How FISHES works

The FISHES program aims to restore fish habitat in Southern Alberta by identifying factors limiting aquatic productivity.

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Southern Alberta FISHES Program


Restoring southern Alberta fish habitat

The FISHES Program is committed to effectively restoring flood affected fish habitat by identifying the key factors which are limiting aquatic productivity in flood affected watercourses in southern Alberta.

In the absence of an existing process, a number of new tools were developed by the FISHES Program to support effective decision making and the allocation of program funds.

Administration and funding

The program is administered by the South Saskatchewan Region of Alberta Environment and Protected Areas.

This is not a grant program; however, program staff are committed to working collaboratively with stakeholders and all levels of government to ensure that restoration/enhancement works are prioritized and leveraged to maximum effect. The funding will be used by the department to evaluate the cumulative effects of flood-related recovery activities on fish habitat.

Project selection

Initially, a number of habitat restoration opportunities at a sub-basin or larger watershed level were identified as potential FISHES projects. These projects were not based on independent research or new post-flood surveys but rather used information from:

  • available fisheries data
  • flood related Water Act applications
  • local knowledge
  • post-flood reconnaissance

A technical working group initiated the development of a new project selection and ranking tool to aid in determining habitat mitigation priorities. The group included fisheries biologists representing provincial, regional, and local fisheries interests, and subject matter experts in:

  • habitat restoration
  • instream flow needs
  • integrated land-use planning
  • provincial fisheries management policy

Project Selection and Priority Ranking Tool

The FISHES Project Selection and Priority Ranking Tool was developed by the FISHES Program to evaluate potential projects based on 13 biological, social and economic criteria which are weighted to reflect both provincial fisheries management priorities and local fisheries issues and concerns.

Use of the tool by professional practitioners, stakeholders and agencies involved in habitat restoration work is encouraged to establish a common approach to evaluating and establishing priorities for habitat restoration work in Alberta.

To access the Project Selection and Priority Ranking Tool, a guide to understanding and using the tool, and an example of how the tool is applied, see: A Guide to Understanding and Using the Project Selection and Priority Ranking Tool.

Any projects obtaining a total score of less than 60% are considered a low priority for the FISHES Program.

Multi-level Assessment Procedure and Modelling

A new, science-based, multi-level assessment process was also developed by the FISHES Program to further identify, quantify and prioritize projects at the stream "reach" level.

The assessment process, based in part on principles and guidelines from British Columbia's Watershed Restoration Program, includes 3 discrete steps:

  1. Overview Fish Habitat Assessment
  2. Preliminary Assessment
  3. Detailed Field Survey

The assessment process was designed to evaluate the potential benefits, and risks, of a mitigation project.

The process also provided for work to be conducted in several stages, using progressively more refined and detailed site specific habitat data to minimize the expense and time which would otherwise have been required to conduct exhaustive habitat surveys of entire watersheds.

Stage 1: Overview Fish Habitat Assessment

The Overview Fish Habitat Assessment was the first stage in the assessment process, and included a watershed-scale desktop review of all available information for the identified priority project.

Information sources included, but were not limited to:

  • a comparison of pre and post-flood satellite imagery
  • compilation of post-flood Water Act application locations and associated project risks
  • fish population characteristics (distribution, abundance)
  • habitat and land-use information

The results from the Overview Summary also identified habitat "hot spots", defined as geographic units (HUC 8 level) that had a high concentration (0.0143 – 0.021/km²) of Water Act Approvals involving instream activities that were considered high risk to fish.

Identified HUC's warranted further investigation to determine location, extent and severity of flood impacts on fish and fish habitat. For a map of HUC watershed high risk concentrations, see: Map – 8-Digit HUC Watershed High Risk Assessment.

Stage 2: Preliminary Assessment

To further narrow the scope from a watershed to a reach level, evaluate habitat "hot spots", and identify potential system "stressors", a Preliminary Assessment of priority watercourses was conducted using high definition (HD) aerial videography.

HD videography was collected by FISHES field crews using low-level aerial helicopter surveys; video was narrated and geo-referenced in flight and further evaluated and scored in the boardroom for specific indicators of watershed health.

The data collected from these surveys was used to supplement pre-existing spatial data (Overview Fish Habitat Assessment information) that otherwise lacked the resolution to identify site specific areas of interest.

Stage 2a: Evaluation, Scoring and Ranking Computer Model (ESRM)

A new, highly sophisticated Evaluation, Scoring and Ranking Computer Model (ESRM) was also developed by the FISHES Program to evaluate the Preliminary Assessment data.

As part of this process, a suite of metrics were defined at the sub-watershed, or basin level, and at the reach level, to evaluate and score the HD videography collected during the Preliminary Assessment phase of work.

The metrics quantified include:

  • biophysical characteristics
  • development density
  • fish population metrics and habitat characteristics, with an emphasis on flood disturbed areas and Species at Risk
  • hydrology
  • land use
  • levels of disturbance

Metrics were further subdivided into Feasibility, Resilience and Sensitivity categories to aid in evaluating model output.

The output from the model quantified watercourses into geo-referenced stream reaches and prioritized them for further detailed field survey assessments based on their sensitivity and resilience to anthropogenic and flood-related disturbances and the feasibility of building a project at that location.

The ESRM will be available to the public, on the FISHES website, once finalized. Use of the ESRM by professional practitioners, stakeholders and agencies involved in habitat restoration work is encouraged to establish a common approach to evaluating and establishing priorities for habitat restoration work in Alberta.

Stage 3: Detailed Field Survey

The Detailed Field Survey phase of assessment required the collection of highly detailed, site specific fish habitat data within the selected priority reaches. Priority reaches were identified from the ESRM output generated during the Preliminary Assessment phase.

During the Detailed Field Survey component of the assessment process, FISHES field crews conducted typical fish habitat assessments, identifying:

  • forming features
  • habitat complexes
  • mesohabitat types
  • patterns
  • physical stream dimensions
  • substrate and stream types
  • other biotic characteristics (for example, riparian vegetation)

Data collected during these surveys was used to further populate the ESRM with detailed, reach specific information that could not be captured from the Preliminary Assessment. This information was useful in defining the specific goals, objectives and location for individual restoration projects. It also provides the quantitative information needed to:

  1. Scope the restoration strategy
  2. Create a detailed design plan for the individual restoration project(s)
  3. Develop a monitoring plan to address key performance indicators for the project

Using this approach, it is more likely that habitat restoration works will provide useful habitat for the targeted species and life stages, which may in turn increase the productive capacity within each riverine system.

Project Design and Construction

Requests for Proposal (RFP), on a project by project basis, will issued by the FISHES Program through the Alberta Purchasing Connection for the detailed design and construction of these projects.

Construction on these projects is expected to begin in the spring of 2016 and continue through 2017. Completed projects will be monitored and evaluated to ensure project goals are achieved.

How to get involved

Projects identified under the FISHES program may potentially be considered towards meeting formal offsetting requirements under federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) authorizations. The Alberta government is working collaboratively with DFO in this regard.

There are also project opportunities for habitat stewardship work funded by grants from other organizations (for example, Recreational Fisheries Conservation Partnership Program) which may allow for partnerships with the FISHES program.

Additional information

For more information about the FISHES Program, see: Planning Framework 2014-2017.


Connect with the FISHES program:
Email: [email protected]