Whirling Disease – Crowsnest River & The Bigger Picture

As we suggested at the time the Bow River was confirmed to have Whirling Disease, it won’t be the only Alberta river.¬†Enter the Crowsnest River confirmation.

Whirling Disease is in the Oldman R watershed. How far-reaching we don’t know, but given the flow of water we will see further establishment/confirmation UNLESS environmental conditions limit its spread.

The confirmations in the Bow & Crowsnest Rivers immediately point to the obvious: extrapolation suggests that countless interaction opportunities for Whirling Disease to have spread throughout southern Alberta has already occurred through the sheer volume of anglers, 4×4 enthusiasts, atvs, canoes, kayakers, hikers, horseback riders, livestock, birds, wildlife, and dozens of other users and uses such as the agriculture, forestry, and oil & gas industries.

Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean Whirling Disease is spreading. At present we are in a holding pattern, awaiting results from extensive testing that occurred last summer and fall. We are awaiting test results to understand our present reality through much of central – southern Alberta.

This does not mean our trout stocks are in immediate peril. It is highly likely that our present stream dwelling trout populations already have Whirling Disease impact built-in – likely have had for some time – and that its impact is slight.

This does not mean that the impacts of Whirling Disease won’t expand with changing environmental conditions. Maybe it has been here for some time and the recent severe flooding (2013) followed by severe droughts (2015 – 16) have provided favorable environmental conditions. We don’t know.

The point to sharing “maybe” is that no data or knowledge we gain through testing to confirm its presence has any future relevance until we begin to chart our fish populations and age-class dynamics. Moving forward, the onus will be on fisheries managers to monitor our fish stocks in more timely fashion. Streams such as Stauffer Creek and other bench-mark fisheries will need to have proper fish population surveys done more regularly than 10 year increments. We have to monitor and observe trends and try our best to show cause and effect, which is very difficult to do in a moving, shifting aquatic environment. Only once we shift to more timely monitoring and trends observed and confirmed with cause & effect shown can management shift.

To the above, it takes considerable time for proper due process – that includes procedure and various layers and departments of government involvement. Fisheries techs & biologists do the field work and research management planning, which then leads to management committees, before involving both politicians and political process.

So yes, the full process began with testing for Whirling Disease last summer. This will induce a shift in management to do more timely fish population and age class tracking and charting (which will be impacted by political will and priority through our provincial budget – and any future change in government could affect this). That may or may not lead to showing cause and effect in our trout age classes. However, if cause & effect is shown then that leads to implementing a shift in fisheries management response and that response is established through management committees. And that complete process takes time – no less than 5 years and often 10 or 20 years in a non-emergency situation (example A is the ongoing revisitation of the Red Deer River Fisheries Management Plan process that began spring 1999 and ‘might’ be complete by spring 2018). Again, given we are only in a state of learning where Whirling Disease is present we are extremely early in managing our trout stocks for its presence and impact.

Like all diseases, if environmental conditions favor a disease’s spread, it will spread over time. Even a small % of non-compliance will lead to this inevitability. That is an uncomfortable point of discussion, but our watersheds are affected by a high % of users that aren’t informed about aquatic environments like anglers are – and anglers aren’t anywhere near 100% in checking, cleaning, and drying their gear, boats, trailers, etc. For example, this is the New Zealand recommended check list for water users¬†(how many people will go so far as their “Cleaning Specific Items” checklist?) in hopes of preventing the spread of didymo, which has proven to be impossible given the diversity of users. It is extremely difficult to convince people who do not understand or appreciate such issues to care, and by the time that one understands, 10 other users have already gone through. This is not to be defeatist in the least. We all have to do our part and we have to share its importance with friends and families who may not appreciate or be educated about our watersheds.

Again, through this testing period we will discover additional Whirling Disease locations. Please note that this is not final nor absolute. A changing climate alone could see colonization from an infected set of waders, where 10 years ago that stream’s environmental conditions may have inhibited its spread. This is true for 10 years from now as well. There are many variables at play and nothing is final nor absolute from where it exists to what impact it has, or does not have.

Our encouragement: pay attention to government messaging and directives regarding cleaning your gear, equipment, atvs, horses, 4x4s, trailers, etc and do your best. But do not let the fear and worry of issues preclude you from responsibly enjoying time on our waters.

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