Athabasca Rainbow Trout – Time to officially list as an endangered species?

Special thanks to ongoing efforts in sharing and communicating many of the issues and considerations in Alberta’s environment to Kevin Van Tighem. If you are on Facebook, Kevin has a wonderful page feed that shares many conservation minded angles. We saw this in his feed and immediately asked to share: (photos by Dave & Amelia Jensen)


The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is accepting public comments on whether the Athabasca rainbow trout should be listed as an endangered species. An old friend, Carl Hunt, reminded me that I wrote an article back in the 1980s about its plight so I thought I would try something different and paste an entire article into my Facebook page for those who love native fish and small creeks.

As an update to the article below, the Athabasca rainbow no longer survives in the creek I describe in the opening anecdote. This species – endemic to Alberta alone – is on the brink.

Kevin Van Tighem


Not far from where I live a small stream slips out of the forest, bubbles unnoticed through a culvert, and slides back into the shadows of an ancient spruce forest. Dozens of vehicles cross it each day. Few, if any, of the drivers even notice the furtive flicker of water beneath alder foliage.
It is not much of a creek. At the widest, it is still narrow enough to jump over. There’s little risk of an unwary fisherman going in over the tops of his hip waders. In fact, there’s no reason most fishermen would even give it a second look. There are plenty of rivers and lakes in the area that produce big fish.

arnb6All the same, I drop in for a visit now and then. I bring a dozen muddler minnows because I know I am going to leave a few stuck in the alders and spruce overhanging the stream. I flatten the barbs on the hooks with a pair of needle-nosed pliers because I know that I will be releasing quite a few trout. Then I crouch over and force my way into the underbrush to spend a few hours with Alberta’s only native rainbow trout.

These rainbows are beautifully-marked and scrappy, but never big. It is not trophy fishing, by any means, but it is special. And in catching the little forest trout, I am continuing an angling tradition that goes back almost a century and a half.

On June 14, 1863, Dr. Walter Cheadle wandered away from his party’s camp somewhere near where Edson is now. He “. . . soon captured a small trout of some 2 oz. but could not get another run; the fish was very like an English burn trout, but instead of red spots, it had a red line along each side about 1/8 inch broad; the black spots similar to English variety. . . .”

Fisheries agencies have since introduced Cheadle’s English burn trout — which we know as the brown trout — to most parts of western North America. It is now one of the most sought-after fish in the West. The little rainbows, however, live out their lives in muskeg streams and foothills riffles, ignored by all except a few local anglers who like the way the little guys taste when fried up with salt and pepper.

There’s a sad irony in the fact that the native Athabasca rainbow trout is both unique and threatened, but receives only neglect. Meanwhile, fishermen lavish admiration and management money on introduced exotics that infest the waters of five continents.

When Milton and Cheadle travelled through what is now western Alberta none of the streams that are now famous for their rainbow fishing had rainbows. The Bow and Crowsnest were full of bull trout and cutthroats. The Brazeau and North Saskatchewan had only bull trout.

Famous western rainbow trout streams are, almost without exception, artificial creations of modern technology. The famous rainbow and brown trout of Alberta’s lower Bow River, for instance, do not belong there naturally. A series of dams control its water levels. Its abundant insect life depends on the City of Calgary’s continuous supply of treated sewage effluent. Fishing the lower Bow for trophy browns and rainbows is healthy, outdoor exercise, but it’s no more natural than hunting stocked pheasants in a cultivated grain field.

In the early 1900s, government agencies and local fish and game clubs released hatchery-raised trout into just about every accessible body of water in Alberta. Fishermen believed that a trout was a trout, and the more trout you stocked, the better the fishing would be. Fisheries biologists soon found that stocking trout actually reduces stream fishing quality. By the time they realized that native fish stocks thrive best in most streams, the zeal of the early stockers had hopelessly confused any effort to figure out what belonged where.

There was no doubt, however, that the dark little rainbows in the headwaters of the Athabasca River were not the product of some misguided early trout stocker. Milton’s journal, written in the days before hatcheries, proved that.

Athabasca River Rainbow TroutStill, who cares about a trout’s pedigree, anyway? Especially considering that the Athabasca rainbow is usually a stunted little guy, barely reaching ten inches in length before dying of old age. They are scrappy little fighters, admittedly, but hardly a sporting fish considering how easy they are to catch.

Carl Hunt, Alberta’s fisheries biologist for the Edson district, disagrees with those sentiments on a couple of counts.

For one thing, he says, the idea that the Athabasca rainbows are a stunted race is just not true. “We took some out of one of the Tri-Creek streams,” he says, “and put them into a little slough in the area where there was all kinds of food available but no hope of any fish surviving the winter.”

Four year old trout — only six inches long when placed into the slough — grew to more than ten inches long by the time the biologists netted them again that fall. Hunt concludes that Athabasca rainbows are small simply because the habitat where they naturally occur does not give them the chance to grow large. Most native rainbows live in small headwater streams where food supplies are scant and the growing season may be less than three months.

In any case, he says, “Biologists and fishermen alike have come to see fishes as more than just so much aquatic protein.”

Each native population of trout has evolved to fit the particular watershed and habitats in which it is found. The Athabasca rainbow is genetically distinct from the west coast rainbows stocked elsewhere in Alberta. It is the only rainbow trout that occurs naturally in waters flowing east from the Rockies, anywhere in North America. Uniquely-suited to this place on the earth, the native Athabasca rainbow has an intrinsic right to exist.
It also has a complex and fascinating ecology that allows it to thrive in small forest streams.

When I caught my first Athabasca rainbow, I was struck by how different it looked from the silvery rainbows I was used to catching in the Maligne river, only a few miles away. The Maligne rainbows are stocked exotics. The rainbows in my little stream are dark and narrow, with slaty parr marks and an intense rainbow stripe along their sides. Their gill plates are a rich golden brown. They look like exactly the kind of trout that should live in shadowed streams that slip through dark forests of spruce and pine.

A species is much more than the sum of its chromosomes. The Athabasca rainbow is cold water, mossy stream banks littered with alder leaves and pine needles, flickering shade, the whine of mosquitos, and the vast hush of Alberta’s forested foothills. The Athabasca rainbow is tiny streams slipping over clean gravel, losing themselves in the roots of fallen spruce, then bubbling out into sunlit pools where mayflies bob and dance amid the splashy rises of hungry fish. The Athabasca rainbow is stunted, no matter what Carl Hunt may say about its potential to grow large, because habitat — at least as much as their genes — is what gives definition to real creatures.

Unfortunately, few fishermen take the time to reflect on what a trout really is, or on what values fishermen really get from fishing. Without reflection, it becomes too easy to reduce fishing to a matter of catching more, and bigger, fish than the next person. By those standards, the Athabasca rainbow will never stack up very well.

Biologist George Sterling found that a female rainbow produces only about 300 eggs each year in streams he studied south of Hinton. Even with good survival, very few fish hatch each year to replace the ones lost to fishing. A major flood can wipe out an entire generation.

“On unfished streams,” says Carl Hunt, “we’ve found up to twelve hundred native rainbows per kilometre of stream. On most of the angled streams around Edson there’s only two to three hundred per kilometre.”

0arnb5It does not take much fishing pressure to knock back the populations of so unproductive a fish. Fishing pressure comes with access, and the headwater streams of the McLeod, Athabasca, Wildhay and Berland have been opened up at an incredible rate during the last two decades. Coal exploration and development, oil and gas exploration and forestry operations have produced a maze of roads and cutlines. Few streams are free from fishing pressure.

Fortunately for the Athabasca rainbow, a female can mature and produce eggs when she is barely 5 1/2 inches long. Since few fishermen would keep a trout that small, even in the most heavily-fished streams a few spawners usually make it through each season to deposit their sparse load of eggs the next spring. Provincial regulation changes in 1987 improved prospects for the little natives, since anglers now have to release all trout less than seven inches in length. A seven-inch native rainbow is likely to be six years or older, and to have spawned three or four times.

The biggest threat to the native rainbows of the Athabasca River watershed, since the new regulations came into effect, is habitat loss. The small streams where the rainbows spawn are fragile environments. Old forests and undisturbed groundcover capture snow-melt and rainwater and release them gradually to the streams. Spring floods shift and redeposit the clean gravels at the tails of pools. In each stream there is an annual equilibrium to which the fish populations have adapted.

One new road can change that. In 1974 Champion Forest Products built a new logging road near Deerlick Creek, one of the Tri-Creek research streams. Up to eighteen times more silt and clay flushed into the stream during rainstorms after the company built the road.

All streams turn brown during the spring runoff, but spring floods flush most of the silt and clay on down the stream. When road cuts enable each summer rainstorm to wash raw sediments into the stream, however, the reduced summer flow is not strong enough to wash them away. Instead, silt and clay clog the fine gravel where trout eggs or fry develop, smothering the young fish.

Resource development brings roads. In the small corner of the world where Athabasca rainbows live, this means coal mining, logging and petroleum exploration. Most of the land east of Jasper National Park is committed to coal mining or pulp production.

Coal strip mines have operated in the headwaters of the Mcleod River since the early twentieth century. Sprawling open-pit mines have eradicated important rainbow trout streams and periodically dump catastrophic amounts of sediment into downstream reaches.

Logging companies occupy the rest of the landscape. In the late 1970s the Alberta government began actively promoting logging of the foothills around Hinton and Edson. A decade later, the government approved a huge pulp mill expansion. Logging requires a network of roads and landings, each feeding raw sediment into the once-clean streams where the native rainbows spawn. Each road also brings more fishermen to catch the adults.
The bad news does not stop there, either. Logging removes forests that formerly released water gradually into the trout streams. As forest cover disappears, the total water yield increases, but it also comes more frequently as major floods.

After trout spawn in late spring, the big June or July floods spilling off the clearcut landscape can wash away the spawning gravels and destroy the whole year’s production. Major floods flushed George Sterling’s research streams in 1969 and 1980. Both times, an entire generation of trout was destroyed. As floods become more frequent in the wake of logging, successful spawning seasons become rarer and rarer.

It’s a grim picture. Logging and coal mining buy a lot more groceries than choosing to leave the wilds alone. The little forest trout may be well on their way to becoming victims — with the caribou and the grizzly — of a resource-based economy that creates short-term wealth out of long-term, massive landscape changes.

Hope, however, might come from the ecology of the fish themselves. “One of the unique things about these rainbows,” explains Carl Hunt, “is that they seem to thrive in real headwater, marginal habitats. In some of the places where we’ve found them overwintering, the riffles freeze right to the stream bed each winter and the trout are surviving in the little bits of water at the bottoms of a few deep pools.”

Sedimentation and flooding inevitably grow worse further downstream. Perhaps a decade or two hence, if the streams that feed the upper Athabasca River become permanently disrupted by industrial forestry and mineral extraction, the dark little natives will still survive where headwater streams bubble out of muskegs before dropping to the gullied clearcuts below.

On the other hand, there may still be time to rein in the hasty industrialization of Alberta’s boreal foothills. We could still choose to protect what healthy trout habitat remains, and to begin restoring that which we have damaged. If our remaining native fish populations are worth saving, then resource management should mean more than just dividing the spoils. A few unlogged, unroaded watersheds seem a small sacrifice to make, to maintain the dark native trout of the northern foothill forests.

The stream where I visit the little rainbows each summer is in a national park. Perhaps the fact that a park protects this one native rainbow stream is enough cause for hope. I don’t think so. A national park, after all, is a kind of museum. What sort of society would insist that things of subtle value and beauty should only be found in museums?

The neglected rainbows of the northern foothills have thrived amid the forest shadows for millennia. They will continue to persist only if we — who came so recently and with such sudden impact — choose to protect the clear streams and ancient forests in which they dwell.

Heart WatersOnce again, special thanks to Kevin.

Kevin has recently released his book “Heart Waters: Sources of the Bow River“.

 For more than a century the foothills and Front Range mountains of western Alberta have been recognized as being vital to the water supply for western Canada. Virtually all the water that sustains communities, ecosystems and the economy of prairie Canada comes from this narrow strip of land arrayed along the Continental Divide. For all its importance, however, water management decisions affecting this enormous region have ignored the significance of land health and focused almost exclusively on building dams.

The result, as the author points out, is that the Bow River’s annual flows have decreased by more than a tenth, even as spring floods become more frequent and more destructive. The solutions to prairie Canada’s water challenges lie in healing the wounded landscapes of our headwaters.

Heart Waters delves deeply into the history and ecology of a landscape whose critical value as a watershed is matched by its sheer beauty and diversity. A rich array of stunning images by Jasper-based photographer Brian Van Tighem complements the author’s well-researched explorations of the stories whispered by the living waters that drain from Banff National Park, Kananaskis Country and the famous ranchlands of the Bow River watershed.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book is a deep exploration of place and an invitation to recognize that our water future depends upon knowing our headwaters better and caring for them more passionately — as our heart waters.

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