t just fun for Canada’s 100,000 anglers that’s at stake. A thick slice of Canada’s tourist industry, our third most important source of American dollars, hangs on the end of a fish line. It’s been calculated that game fish are worth a cool $75 millions a year to the people of Canada. That’s big money —so big, in fact, that it puts game fish in a foreign exchange bracket with the big export industries like gold ($96 millions in 1946), bacon and ham ($66 millions), textiles ($54 millions) and nickel ($55 millions). Actually, Messrs. Trout and his pals are almost as good at bringing in the foreign exchange as Cousins Cod and Salmon of the big sea fisheries, for the Dominion’s annual exports of commercial fish and fish products is usually in the $80-$90-million range.
Little wonder the game-fish situation has Canada’s tourist bosses worried. They learned years ago that the New York or Chicago angler, when he packs up his ¡tod and flies and heads for Canada, is hunting for fish like speckled trout and muskies—the fighting kind that only the cold waters of Canada’s north can dish up for him. He’s got lots of the warm-water sissy stuff like bluegills and crappies at home and he’ll do his fishing at home too, if the day ever comes when Canada has no more of the fighting fellows left within motoring distance.
Old Theories—and New
What happened to all those beautiful speckled trout, muskies, black bass and inland salmon so plentiful in granddad’s day that they could be herded into shallow water and scooped out by hand? And what can we do about it?
To these questions government fishery experts of a few years ago had three stock answers and no more. To the first question their answer would have been: “Overfishing.” To the second question—what can we do about it?— they would have had two answers: “Legal restrictions on catch and restocking streams and lakes with hatchery-raised fish.”
But the ichthyologists (they’re fish biologists) have been getting a little more attention from the politicians during recent years and the government now questions the importance of game-fish management’s old-time “big three.”
Why have the game fish of granddad’s day declined or disappeared? Pull off your waders, step up and take a how, fishermen, for the ichthyologists say now that overfishing has had little or nothing to do with it in many parts of Canada.
It is true that overfishing has depleted some lakes and streams here and there, but the main trouble is that we have turned a wilderness into a land of agriculture and industry. When forests were cut and swamps drained the great vegetative sponge that formerly held springtime water and doled it out gradually to streams all summer was stripped from the land. March’s melting snows and April’s showers went tumbling down the draining ditches and into the rivers.
The fast-moving water gouged up soil from the farmers’ fields or from hillsides denuded by lumbermen and dumped it on the gravelly beds of streams and lakes where the trout, bass or salmon had spawned for
thousands of years. The deep holes of the eastern rivers where old specklesides used to find cool water in midsummer were filled with silt and mud too. Overhead, the canopy of branches that had provided the fish with cool summer shade and protection from enemies was gone. What had once been cool, smooth-running streams the year round had now become insane monsters in spring and shallow, hot, muddy ditches in summer. And the speckled trout, a lover of cold, clear, rushing water, just curls up his fins and dies after a few days in water warmer than 77 degrees.
Agriculture and industry brought other woes into the already troubled lives of Messrs. Trout, Salmon, Bass and Muskie. If their gravel spawning beds escaped the mud and silt of springtime floods, chances are they were cut off by mill or hydro dams so that the fish couldn’t reach them anyway.
Sawdust, the Killer
And then, as if all this wasn’t enough, along came pollution to add its destructive influence. Pulp and paper mills, mines, gas plants, creameries, canning factories and a host of other industrial establishments began dumping their useless byproducts and waste materials into the handiest stream. The water sometimes for miles downstream was turned into a poison draught that killed not only the fish but even the microscopic plant and animal life on which the fish fed. Iowa fish biologists have discovered that one gram (a thirtieth of an ounce) of pine sawdust, when soaked in a test tube of water for 24 hours and then diluted with 20,000 parts of stream water, still packed a toxic kick strong enough to kill fish in a few hours. And Canada’s game fish had to pit themselves against menaces of this type for more than a century; pollution, in fact, is not yet completely controlled by law.
When the beginning of the gamefish retreat became apparent many wild-life officials clamped on closed seasons, limited the catches and began a frenzied program of restocking streams with millions of fry and fingerlings raised in Government hatcheries. Frequently, when planting these young fish, more attention was paid to political pressure than to whether or not the food and water conditions were of a type that could support the fish. Now the ichthyologists know that this old hit-and-miss method of restocking —and it was mostly miss—might have been good for catching votes, but it usually wasn’t worth two fishhooks toward helping anglers catch fish.
Fortunately, that era in Canada is past. The emphasis now is not on the number of fingerlings released, but on improving streams and lakes and selecting suitable waters so that those that are planted can find the food and water conditions they need in order to survive.
Prof. J. R. Dymond, director of the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology, and one of Canada’s leading fish experts, had this to say a little while ago about our history of fish restocking: “If it had never been discovered that we could hatch fish eggs artificially, the conservation of our fishing resources might well have been further developed than it is today, for we would probably long ago have learned to depend on the maintenance of proper habitat conditions and to adjust the take to the carrying capacity of each body of water.”
But the old-fashioned system of restocking isn’t the only thing that’s been criticized by the fishery experts in recent years; some of them, mostly
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U. S. biologists, are even pooh-poohing our cherished ideas about game laws, too. Enforcing closed seasons and creel limits, they say, merely rations the fish we have left, does little toward improving future fishing. They would scrap all the laws, put the game wardens to work improving streams.
Few of the fish biologists in Canada will go so far as to say that legal restrictions aren’t essential. Stream improvements may some day bring our game fish back to a point where fishing laws can be safely relaxed, but some regulation of take will probably always be essential, particularly in Canada’s colder waters where fish growth is a much slower business than in the warm waters farther south.
Homes for Game Fish
How can the streams be improved to keep the fish—and the anglers—happy?
Number one requirement is the checking of soil erosion through reforestation, contour plowing and the keeping of hillside fields anchored down with a crop during winter and spring months. The spring run-off of water and silt from closely reforested lands begins to slacken as soon as the trees are big enough to cover the soil and leave a coating of leaves or needles beneath them. Fast-growing varieties of trees can throw a shady canopy over streams in a very few years and when reforestation becomes extensive and mature over large areas of a stream’s headwaters, the forest’s water-holding capacity becomes so great that floods in the spring are prevented.
We don’t have to blanket Canada’s agricultural lands with forests again to bring back the trout, bass and muskies. In the settlers’ zeal for creating farmlands, hundreds of thousands of acres of bush were cut off land that was too light to serve as farms in the first place. Today, many of these areas are abandoned wind-blown wastes of sand dune and weed pasture. The reforestation of these regions alone would make it possible to restore game fish to hundreds of streams that have only sunfish and carp today.
Floods and silt can also be controlled by the erection of dams which create artificial ponds and lakes. In the old days our game fish had a pal who did this work for them, but man came along and trapped most of them to make beaver coats. It’s true beaver dams sometimes spoiled trout streams by diverting them over flats or by blocking spawning fish from the headwaters, but in general the beaver was the trout’s friend.
In Southern Ontario, where the sins against fish streams have been greater than anywhere else in Canada, many large Government-sponsored reforesta-tion and dam projects have been begun. The Grand River, greatest flooder of them all, is being hemmed in with a strait-jacket of dams. East of Toronto, the headwaters of the tiny Ganaraska are being cloaked beneath a 20,000acre reforestation tract, which when completed in the summer of 1948, will be the biggest man-made forest in Canada. Similar plans are afoot to reforest and dam the Thames, Humber, Etobicoke, South Nation, Ausable and a score of others. Ontario’s tree nurseries are getting set to supply 50 million trees a year for reforestation work. The fishery biologists predict, on the strength of these developments alone, that there are brighter days ahead for Ontario’s anglers.
Dams are an aid only on inland streams; in the coastal rivers, which are used as spawning beds by Pacific salmon and by the cutthroat and steelhead trouts of British Columbia, dams
erected by lumbering and hydro-electric firms and chemicals released by slash burning are angling’s greatest menace. These fish spend part of their lives in salt water, part in fresh water. They spawn in fresh water and dams sometimes bar their way to spawning beds.
British Columbia’s Game Commission and the Quebec Department of Game and Fisheries have partly solved this problem in many of their coastal streams with fishways or fish ladders, canals bypassing a large dam or falls and containing a series of small dams over which the fish can leap one at a time and rest in quiet water between. Matane River in Gaspé Peninsula is a monument to the value of fishways. Atlantic salmon disappeared from this river when a lumbering company erected two dams near its mouth several years ago. In 1945 and 1946, a fishway was established at each dam and the salmon are already returning to the Matane, some of them already reaching 20 miles upstream.
The ichthyologists have another whole bag full of tricks that promise to lure game fish back to the streams they deserted. The biologists have learned that water is like farmland—its fertility, which depends on the amount of nitrates and other minerals it contains, can vary in different streams and lakes just as widely as the fertility of one man’s farm can vary from another. Experiments during the past few years have shown that the addition of fertilizers to water will increase the fish crop as surely as it boosts Farmer Brown’s yield of hay or corn.
Here’s how the fertilization business works. Trout, muskies and other game fish live on smaller fish and on water animals such as snails, clams, crayfish, shrimps and the larvae or nymphs of aquatic insects. Since they have to overtake and capture these live foods, the game fish become powerful swimmers which makes them the love of anglers.
But the smaller fish and snails, etc., dine on microscopic plants and animals in the water—algae, diatoms, Protozoa and Crustacea which the biologists group together under the name plankton. Even the trout, bass and muskies are dependent on this plankton for food when they are young.
Enriching Watery Pastures
Plankton need sunlight, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and lime. The sunlight is always on hand to do its job if the water doesn’t remain muddy for too long. Oxygen is picked up normally as long as water doesn’t become stagnant. But those other four—the elements which determine fertility in either soil or water—must be absorbed from the land.
About 10 years ago two Alabama scientists were studying methods of establishing farm fishponds and they noticed that ponds in rich agricultural land had a much greater growth of plankton and more and bigger fish than ponds situated in less fertile land. These two men, Swingle and Smith, started adding chemical fertilizers to water “just to see what would happen.”
What happened introduced a new era in fish culture. They discovered that Alabama ponds in a natural state produced enough plankton to support anywhere from 40 to 200 pounds of fish per acre, but when fertilized these same ponds would support 500 to 600 pounds per acre.
First water-fertilization experiments in Canada were conducted by the Quebec Department of Game and Fisheries under the direction of Prof. B. W. Taylor of McGill University. Prof. Taylor treated 38-acre Blue Lake
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in the Laurentians with chemical fertilizer in the summer of 1943 and when he returned a year later he found that the average weight of individual speckled trout in the lake was double what it had been when the fertilization started. Since then, fertilization studies have commenced in the Maritimes, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, but most of this work has not yet progressed far enough for results to become apparent.
The first of the B. C. experiments were financed and conducted by sportsmen when, in 1945, the Bear Lake Rod and Gun Club and the Nickel Plate Rod and Gun Club applied fertilizer to Bear Lake and Clearwater Lake in southern B. C. Following this sportsmen’s lead, the provincial authorities the next year took up the work on a broadened scale and it was continued in 1947 with encouraging results.
In the summer of 1946 the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests put five tons of fertilizer into Cache Lake in Algonquin Park, and in 1947 13 tons went into Cache and three other lakes.
Says Dr. R. R. Langford, Toronto University, who is bossing the job: “All we can say at present is that there was a tremendous increase in the production of plant plankton within two weeks after the fertilization started. It will take two or three years, we think, before the effect becomes apparent in the fish.”
Some of Canada’s leading chemical companies foresee a big demand for lake fertilizin' in the years ahead and to meet this demand their chemists have already developed a concentrated form of fertilizer that can be easily transported by canoe or plane and over bush portages.
When ordinary farm fertilizers are used, 40 pounds per acre-foot (depth of water in feet multiplied by area in acres) are required, applied once a year normally, but twice a year where the water fertility is low. With the new concentrated lake fertilizer, 20 pounds per acre-foot accomplishes the same results. This specialized lake fertilizer costs about $70 a ton and since it is used only in warm water of 15-foot depth or less the cost per acre is around $10.
DDT for Bad Fish
Chemists have made another contribution toward fish management in their development of DDT. In the past, one of the big problems facing ichthyologists has been the control of predator and competitor fish which prey on the spawn and fry of desirable game fish or take their food. When these worthless fish get too numerous in a lake or stream for the game species to survive the only thorough means of restoring a proper balance is to poison all fish in that body of water and start over again by restocking it with good fish.
Quebec and the Maritime provinces have had considerable success with this type of operation. MacFadden’s Lake in Albert County, New Brunswick, was originally an excellent speckled trout lake, but about 1935 yellow perch were introduced as a live bait and the fastbreeding voracious perch soon had the trout on the run. By 1939 the perch outnumbered the trout 1,000 to 1. That year the lake’s outlet was closed off and everything in it was poisoned with a stiff dose (175 pounds) of derris powder, a poison containing rotenone which is obtained from the roots of a South American plant. When New Brunswick authorities counted up the carcasses which were floating or washed ashore, they found 20,000 perch and 12 trout.
Within a year the poison in the water had disappeared and in 1941, ’42 and
’43 15,000 hatchery-raised speckled trout were planted. MacFadden’s Lake was reopened to fishing in 1944 and every year since then husky speckled trout have been banging the anglers’ lures just as in the old days and no one has seen a perch there since 1939.
Before the advent of DDT the onlypoisons suitable for this work were derris root and copper sulphate and both were too expensive to use on anything but small lakes.
First Canadian lake to get DDT’d has been Found Lake in Algonquin Park, where bass were so numerous that speckled trout became scarcer than $20 gold pieces. Found Lake was poisoned out in 1946. The DDT killed even the water insects, clams and snails. A survey in the summer of 1947 showed that the water had lost most of its toxicity and aquatic insects were starting to re-establish themselves. Speckled trout will be planted there in 1948 and Found Lake promises to become one of the finest trout waters in the park.
Vitamins for Small Fry
We’re doing things to doctor up our ailing lakes and streams now, but hatcheries are still as essential to our fish-conservation program as incubators to the poultry raiser. And the modern fish biologist is putting the hatchery-rearing of fish on an assembly line basis that rivals Willow Run.
Anglers frequently pooh-pooh hatchery-raised fish as sissy stuff that put up no fight when they get on the end of a line, but actually selective breeding is developing a vigorous, fast-growing strain of game fish that experts claim is ahead of anything Mother Nature can produce. Selective breeding is still comparatively new in Canadian fish hatcheries, but already some amazing results have been accomplished. At the Antigonish hatchery in Nova Scotia, wild speckled trout fry were taken from a stream and fed the same food as the hatchery fish and at the end of a year those hatchery “sissies,” the progeny of selective breeding, were almost seven times as large as their wild brothers of the same age.
Fish get sick, the same as the rest of us, and for many years the control of disease was one of the hatchery men’s biggest headaches. Selective breeding and proper nutrition are helping to cut down the disease toll and fish doctors are making important advances in the treatment of various fish ailments with drugs. Sulpha drugs, for instance, promise to be as great a boon for fish as for humans.
There is one hatchery problem that still has the experts stumped—the raising of muskellunge to fingerling size in any large numbers. The muskie, as befits his fighting spirit, is a cannibal practically as soon as he leaves his egg, so much so that every muskie in order to survive must almost have a hatchery pond to himself. When Ontario’s Department of Lands and Forests put 31 muskie fingerlings together in a tank for some temperature experiments once, the report that went up to the deputy minister’s office wound up with this pitiful note: “At the end of two weeks, the experiment was discontinued since only one fingerling remained.” Muskie had eaten muskie in preference to all the other food.
Ontario has a muskie hatchery at Deer Lake north of Havelock, but the young muskies have to be taken from the rearing ponds and released in open water while they are still tiny fry, otherwise they start eating each other. In open water they are gobbled up quickly by perch and bass. The
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Ontario Government appointed a committee of biologists in the spring of 1947 to study this problem. The biologists are looking for some variety of minnow which can be reared as food at the Deer Lake hatchery and which the muskies will eat in preference to their own brothers and sisters.
Fish to Fit
Each game-fish species has its own requirements in water depth, temperature, dissolved oxygen, penetration of light, food sources and spawning grounds. Today, before hatchery fry or fingerlings are released in a lake, all of these factors are studied. Canadian fish biologists today can determine what species and how many should be planted in any individual lake or stream.
What have the results been?
Two lakes in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert Park had fishery experts puzzled for years because one, Kingsmere Lake, had a plentiful population of lake trout while adjoining Waskesiu Lake, only a mile away, had none. All efforts to restock Waskesiu mysteriously failed. When methods of determining oxygen content were developed, the mystery was solved, for it was discovered that at certain seasons the oxygen disappeared from many of Waskesiu’s depths and any trout that tried to stay there was doomed to asphyxiation. Efforts to restock Waskesiu had to be abandoned.
Through careful application of these water investigations, many Canadian lakes and streams that a few years ago had no more fish than a barnyard cistern now have flourishing populations of trout and bass ready to give the angler a battle as soon as he dunks his lure. The speckled trout was originally an easterner; by studying and selecting the right lakes he has been transplanted successfully into many western areas.
In British Columbia’s Fish Lake near Summerland native rainbow trout were not thriving because when they left the lake and went up streams to spawn in spring large numbers of them would become stranded in irrigation ditches and die. Studies indicated that eastern speckled trout, which spawn in the fall when the irrigation ditches are closed off, might fare better in the Fish Lake system. Speckled trout fry were planted in the lake and today they are its most plentiful fish, outnumbering the rainbows five to one.
As a result of carefully conducted stocking campaigns there are many other interior lakes and streams in B. C. which now provide good speckled trout fishing.
British Columbia had many fishless lakes a few years ago, mountain lakes that fish had just never reached. Most of them now have been stocked and provide fine angling for speckles, rainbows and cutthroats. Knouff and Paul Lakes are two of the most noted. Reproduction of rainbow trout in Paul Lake is rigidly controlled. The spawners are caught as they leave the lake, their eggs hatched artificially and only enough fry returned to the lake to permit it to produce 10,000 fish a year — the ideal number for existing food conditions.
More than one third of the lakes now producing game fish in Alberta’s Banff Park were originally barren. Biologists studied these waters, found conditions ideal for game fish and stocking has now turned many of them into Alberta’s best angling waters.
Down in Southern Ontario, where the clearing of land and the warming up of the streams drove speckled trout out many years ago, a check along many streams revealed they were
suitable for brown trout. The brown is a European trout which can endure warmer water and requires less food than Canada’s speckled and rainbow varieties. Today, after several years of stocking, some of these Southern Ontario streams have trout fishermen following their shore lines once more. They’re not catching many speckles, but they’re getting something almost as good when they hook into a European brown.
One of the most interesting restocking experiments being conducted in Canada at present is the attempt, now in its fourth year, to reintroduce the Atlantic salmon to Lake . Ontario. These fish were so abundant in Lake Ontario a century ago that settlers caught them by the barrel when the fish were coming up the streams at spawning time. Settlers’ wives used to wade out into the shallows of streams and seine out the salmon with their flannel petticoats.
But dams blocked off the spawning streams, sawdust polluted them and the gravelly beds were covered with silt washed down from cultivated lands. By the 80’s Lake Ontario’s salmon were extinct. And it was damage to the streams, not fishing, which drove them into extinction, Ontario’s ichthyologists claim today. Says Prof. Dymond: “I believe the
salmon would be extinct today just the same if not a single fish had been caught by fishermen.”
During the summers of 1944, ’45, ’46 and ’47, 40,000 salmon fry a year were planted in Duffin Creek, 30 miles east of Toronto, by Ontario Government authorities. The old mill dams are gone now, pollution is much less and Ontario’s fishery experts think that there is a good chance of re-establishing this valuable species. Salmon of all of the first three plantings are still present and the number surviving each year is even larger than they had hoped for.
Even the most optimistic ichthyologists have no hope of restoring this fish to its former abundance. But if the
salmon schools do return in limited numbers in Lake Ontario, it will be one more proof that we are learning how to repair the damage that has been done to our fish resources in the past.
In a land of agriculture and industry we can never have the abundance of fish that were here under primitive conditions, but, with the knowledge that is now being acquired and applied, we will be able in future years to have far more than there are at present. So don’t get discouraged and trade in your rod and reel for a set of golf clubs. There are better fishing days ahead. ★