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Arctic grayling absence at Kakisa River unexplained
Rapid decline in spring grayling numbers at Kakisa River baffles fishers

April Hudson
Northern News Services
Monday, June 26, 2017

No fish kills have been reported, food is plentiful and conditions seem to be normal - but Arctic grayling in the Kakisa River seem to be disappearing.

NNSL photograph

Richard Skelhorn holds an Arctic grayling caught in the Kakisa River in 2014. Some anglers are reporting a recent and unexplained drop in catch numbers. - photo courtesy of Richard Skelhorn

The situation is evoking memories of the massive 1989 fish kill that river experienced when warm water and bacteria wreaked havoc on grayling populations, and although the grayling rebounded fishers want to see something done before the population ends up in crisis.

Mac Stark has been fishing the Kakisa River since 1983. He hasn't noticed any changes with the river, aside from the dwindling fish population.

He points to statistics from a sampling survey run during the height of the grayling spawning run from 2011 to 2013 as reference, which show 1,293 grayling caught in 2011 and 965 caught in 2013.

"2015 was the big noticeable change," Stark said. That year, the amount of fish caught - which includes grayling, whitefish and suckers - dropped to less than a third of what it had been in 2011.

"We don't know what's going on ... It's been a drastic drop over the past few years. I think something needs to be done now, before it's too late."

George Low, program co-ordinator for Dehcho Aboriginal Aquatic Resources and Ocean Management, isn't sure what's happening with the grayling population either, but points to irregular weather over the past few years as something that could be a factor.

"I think it's a little too early to determine what's happened with that population," he said.

Grayling spawn in the springtime, in temperatures between six and eight degrees. The past few years have seen temperatures at the Kakisa River fluctuate, warming up quickly at times.

Low said he has also recorded irregularities elsewhere in the Deh Cho. Monitoring done at the Providence Creek, just south of the Dehcho Bridge, shows the run there has been disrupted as well.

"By the time the grayling are coming up, the water temperature seems to be too high for when they should be spawning," he said.

"We don't have enough data to say the run is in trouble, but as a precautionary measure we'll probably recommend to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that they take some measures."

Stark agrees something needs to be done. He's suggesting a "catch-and-release" fishery for grayling from March 1 to June 7 of each year, instead of the current limit of one fish per day over 36 centimetres.

Something similar was done when the 1989 fish kill happened, with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans closing the river to fishing for five years, followed by five years where there was simply a limit of zero.

Stark says that could help grayling numbers rebound, without closing the fishery entirely.

"Hopefully, that would be long enough that the fish can get back to normal spawning and sustain themselves," he said.

Low said he plans to consult the Ka'a'gee Tu First Nation after the upcoming Dehcho Assembly.

However, the responsibility ultimately falls on the shoulders of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which would have to tag and sample the grayling population at the river in order determine the cause of the decrease.

A Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesperson stated in an e-mail the reports of grayling population decline will be looked into.

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