Species Habitat

Habitat & Species

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Water Quality

Aquatic habitat and species in the Peace sub-basin are experiencing moderate change. Less healthy fish and mass fish die-offs have been observed by Indigenous communities in the upper and lower Peace. Populations of some fish species are observed to be in decline or locally extirpated, although healthy populations persist in large rivers, protected areas and the Rocky Mountain foothills. Scientific studies suggest that riparian areas are largely intact in the lower Peace and tributaries, and are highly degraded in the agricultural areas of the upper Peace and Smoky-Wapiti watersheds.

The following table summarizes the availability of information for each Habitat and Species indicator.

Signs and Signals

Indigenous Knowledge Information and Data

Indigenous Knowledge Availability1

Science Information and Data

Science Data Availability2

Fish

Oral histories and local observations of fish abundance, timing and distribution, species diversity and fish health condition.

Local observations about changes in timing of local fishing activity and yield.

Many observations from several locations.

Fish (including salmon, suckers, pickerels, burbot) abundance, timing and distribution, species diversity and fish health condition/

Data on fish populations and health available.

Wetlands

Oral histories and stories of wetland and forest (and other habitat / land use)

Local observations and oral histories of number, location and total area of wetlands

Some observations from few locations.

Number, location and total area of wetlands. Species diversity in wetlands where available.

Mapping available, limited information on changes in wetland cover.

Scientific information on muskrat and beaver populations was not gathered for this report.

Riparian Forests

Local observations and oral histories of riparian forests

No information found.

Number, location, total area of riparian forests areas. Species diversity of riparian forests where available.

Data available

1 Qualifiers for the availability of local and Indigenous Knowledge observations in publicly available sources: Limited = 1-2 observations; Some = 3-4 observations; Many = 5 or more observations
2 Qualifiers for the availability of science data in publicly available sources: Low = Individual studies or locations; Many = Network of monitoring stations across the basin

Fish

Declines in fish populations and health condition have been observed by Indigenous communities and scientists in some areas in the Peace sub-basin. Healthy populations persist in large rivers, protected areas and the Rocky Mountain foothills.

Changes in fish health condition and mass fish die-offs have been observed in some waterbodies in the upper and lower Peace. In the upper Peace, members of Treaty 8 First Nations in BC have recounted changes to important fishing sites in recent decades, such as Charlie Lake near Fort St. John. In one study, participants explained that Charlie Lake is highly polluted from nearby industrial activity and fish like suckers (Catostomus spp.) and jackfish caught in recent times have a sickly appearance with “bubbly” and melted skin.[53] Tse Key Nay elders report catching skinnier fish from Thorne Lake[54] and the Kelly Lake Métis have observed how

T8FNs report that Charlie Lake near Fort St. John, once an important fish lake for T8FNs, is now so polluted that it contaminated the fish,

Treaty 8 First Nations Community Assessment Team and the Firelight Group, 2012
the average size of fish in Kelly Lake has decreased in the past few decades, thought to be associated with two fish die-off events during that time period.[55] Mass fish die-offs and an increase in observations of unhealthy and deformed fish have also been reported in the lower Peace and Peace-Athabasca Delta by the Mikisew Cree and the community of Fort Chipewyan.[56],[57]
In the upper Peace, West Moberly First Nation placed restrictions in the past decade on pulling gill nets on Moberly Lake because the lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) population had nearly disappeared from the area. The declines in lake trout were attributed to the effects of contamination from sewage and recreational boating.[58] Fish populations in several lakes are under stress, as indicated by the Walleye (Sander vitreus) fish sustainability index data published by the Alberta Government.[59] Pressures are likely overfishing across the basin as well as anoxia in some lakes resulting from eutrophic conditions (Saskatoon, Sturgeon, Smoke, Moonshine Lakes)[61].

Walleye Adult Historic Density in Alberta Lakes. From Government of Alberta.

In tributary rivers like the Moberly, Halfway, Pine, Sukunka, Murray, Burnt, Wolverine, it is common knowledge among local fishers that fish populations are in rapid decline,

Parlee and Maloney, 2017

According to Treaty 8 Tribal Association traditional fishers, some fish populations are in decline in tributaries of the Peace River, notably the Moberly, Halfway, Pine, Sukunka, Murray, Burnt, and Wolverine Rivers. In one study, the traditional fishers identified sport fishing in the upper Peace as the primary driver of the declining fish populations. The activity is growing in popularity and formerly remote fishing sites are now more accessible through the creation of backcountry roads.[59] Sensitive fish populations in smaller rivers are strongly affected by habitat degradation due to high road density and agricultural land conversion resulting, for example, in locally extirpated populations of arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus), such as in the Redwillow and Beaverlodge Rivers.[61]

Arctic grayling historic and current adult densities across its native range in Alberta. Available from Alberta Environment and Parks website.[60]

Members of Treaty 8 Tribal Association have limited their consumption of fish caught near Williston Reservoir in recent years due to warnings issued by BC Hydro for possible mercury contamination from nearby hydroelectric projects. A fish consumption advisory has been in place for the reservoir since the 1990s that recommends not to consume large amounts of fish from the reservoir.[63] Community members have also expressed concern that fish in tributaries of the Peace River may have unsafe mercury levels.[64]
Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) and walleye (Sander vitreus) populations in large rivers of the Peace Basin appear to be mainly healthy, based on a Fish Sustainability Index analysis conducted by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. Healthy fish populations are found in the Rocky Mountains and foothills in the south and remote forested areas near and in Wood Buffalo National Park in the northeast.[65]

Arctic grayling. Image source: Alaska Region US Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr Creative Commons (copyright-free).

The Environmental Impact Statement for the approved Site C hydroelectric development indicated that transformation of a river ecosystem to a reservoir would create a different yet productive aquatic ecosystem. Species such as kokanee (Oncorhynchus nerka), lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), lake trout, burbot (Lota lota), peamouth (Mylocheilus caurinus) and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) that can adapt to the new ecosystem would benefit. In contrast, three distinct sub-groups of species, the migratory Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) in the Moberly River, the migratory bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) that spawn in the Halfway River and mountain whitefish (Rosopium williamsoni) that rely on Peace River habitat, may be lost.[66]

Wetlands & Riparian Forests

There is considerable wetland cover in the Peace sub-basin, but information on changes over time in wetlands in the sub-basin is limited. 

Wetlands cover nearly 30% (52,898 km2) of the Alberta portion of the Peace sub-basin. This does not include Wood Buffalo National Park, for which data was missing, but is known for its richness in wetlands, particularly in the Peace Athabasca Delta. The wetlands are primarily distributed in the central and eastern regions of the sub-basin.[70]

Wetland Mapping for the Peace Sub-basin as part of a published Canadian Wetland Inventory that still requires validation. [105]

Five of seven sub-basins in the Peace have riparian lands in their mostly (> 90%) natural state. The Alberta Forests Act and Timber Management Regulation requiring riparian setbacks have helped maintain riparian forests.

The highest riparian disturbance was in upper Peace and the Smoky-Wapiti sub-basin, where agricultural land development has degraded riparian forests. Agricultural land has been concentrated in the riparian zones of these two sub-basins.[75]

Documented sources of Indigenous Knowledge regarding changes in riparian forests the Peace sub-basin were not found.
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