• Scott Tansowny

Protecting Alberta's Arctic Grayling

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Rocky stream in coniferous forest

A black-backed woodpecker hammers on the tree behind me, breaking my concentration on my little fly -- it’s a red humpy -- drifting in the current. I lift my fly line off the water and land the fly gently back down, staring at that little clump of deer hair on the water. Suddenly, a fish’s nose breaks the surface and sips my fly into its mouth. I lift my rod tip, feeling his weight on my rod, and start stripping in line, fighting against the surprising strength of the small fish. Moments later, I have him in my hand and I unhook the little fish as I admire his beauty; large silver scales, small black spots, and a magnificent sail-like dorsal fin with striking colours. This small fish is at home in cold water streams untouched by civilization, unaffected by human industry, and left in their natural wild state. Unfortunately, this type of stream is getting to be an extremely rare sight, and this small fish, the Arctic grayling, is feeling the effects.

The Alberta government has taken notice to the threatened nature of the Arctic grayling and made a zero keep limit for fishermen of this species and have even closed tributaries of the Pembina River to fishing entirely. While there is no question that a zero keep limit will help the species, closing streams to fishing is not a good solution. The first problem with closing a stream to fishing is that you are removing stewards of the stream. Fishermen are in the stream every day interacting with the stream and its inhabitants. Bonds are formed between a fisherman and its quarry. When you remove these people who care deeply about the stream, who is left to monitor and take care of the stream on a daily basis? The government? Industry? When you remove the people who care you do not remove the problem, you just make it less visible.

The other problem with closing a stream is the fact that a scapegoat is being made of the fishermen and a smokescreen is going up in front of the real problem. The problem that our government seems genuinely afraid to tackle head-on. The problem of habitat loss. Grayling habitat is being devastated by forestry, oil and gas, and OHV use. Water level decreases, water quality degradation, introduction of silt to gravel stream bottoms, and destruction of streams at OHV crossings to the point of grayling not being able to migrate past are just some of the issues we face. These are the primary culprits. Not overfishing; especially catch-and-release fishing. If we remain unwilling to tackle the actual problem, the grayling populations will not recover. If you protect habitat, the creatures that live there will recover. Even overfished and overhunted ecosystems can recover when the habitat remains. When a habitat is destroyed, however, so is the rest of the ecosystem. Without suitable habitat, the animals do not stand a chance.

In order to save the Arctic grayling in Alberta, we cannot take half measures. Industry needs to stop in key areas to protect this fish. As we are seeing with our disappearing boreal caribou, we are not succeeding in protecting our ecosystems. The caribou are just the canary in the coal mine. If we don’t address the root cause, the grayling will fall as well. If we truly want to protect Arctic grayling we need to stop industry, close roads, and enforce irresponsible OHV use. Action needs to be taken to protect habitat now.

If we don't take steps to protect habitat, Alberta’s Arctic grayling species will suffer. And it won't stop there; Alberta lists 50 species as endangered, threatened, or of special concern. Alberta’s boreal forest is something we should be proud of and not take for granted. It is something that should be protected. Which generation will take a stand and protect this resource? Ours?