FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions about the Lac La Biche Fishery Restoration

Program Components and Background

Where is Lac La Biche?

Lac La Biche is located adjacent to the town of Lac La Biche. It is approximately 2.5 hours northeast of Edmonton. The lake is the 7th largest lake in the province of Alberta at about 23,000 hectares and has a mean depth of 8.4 metres.

Why was the program started?

This program was initiated because important fish species such as walleye, pike, and whitefish were overfished decades ago and previous efforts to recover the populations had been unsuccessful. Consequently, walleye as a top predator had nearly disappeared from the lake and pike, another top predator, was very low in abundance. Forage fish such as perch and cisco became very abundant but small in size. During this time the cormorant population increased dramatically and was partially responsible for preventing the recovery of walleye. In order to create a viable walleye fishery for future generations, and to change the size and structure of the remaining fish community an ambitious and multifaceted Lac La Biche Fishery Restoration Program was undertaken.

What is the focus of the Lac La Biche Fishery Restoration Program?

There are six major components to the program:

  • Reductions in commercial harvest;
  • More restrictive recreational angling regulations;
  • Double crested cormorant population control;
  • Protection of critical habitat;
  • Walleye stocking; and
  • Ongoing monitoring of fish and cormorant populations.

What role did cormorant management play in the program?

To ensure the re-introduction of walleye we had to decrease the sources of walleye mortality. More importantly an ecosystem shift needed to occur. This shift was created by increasing walleye numbers in the lake through stocking, and dramatically reducing the cormorant population to decrease their direct and indirect impacts to the walleye.

Cormorants have direct impacts to walleye, pike, and whitefish populations through predation upon juveniles. They have indirect effects through their influence on the ecosystem. As cormorants prey on the smaller fish in the lake it puts pressure on them. In the case of perch, this pressure caused these fish to put all their energy into becoming mature at very young ages. This early maturity allowed them to reproduce at very high rates thereby increasing their numbers in the lake to near unprecedented levels. These yellow perch feed on the small walleye fry and then compete with the surviving larger juvenile walleye for limited food resources.

Managing cormorants allowed us to reduce their numbers to levels considered more reasonable and closer to historic for the area. This resulted in less direct predation on juvenile walleye and triggered life history shifts in their other main prey items (ie perch) causing them to mature later and reduce their numbers. The reduction in cormorants initiated necessary ecological shifts to make room for the newly stocked walleye.

What changes were made to the commercial fishery tolerances?

In 2005, commercial quotas for Lac La Biche became more restrictive. The commercial tolerance limit for walleye was reduced from 1,550 kilograms to 150 kilograms and the pike tolerance limits were reduced from 16,867 kilograms to 500 kilograms. In addition, the commercial quota for the target species, lake whitefish tolerances was also reduced from 111,000 kilograms to 30,000 kilograms.

What changes were made to the fishing regulations?

The sport fishing regulations have become more restrictive and reductions to bag limits were made in 2006. Walleye was already catch and release, but pike, whitefish, and burbot bag limits were all changed to 0. The yellow perch limit was also reduced from 15 to five. In 2007, the regulations changed to allow for the increase in bag limits for one pike over 75 centimetres in total length, 15 perch, 10 burbot and three whitefish. Walleye remained at a 0 limit.

The portions of the major inflow and out flows of the lake were completely closed to fishing. Those portions that weren’t completely closed were changed to catch and release for walleye.

What has been done to protect critical habitat?

Habitat protection has been undertaken by the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) on the Owl River to reduce the impacts of livestock grazing on the reaches of the river nearest the spawning areas.

When did the walleye stocking occur?

Walleye stocking was done annually from 2006 to 2011.

When did monitoring the cormorant and fish populations start?

Monitoring of the cormorant populations in the Lac La Biche area started in 2003 and continues today. Preliminary surveys on fish populations in Lac La Biche were done in 2003 and this was followed by the Fall Walleye Index Netting (FWIN) in 2005 which is done annually.

Cormorant Monitoring and Management

Were the cormorants the cause of the walleye collapse?

The collapse of the walleye population in Lac La Biche was human caused. The walleye in Lac La Biche nearly disappeared in the 1960’s after years of overharvest. The increase in cormorants is the effect of the loss of this top predator. Once the cormorants became abundant, they did play a role in the ecosystem change that had made it difficult for walleye to re-establish in the lake.

How have cormorant numbers changed with management?

When the program began in 2005, there were 16,000 breeding birds in the Lac La Biche area. Recent numbers show an estimated 2,500 breeding birds in the same area.

How are cormorant populations monitored?

Cormorant populations in the Lac La Biche area have been monitored since 2003. In the early years of the program, flights were taken over all fish bearing lakes in the Lac La Biche area to count cormorants and pelicans numbers, colony sizes, and distribution.

Staff visit major colonies every year to complete nest and fledgling counts of cormorants and some co-nesting species as well. In the first few years of the program cormorant diet was also sampled.

How much fish does a cormorant consume?

An adult cormorant can consume approximately 1 kilogram of fish in a day. In 2005, fish consumption by cormorants in the Lac La Biche area was estimated at 2.2 million kilograms of fish. In 2013, that consumption reduced to 180,000 kilograms. Cormorants eat all fish species, but their diet will typically be dominated by whatever species is most prevalent in the lake that they are feeding on.

Walleye Stocking

Where did the stock come from?

Stock came from two areas. Brett Creek, located on Primrose Lake northeast of Cold Lake, and the Petitot River, located on Bistcho Lake northwest of Peace River.

How long does it take to collect the walleye eggs?

Spawn camps generally run an average of 12 days. This includes the set up and take down of these remote camps. The egg collection usually occurs for about five days.

How many walleye were stocked into Lac La Biche?

200 million fry and 425,000 fingerlings were stocked in Lac La Biche from 2006-2011.

Why were fingerlings stocked?

Fingerlings were stocked in addition to fry in the lake because fingerlings have a higher survival rate than fry in their first year.

Why has stocking stopped?

Typically stocking would occur for three consecutive years, but in this case stocking was done for six years to maximize the chances success and increase the probability of getting a few abundant year classes. In order to see if the individuals stocked were successful spawning stocking needed to cease. In order to see if the stocked fish were successful spawning, stocking was stopped in 2011 prior to the 2006 stock becoming mature. Any young produced after 2011 are the result of natural recruitment from the stocked fish.

Walleye Monitoring and Management

How are fish populations monitored in Lac La Biche?

The Fall Walleye Index Netting (FWIN) is used to monitor the fish populations in the lake. FWIN nets are set at randomly chosen locations throughout the lake and the rate or frequency at which each fish species is caught represents a catch rate (CUE). The CUE is then used to calculate an approximate density of fish in the lake. Other data such as length, weight, sex, maturity and an aging structure (bony structures from fish) are also collected and used to evaluate the status of the fishery.

Why are the fish populations in Lac La Biche monitored?

Regular surveys allow fisheries biologists to track specific changes in the fish community through time which are used to assess the status of fisheries. For example, it allows biologists to determine if natural recruitment occurs, when successful year-classes are created, track changes in densities, and determine changes in length and age class distributions of species.

How many walleye were in Lac La Biche prior to stocking and how many are there now?

In 2005, walleye were considered effectively extirpated in Lac La Biche, the population was near zero. In 2008 there were 39,000 walleye in Lac La Biche. In 2014, that increased to 270,000 catchable sized walleye.

Six years of stocking has resulted in three successful year classes of walleye 2006, 2009, and 2011

Why did previous stocking events in the 1980’s and 1990’s fail?

In previous stocking events, success was not achieved because there were not a sufficient number of walleye stocked in Lac La Biche. Biologists later learned walleye needed to be stocked at much greater densities than they had been to survive and create a self-sustaining population. Additionally, the walleye had too many sources of mortality such as:

  • Competition and predation from high numbers of yellow perch;
  • Susceptibility to cormorant predation; and
  • As they grew, vulnerability to commercial and domestic gill nets in the lake.

Has there been evidence of natural walleye recruitment?

It was hoped that there would be evidence of natural recruitment in 2012 as the females stocked in 2006 started to mature, but it was unsuccessful. This could be for a variety of reasons such as: difficulty finding appropriate spawning habitat, lack of a food source for hatched fry, unfavourable spring weather conditions, etc. However, there has been evidence of natural recruitment in 2013 and 2014. 2013 recruitment was on par with the average natural recruitment from other lakes in the NE portion of the province; 2014 was less successful.

Monitoring will continue to see if these two year classes are successful in the future and to look for evidence of future natural recruitment.

Where are the walleye spawning?

The Owl River was historically the primary spawning location for walleye in Lac La Biche. The Alberta Conservation Association completed spawning run assessments on the Owl River. In the spring of 2012 they captured about 3,000. This demonstrated that the stocked walleye found their way to the spawning habitat in the Owl River.

It’s uncertain if walleye are spawning on shoals in the lake but biologists suspect that they are. There have been reports that walleye have been observed in other small tributaries to Lac La Biche; which confirms that these fish aren’t only spawning in the Owl River but they are discovering and using new locations.

If large numbers of walleye are being caught, why can’t they be harvested?

Before the lake can be opened for harvest, adult fish densities and reproductive capacity through natural recruitment needs to be established and confirmed. If harvest is allowed too soon it could risk the re-establishment of the walleye population in the lake and could collapse the population again. Catch and release ensures anglers can enjoy catching the walleye and that the population will be there for future generations.

Allocation, Harvest and Effort

What is a Domestic Fishing Licence?

In Alberta, the right of First Nations’ people defined as "Indians" under the Indian Act to fish for food is recognized in law and by government policy. The Alberta government is committed to sustaining the First Nation food fishery within the constraints of fish conservation obligations. Domestic fishing licences are made available to First Nation and recognized Métis harvesters.

What do domestic fishing licences allow?

Domestic fishing licences are good for one year and a separate licence is required for each lake. Each licence allows the licence holder to set a net up to 100 meters in length typically with a stretch-mesh size of 140 or 152mm.

All fish caught under the authority of a domestic fishing licence must be used for subsistence purposes and can only be distributed to members of the licence holder’s family and household. Fish caught under the authority of a Domestic Fishing Licence cannot be bought, sold, traded, bartered.

How are fisheries allocated in Alberta?

The province allocates first for conservation to ensure there are enough fish to reproduce and maintain healthy populations, secondly to recognized First Nations and Métis peoples through a domestic or Aboriginal food fishery, any remaining stocks are allocated to the recreational fishery. Priorities are outlined in:

Future Plans

What are the future plans regarding Lac La Biche?

Fish and cormorant populations will continue to be monitored in the foreseeable future. A winter creel and potentially a summer domestic survey will be completed. Research will be done to determine the causes of walleye mortality in the lake and whether or not harvest can be permitted.

 

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Updated: Aug 16, 2018