Overview

Approximately 2.5 hours northeast of Edmonton, Lac La Biche is the 7th-largest lake in Alberta. It covers about 23,000 hectares and has a mean depth of 8.4 metres.

The Lac La Biche Fishery Restoration Program began in 2005. Its 2 main objectives were to:

  • recover the walleye population and improve the overall size and structure of the fish community
  • improve fishing opportunities for future generations

Program background

The restoration program is in line with the priorities outlined in the Fish Conservation and Management Strategy for Alberta. As per the strategy, the province allocates fisheries as follows:

  • first for conservation, to ensure there are enough fish to reproduce and maintain healthy populations
  • second, to recognized First Nations and Métis peoples through a domestic or Aboriginal food fishery
  • remaining, to the recreational fishery

The Lac La Biche Restoration Program was initiated because important fish species such as walleye, pike and whitefish were overfished. Previous efforts to recover the populations were unsuccessful.

Walleye as a top predator had nearly disappeared from the lake; pike, another top predator, was very low in abundance. Forage fish such as perch and cisco became very abundant but small in size.

At the same time, the cormorant population increased dramatically. This partially prevented the recovery of walleye.

Program details

Lac La Biche Fisheries Management implemented a management program that included:

  • reducing commercial fishery quotas
  • additional restrictions to sport fishing regulations
  • population-control measures for double-crested cormorants
  • stocking walleye
  • protecting critical fish habitats
  • ongoing monitoring of fish and fish harvest cormorant populations

Commercial fishery quotas

In 2005, the commercial tolerance limits for several fish species in Lac La Biche were reduced as follows:

  • lake whitefish: reduced from 111,000 to 30,000 kilograms
  • pike: reduced from 16,867 to 500 kilograms
  • walleye: reduced from 1,550 to 150 kilograms

Fishing regulations

Sport fishing regulations in Lac La Biche became more restrictive. Portions of major inflows and outflows of the lake were closed to fishing. Those portions that weren’t closed were changed to catch-and-release for walleye.

There were several reductions to bag limits in 2006. At that time, pike, whitefish and burbot bag limits were changed to 0. Yellow perch limits were reduced from 15 to 5.

Current bag limits are:

  • burbot: 10
  • perch: 15
  • pike: 1 (must be over 75 centimetres in total length)
  • walleye: 0
  • whitefish: 3

Even though large numbers of walleye can be caught, they cannot be harvested. Fish densities and reproductive capacity through natural recruitment need to be confirmed first.

If harvest is allowed too soon, it could risk the re-establishment of the walleye population in the lake. The population could collapse again. Catch-and-release ensures anglers can enjoy catching the walleye and that the population will be there for future generations.

Exceptions

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 Nations food fishery within the constraints of fish conservation obligations. Domestic fishing licences are made available to First Nations and recognized Métis harvesters.

These licences are good for 1 year. A separate licence is required for each lake. Each licence allows the holder to set a net up to 100 metres long, with a stretch-mesh size of 140 or 152 millimetres.

Fish caught using a domestic fishing licence must be for subsistence purposes. They can only be distributed to members of the licence holder’s family and household. They cannot be:

  • bartered
  • bought
  • sold
  • traded

Cormorant population control

The collapse of the walleye population in Lac La Biche was caused by humans. After years of over-harvest, they nearly disappeared in the 1960s. With the loss of the lake’s top predator, cormorants became more abundant. This played a significant role in the ecosystem change that had made it difficult for walleye to re-establish in the lake.

Cormorants have direct impacts on walleye, pike and whitefish populations through predation upon juveniles. An adult cormorant can consume approximately 1 kilogram of fish per day. As cormorants prey on the smaller fish in the lake, it puts pressure on them.

In the case of perch, this pressure caused them to put all their energy into becoming mature at very young ages. This early maturity allowed them to reproduce at very high rates. This increased their numbers in the lake to near-unprecedented levels.

The perch feed on small walleye fry, then compete with 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. It also triggered life history shifts in 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.

By the numbers

At their peak in 2005, there were 16,000 breeding cormorants in the Lac La Biche area. Fish consumption was estimated at 2.2 million kilograms that year.

Recent cormorant numbers are closer to 2,500. In 2013, their fish consumption was reduced to 180,000 kilograms.

Walleye stocking

Walleye stocking was done annually from 2006 to 2011. Stock came from 2 areas:

  • Brett Creek (on Primrose Lake, northeast of Cold Lake)
  • Petitot River (on Bistcho Lake, northwest of Peace River)

Stocking history

There were previous walleye stocking efforts in the 1980s and 1990s. They were unsuccessful because of insufficient numbers as well as the following factors:

  • competition and predation from high numbers of yellow perch
  • susceptibility to cormorant predation
  • vulnerability to commercial and domestic gill nets in the lake as the fish grew

By the numbers

On average, it took about 5 days to collect the walleye eggs from spawn camps set up in these 2 areas. Each spawn camp lasted about 12 days, including setup and take-down.

In 2005, there were no walleye in Lac La Biche. In the 6 years of stocking, a total of 200 million fry and 425,000 fingerlings were stocked in the lake. We included fingerlings because they have a higher survival rate than fry in their first year.

Since stocking began in 2006, there have been 3 successful year-classes of walleye, as follows:

  • 2006
  • 2009
  • 2011

By 2014, there were an estimated 270,000 walleye in the lake. However, these fish have not yet shown that they can effectively reproduce naturally.

Fish stocking stopped in 2011 so that we could track the success rate of spawning in the stocked population.

Natural recruitment

It was hoped that there would be evidence of natural recruitment in 2012 as the females stocked in 2006 started to mature. However, 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

However, there was evidence of natural recruitment in 2013 and 2014. In 2013, recruitment was on par with the average natural recruitment from other lakes in the northeast portion of the province. The 2014 recruitment was less successful.

Monitoring will continue, to see if these 2 year-classes are successful in the future and to look for evidence of future natural recruitment.

Protecting habitats

The Owl River is historically the primary spawning location for Lac La Biche walleye. The Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) assessed spawning runs there in the spring of 2012. They captured about 3,000 walleye, which shows the fish were finding their way to their spawning grounds.

Walleye have also been observed in other small tributaries to Lac La Biche. They are clearly discovering and using locations for spawning other than Owl River.

The ACA has undertaken habitat protection on the Owl River. They are working to reduce impacts of livestock grazing on reaches of the river nearest the spawning areas.

Monitoring populations

Cormorants

We began monitoring cormorant populations in the Lac La Biche area in 2003. Survey flights were taken over all fish-bearing lakes in the area to track:

  • cormorant and pelican numbers
  • colony sizes
  • distribution
  • cormorant diet

Monitoring continues today. Staff visit major colonies every year. They complete nest and fledgling counts of cormorants and some co-nesting species.

Walleye

Preliminary surveys on fish populations in Lac La Biche were done in 2003. This was followed by the Fall Walleye Index Netting (FWIN, now known as Fall Index Netting [FIN]), which began in 2005. This monitoring allows biologists to track specific changes in the fish community through time. We use the resulting information to assess the status of fisheries.

Monitoring through the FIN allows biologists to determine:

  • if natural recruitment occurs
  • when successful year-classes are created
  • changes in densities
  • changes in length and age class distributions of species

The FIN is done annually. Nets are set at randomly chosen locations throughout the lake. 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 the following are also collected and used to evaluate the status of the fishery:

  • length
  • weight
  • sex
  • maturity
  • aging structure (bony structures from fish)

For more information on FIN, go to Fall Index Netting.

Program reports

The following reports will provide you with more information about the restoration program:

Future plans

At 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.