Balfour businessman Randy Zelonka routinely keeps a close eye on Kootenay Lake’s fishery, and not just because he’s a long-time fishing enthusiast — he’s built his whole life around it. As owner of the Gill and Gift for the past 12 years and president of the local business association, he’s starting to feel alarmed at the recent free-fall in kokanee salmon populations.
He’s just not sure what to do about it.
“There are a thousand conclusions out there. People are talking about excess fertilizer, there have been mentions of algae blooms. The biologist believes it’s too many rainbow trout from the main lake, and they’ve been eating the kokanee, but now there’s none left to feed them. Basically, they’ve eaten themselves out of house and home,” said Zelonka.
One of the most alarming things, according to Zelonka: this year’s Kootenay Lake BC Family Day Fishing Derby, which included a $10,000 prize, had to be cancelled due to declining stock.
In response, a meeting is being held on Monday at 7 p.m. in the Balfour Hall to tackle the issue. Zelonka said he hopes the community will come together to demand action from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
“Kootenay Lake is a world-class fishery that attracts people from all over the place to come fish in our lake. We’ve got some of the largest rainbow trout in the world and they’re unique to us. We need to look after them,” said Zelonka.
Mike Jeffrey, chair of the Eastshore Freshwater Habitat Society, which has 200 members, said they are willing to pitch in.
“We would enhance the creeks for spawning, improve the shores, mostly manual work,” he said. “Some of it even gets to the point you’d study water quality and make sure any creeks that would be supportive of these salmon are in fact looked at to enhance their ability to live there.”
They’d also like to see fry introduced to streams and creeks in the spring.
“If Kootenay Lake wasn’t here, we wouldn’t be either,” Jeffrey said. “We’ve all got a common bond on the lake here, and a lot of people want to know what’s happening. Hopefully we can get that information.”
Tom Lang, the society’s treasurer, said this issue is gathering momentum in the community: “The lake is dead. There’s no fish here to fish, and it’s been going down and down in the past few years. We’ve talked to a lot of people and there should be a big turnout at the meeting.”
They’re encouraging residents to contact minister Steve Thomson and Paul Rasmussen, the ministry’s regional executive director, to develop a more comprehensive plan for fisheries restoration than the one currently in place for Kootenay Lake.
Lang emphasized they don’t want conflict with the ministry, but would rather like to be part of the solution.
However, a news release issued jointly by the BC Wildlife Federation and West Arm Outdoors Club criticized the government for a lack of action. It said that in the last three years, the Meadow Creek spawning channel — which usually supports 500,000 to one million kokanee spawners, ample numbers to sustain rainbow and bull trout — has declined to less than 200,000 annually. In fall 2014, their numbers were down to 60,000.
“We believe the ministry is not reacting adequately to the seriousness of the problem given the long lasting impact the fishery decline will have on recreational fishing, tourism, real estate and the economy,” said Harvey Andrusak, a former fisheries manager with the Ministry of Environment, and a director with the wildlife federation.
West Arm Outdoors Club president Gord Grunerud added: “Fisheries managers must take proactive and comprehensive management actions to reduce the extent and duration of this crisis. So far only minor changes to the fishing regulations have been instituted that will have little effect on kokanee productivity and the recovery of the fishery.”
The ministry knows about the situation and says it has begun efforts to study and ameliorate the problem. Biologist Jeff Burrows told the Star they’re taking a multi-pronged approach to rejuvenating the area’s kokanee population.
“The ministry is well aware of what is happening with fish stocks in Kootenay Lake, and is taking the situation seriously,” he said.
Burrows provided a list of initiatives the ministry is working on along with stakeholders and partners:
• Sports fishery monitoring and management, which includes reviews and annual angler surveys and consultations intended to protect kokanee and trout;
• Ecosystem monitoring, which includes checking water quality, phytoplankton, and zooplankton. Also, they will attempt to restore nutrients to the environment;
• Restoration of nutrients trapped in upstream reservoirs, including the Duncan and Libby dams;
• Recovery of rare and endangered sturgeon and burbot;
• Meadow Creek, Redfish Creek and Kokanee Creek spawning channel operation and maintenance;
• Evaluation of all feasible actions that could improve kokanee survival;
• Identifying bull trout spawning streams and estimating spawning numbers.
Burrows said ministry staff will attend the meeting to hear from the community and inform them of further actions they will take.
For Zelonka, the stakes are huge.
“It doesn’t only affect my business, but every business on Kootenay Lake,” he said. “Our business is down. We have people like Woodbury Resort who have expressed disappointment at the cancellation of the Family Derby. Businesses are taking a hit, and this is around the whole lake — Creston to Kaslo to Nelson.”