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Fish Out of Water

Dealing with the aftermath of the flood of 2011 not only entails the human element, but also a wildlife component.

Dealing with the aftermath of the flood of 2011 not only entails the human element, but also a wildlife component.

Once the personal aspects of the devastation are sorted out and some people are able to get back on a path of restoration, others are able to turn their attention to other aspects of flood cleanup. These were things that had to be ignored immediately following the release of the wild waters then the subsequent shutdown of the Rafferty spillway after reservoir levels returned to more normal heights.

As the flood waters receded, local sportsmen and women noticed that thousands of fish were placed in immediate danger when the waters returned to their normal streams. The fish were being found in small pools and flatlands as well as sharing the diminishing pool of water that collected immediately in front of the spillway about a quarter mile from the natural Rafferty release outlet that feeds the Souris River channel.

"The sound of those flapping, floundering fish at night, and the sight of them flopping around out there, it just didn't seem right to leave it that way," said local sportsman Donald Holinaty who became a part of a 20 or more persons rescue operation that was launched in the early morning of Wednesday, Aug. 10 and concluded late Friday afternoon.

Al Young, a biologist and spokesman for the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority on the salvage operation, said there were between 18 and 30 volunteers on the job at any given time. It was a physical as well as a strategic operation that ended up saving between 5,000 and 6,000 walleye, bass and perch as well as a few lesser known fish types and an occasional turtle, he said.

"The fish that were rescued were either returned to the Souris River channel or the Rafferty reservoir," Young said.

Most of the fish that were netted in the operation showed definite signs of stress, he said, but most survived the rescue operation and swam into their new environments upon release. He cautioned that all of them might not survive into the second day, but after that their health and survivability chances would be pretty good.

Young said that in terms of volunteer effort, the Estevan operation had to be one of the most impressive and dedicated projects he has been involved with over the years as the team was determined to save as many fish as they could in a short time span.

The federal Department of Oceans and Fisheries provided expertise and manpower as did the Watershed Authority and the local conservation officers and their administration plus SaskPower personnel, equipment and expertise. There were a number of people and lots of equipment made available by the local oil industries, said Holinaty, which was impressive since the demands on their time and materials has ramped up lately with the receding flood waters.

"We thought if we could save at least 20 to 25 per cent of these fish that were out there on the flats and in the pools, it would be pretty good, but it seems it will be a lot more than that," he added.

"It has been a great joint effort," said Young, who said the pool below the Rafferty was dewatered and then refreshened and it was confirmed by SaskPower on Monday that aeration and fresh oxygen would be added to the water to enable the few thousand fish left in the pool, many of them fingerlings, to survive and become game for local fishers who might want to go after them as they do a little angling from the rock formations.
Some of the larger fish netted and sent back home would weigh in at 25 pounds plus, the volunteers said. Some two pound perch were also in the mix.

"After we received the phone call Tuesday night, we got some gear together and the effort began early Wednesday morning," said Young.

"It was a big operation compared with most other fish salvage operations, but this community came together so quickly and efficiently, I'd say it has gone as smoothly as one could ever expect," said Young. "Especially when you take into consideration there is no specific equipment that is designed for this type of work, you have to make it work with what is made available, so it's worked out pretty well," he said, watching a tractor remove a fresh water hose from the small basin while two ATV units with trailers and water tanks accepted the netted fish, ready for a quick journey to the other side of the dam.

"We just worked out a way to keep the fish alive. Salvage is the last thing attempted after the flood devastation," Young said, noting that all the other dams operated by the authority have fish passages built into them in the event there needed to be a huge water release program, but Rafferty doesn't have one and it would be cost prohibitive to install one now. So there are detailed plans to follow from SaskPower, he said, and DFO Canada would expect a good rescue effort, knowing that some fish are bound to be lost during a incident of the type that hit southeast Saskatchewan and western North Dakota this year.

"Now I will develop a working salvage plan that will be in place for Rafferty in the event of another incident," Young added.

Since the majority of the fish were moving upstream, Young said he expected most of them would have come from North Dakota, so the idea was to ultimately let them continue their journey.

"We can provide them with a passage so they can go where they need to go," he said.

"It's surprising how durable these fish are. I would guess that only a handful won't make it, but of course, we'll never know for sure, but in the whole valley, I'm sure you've lost a lot of young fish. Some of the loss will be visible, but unless you take an extensive walk in the valley, you won't see what is lost and gone. It's a natural thing though, this kind of stuff has been going on for centuries. Some years the survival levels are great, others not as great. Only the fittest fish survive, just like everything else," Young said.

The Watershed Authority biologist said he works a lot within the dams and fish passage networks every year as water is moved, taking the fish with it.

"Our mandate is to protect the eco-system and what happens is, we get good at management through experience. Our people still get a lot of static, even when water levels just move a few inches. Our guys can only do so much though, the management plans only work when the weather works for you," Young said in conclusion.

And when the weather works against you, you end up with a huge rescue operation like the one that happened below Rafferty Dam last week. A successful rescue operation, we might add.

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