Voices ring out across the pristine waters of Clear Lake. Excitement fills the air as a figure emerges from the water, brandishing an olive and brown striped smallmouth bass stuck on the end of a spear.
History is being made at the lake, thanks to a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Riding Mountain and the Coalition of First Nations with Interests in Riding Mountain National Park to deal with invasive, aggressive smallmouth bass that have been threatening native species. The bass are feeding on crayfish and small fish, taking away resources from native species such as walleye.
In June 2021, resource conservation staff with Riding Mountain and members of Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation conducted collaborative fisheries work on Clear Lake, located 100 kilometres north of Brandon. Their goal was to gather information about the smallmouth bass invasion and monitor the health of fish populations in the lake.
Last year, one of the methods the group used was electrofishing — a common method of collecting fish without harming them. The tactic involves using an electrical current to momentarily stun fish in the water so they can be scooped up into a net. Then, researchers can collect measurements and other data from the fish. After measurement, the fish can be returned to the water unharmed. Parks Canada uses this method to track and safely monitor fish that are native to Clear Lake, while attempting to permanently remove and euthanize smallmouth bass.
While the electrofishing method has proven successful — removing a total of 354 smallmouth bass from Clear Lake last year — it mainly targeted the junior fish. To tackle the issue of adult smallmouth bass, the spearfishing program was created.
Adult smallmouth bass guard their nests from predators, staying in one place. This makes them good candidates for techniques like spearfishing, which has been used to control invasive fish in oceans but rarely attempted in freshwater ecosystems. Freshwater lakes tend to be murkier, making it harder to use the technique, but Clear Lake’s transparent water means it’s possible to use spearfishing successfully.
Michele Nicholson, lead ecologist with RMNP, in partnership with members of Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation and with the help of research students, said the spearfishing program is not only eliminating smallmouth bass from the lake, but is providing cutting-edge research to see if the method is one that is sustainable and successful over time.
"We think it could be good for reducing nest success," Nicholson said.
People involved in the collaboration received spearfishing training in June and began practising the technique this month. The entire program will last from four to six weeks, Nicholson said.
"It’s during the smallmouth bass’ nesting season, so that’s how we’re aligning it. We’re focusing on trying to take adult male smallmouth bass off of nests to reduce their reproductive success. It’s a multi-pronged approach at trying to control the population."
Alex Prudhomme is a master’s student in science at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. He conducted research in RMNP last summer and came back this year to participate in the spearfishing program.
Prudhomme said the main focus of his research is finding a practical solution for the problem of invasive smallmouth bass species. He has been closely involved in the spearfishing project, looking at parameters such as how long it will take, how hard it is to do, and how successful it is in tackling the smallmouth bass problem in Clear Lake.
Prudhomme is also looking at the diet of smallmouth bass. He said examining the stomach contents of the fish is very helpful in his research.
"From that information, we can see how the invasive bass diet compares to that of the native fish in the lake."
This could allow Prudhomme to discover how much food supply is being taken away from native fish by smallmouth bass.
According to Prudhomme, the best part of the whole experience has been working as a team with Nicholson and another research student along with partners from Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation.
"I wanted to do something that involved … not being stuck in a lab."
So far, there has been plenty of support from the First Nations that make their home near the shores of Clear Lake. Nicholson said the larger smallmouth bass that are caught are going to those communities, who have fishing rights in the area.
"They’ve had four people from the community participate in the course, and they’ve been taking an active part in it. The response I’ve gotten in my interactions with people is that they’re really excited about the project and really supportive of the work we do together."
John Sportak, a member of Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation, said his family has lived on the reserve at the edge of the lake for generations. He has worked with Nicholson and Riding Mountain for many years.
"Whenever they asked me to do something, I did it right away and tried to be active and participating," Sportak said. "It’s a very good thing that they’re doing, involving Parks Canada and involving us to work together."
Sportak, who has been assisting in the spearfishing activities over the last few weeks, said it’s extremely important that smallmouth bass be dealt with successfully.
"This lake is very important to the Keeseekoowenin people … it’s very important that the lake stays healthy, with lots of fish. I don’t want to see [native species] go extinct."
Sportak said his involvement with the program has also been a great experience for him personally.
"I’m having fun, and it’s a very good experience to work together," he said.
"Now that I’m getting older, I think about the lake and what [it’ll be like] for my grandchildren — my kids and their kids, and their grandchildren, for the future."
Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun