Angler Shane Westle knew this year’s run of river trout might be in trouble when he found a pile of dead river fish in a dried-up section of the Wild Horse River in the Kootenays.
The discovery in late August followed a summer of climate-driven high temperatures and drought that left some B.C. rivers with perilously low water levels. The crossing, between the Kootenay River and one of its tributaries, had completely dried up, leaving fish stranded to die and hindering the success of trout spawning in the area.
Now members of the province’s River Guardian program and a group of avid anglers in B.C. are offering a helping hand by creating a stream so the fish can cross between the two rivers.
“We haven't had to release any fish. Luckily, they've been sliding down our little slide to the river,” Westle said.
Westle sets up camp every year at the Wild Horse River, a tributary of the Kootenay River near Fort Steele, about 60 kilometres west of the Alberta-B.C. border. It’s a good spot to catch bull trout, according to Westle, as the fish gather to feed on the young kokanee and whitefish that spawn in the mouth of the river.
This year, Westle planned to hunt and fish from the camp for about a month. But in the last days of August, when Westle and some friends went to pitch a tent at the site, he noticed something strange.
The Wild Horse River had run dry about 90 metres from where it usually joins the Kootenay River. He reported it to a provincial conservation officer. Although it rained a few days later, shrinking the gap in the river, the Wild Horse still didn’t quite reach the Kootenay.
About a week later, Westle started noticing the dead fish. At first, he said, it was just one whitefish on the side of the river. But over the next few weeks, he started to see others — bull trout, cutthroat trout and kokanee.
When angler Shane Westle finds a pile of river fish stranded on land, he sparks an effort to help fish travel between the Kootenay River and one of its tributaries.
“They were coming down and they beached themselves, which I thought was weird. I thought maybe it was an animal or something,” Westle said. “A little while later, there was a pile of them. I was like, ‘Holy, what the hell?’”
Shortly after, Westle found a pile of five trout on a bed of smooth pebbles where the Wild Horse River previously met the Kootenay River. Some were still breathing. Westle released those fish into the Kootenay River.
Westle said he believes the fish are trying to cross between the rivers, like they do every year, but are running aground.
The dry stretch at Wild Horse Lake is one example of what’s expected to happen more frequently as the planet warms. Rivers flow drier in hot and dry conditions, which are expected to become more extreme with climate change.
Lower water levels have been shown to reduce the spawning success of river fish like trout and salmon.
Westle said he called Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) about the dried-up part of the Wild Horse River.
In an email to Canada’s National Observer, a spokesperson for DFO said the fish in the Kootenays are the responsibility of the provincial government. When asked if the B.C. Ministry of Forests responded to fish dying at Kootenay River, a spokesperson said fish samples were last tested in July in the west of arm Kootenay Lake — a body of water about 90 kilometres west of the Kootenay River, where Westle had set up his camp.
Westle said neither the province nor the federal government did anything about the dead fish.
“They didn't really seem to care,” he said. “They didn't do much about it — nothing, actually.”
After Westle posted pictures of piles of dead fish on Facebook, a few members of the province’s River Guardians program showed up on Sept. 30.
During the first week of October, Westle worked with the River Guardians to move the pebbles and create a stream of water for fish to continue into the river. The River Guardians could not be reached in time for publication.
Since Oct. 3, Westle said, volunteers from a local fishing Facebook group have maintained the “little slide.”
“We actually successfully got it flowing again enough so that the fish can get through,” Westle said. “I don't think we've lost any bull trout since.”
This isn’t the first time this summer that fish have turned up dead in the Kootenays. In July, dead fish started floating to the surface on the west arm of Kootenay Lake.
Samples of the dead fish were tested for pathogenic bacteria or viruses in a B.C.’s Ministry of Forests health lab, a ministry spokesperson said in an email. According to the ministry, it’s not water temperature, disease or a lack of oxygen that’s leaving fish dead. They did not identify a cause.
“There are no further tests to be done at this time, but we continue to monitor the situation closely,” the spokesperson said in their email.