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Fish rescue near Fort Macleod brings cultures together

brown trout

One of the brown trout rescued from the irrigation canal to be returned to the Oldman River.

jack bastien

Jack Bastien nets a fish from a holding tank so it can be weighed and measured.

mike bryski

Biologist Mike Bryski with a large brown trout rescued from the drained irrigation canal.

The Peigan Friends Along the River fish rescue has become more than a day when volunteers save fish trapped in a drained irrigation canal.
Now in its 27th year, the fish rescue has become an event that also brings cultures together and helps people develop a strong connection to nature.
More than 40 volunteers, including biologists and university professors and students, met Oct. 7 at the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District flume northwest of Fort Macleod.
In a scene repeated for close to three decades, the volunteers used a net to push the fish — who would die if left in the drained canal — to a collection point where people collected them in nets.
The fish were transferred to holding tanks to be measured, weighed and returned to the Oldman River, free to live another day and strengthen the fishery.
Harley Bastien wasn’t looking 27 years into the future when he founded the rescue with friends and family.
“Is it surprising that we’re still going?” Bastien said. “Yes, in that we stayed together as a unit this long. But also no, once I saw the commitment and the energy, and just the spirit of the event. It’s done a lot of good.”
A core unit of volunteers returns each year to the canal, with new faces arriving every year to help. The newcomers this year included professors and students from Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“It’s important in that it helps maintain the fishery in the Oldman River,” Bastien said of the rescue. “A lot of these fish are breeding stock.”
In the early years of the fish rescue, anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 fish would be pulled from the canal.
In recent years the number of fish rescued has dropped to 1,500 to 2,000, but Bastien said there are more bigger fish than in the early years.
Bastien said the rescue also helps to introduce people to First Nations culture, which has a lasting benefit to society.
The fish rescue also helps people make a connection with nature.
“A person becomes more aware of the earth, of the environment,” Bastien said.
Peter Taylor of Trenton, Ont., who is in Alberta visiting family, took part in the fish rescue.
“I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to help out like this,” said Taylor, an outdoor enthusiast.
Taylor praised the community involvement and the chance for the public — young and old alike– to develop a bond with the outdoors.
“These are our resources and we all need to get behind them,” Taylor said. “There is nothing but good that can come out of something like this.”
Mike Bryski, a biologist with Alberta Environment based in Lethbridge, returned to help weigh and measure the fish.
While getting the numbers recorded, Bryski gave a running commentary on each species for the benefit of the other volunteers.
“I think one of the real cool things is people get to come out and handle the fish,” Bryski said of the fish rescue. “It’s a real cool opportunity to see fish up close and personal and to handle them.”
“It’s a good educational opportunity,” Bryski added. “It’s an opportunity to connect with nature and learn a little.”
And, as Harley Bastien pointed out, the fish appreciate it.

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