By Melanie Law
Special to the Observer
At this time of year, the boat launch on Quesnel-Hydraulic Road is often buzzing with activity, as locals and out-of-towners alike set their boats in Dragon Lake, hopeful for a big catch. The lake has long been known as a place to bag a trophy-size rainbow trout or two.
But as many also know, an infestation of goldfish – an invasive species – was discovered in the lake in 2009. According to the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C.’s website, “[w]hile goldfish don’t eat trout, they share similar dietary preferences, creating a potential for food competition.”
The exact origin of the goldfish is unknown, but a spokesperson from the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship said the presence of these goldfish “was likely due to people releasing their pets into the 225-hectare lake.”
The goldfish have been an ongoing concern – if the rainbow trout in Dragon Lake have to compete for food, they may not grow to the size that attracts recreational anglers.
Not only that, goldfish are also known to disrupt natural ecosystems and reduce biodiversity, according to the Ministry. And in addition to historically being a place to catch large trout, Dragon Lake is a key location for the collection of rainbow trout eggs for the provincial lake stocking program, according to the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C.
A shocking solution?
The Ministry, as well as concerned locals, have looked at various solutions to this issue over the years. Now, more than a decade after the goldfish were discovered, the Province is in the final year of a three-year, $45,000 program to suppress them and learn more about their biology and behaviour.
The latest installment of the project, which was completed on June 9, amounted in 1,556 goldfish removed from Dragon Lake. The program has removed just over 6,000 goldfish in the past three years, including 2,629 in 2020 and 1,865 in 2021, according to a spokesperson from the Ministry.
The fish have been removed via electrofishing, a technique that shocks fish with electricity. The stunned fish are then scooped up in nets by the electrofishing team and killed, and then returned to the lake.
Gene Tisdale, an environmental consultant from Kamloops, has been carrying out the electrofishing on Dragon Lake, as well as on other lakes in the province with invasive species. He explained that the technique varies by fish, and goldfish can be tough.
“[Some species], we can just shock them and it kills them outright. With goldfish, they’re tough. They can actually come back and swim away. We have to make sure they’re dead by cutting them in half,” he said.
Once killed, the fish are returned to the lake so as not to spread invasive species accidentally. “If you start moving, for example, goldfish around, the eggs are so prolific that there is potential of transporting and potentially reintroducing new species into lakes that you don’t want to,” Tisdale said. After each session, he thoroughly bleaches his boat to ensure nothing transfers.
Tisdale conceded that occasionally other species are caught in electrofishing, but the team is very cautious. The electrofishing must take place in the shallows when the invasive fish are spawning to ensure the technique works. And in the shallow water, trout or other favourable species are easy to spot and move out of the way with nets before the shock is delivered.
With the current project wrapping up, the team at the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship will now look at the data collected since 2020 to inform the way forward. The fish scales collected over the past three years will help the team estimate the age of the goldfish, which will help them ascertain how well the electrofishing has worked so far.
While the ministry will not comment at this early stage whether they feel the project has been successful, some local anglers have been pleased with the way the lake has changed.
Ben Fougere is a local fisherman who has been angling on Dragon Lake for almost 20 years. He believes the Province’s efforts to suppress the goldfish may have been effective. “I think they’ve really done a good job… A lot of the time [in previous years] you would see the goldfish below the boat, and now I don’t very often see that or see them jumping; we used to see a lot more,” he noted.
Trelane Hargreaves, who is an avid kayaker and runs the Facebook group Carp Control B.C., said he has spent previous years spear-fishing goldfish and helping on various initiatives, including an electrofishing project in 2016, where a group removed almost 7,000 goldfish from the shallows in one season.
He described the experience of seeing so many goldfish near the shore some years ago: “I found this frenzy once, and it was ridiculous. It was like, paddle your kayak over it and your whole kayak would shake – almost like a movie.”
Hargreaves has hopes that the Province’s efforts have had – and will continue to have – a positive effect. “Now, it’s more of a maintenance thing rather than trying to eradicate,” he noted, lamenting: “There’s a beautiful ecosystem in that lake.” He hopes it can be protected.
The exact number of goldfish remaining in the lake is unknown, but the ministry said the results from its three-year project should help experts estimate both the current number, and the number present when the electrofishing began in 2020. This will tell them whether their method has been – and can continue to be – successful.
“[The goal is to] determine the feasibility (in terms of time and money) of reducing the goldfish population to 20 per cent of the estimated total,” the Ministry spokesperson to the Observer via email.
But the ministry explained that removal methods cannot completely eradicate goldfish from Dragon Lake. They are here to stay, and their population needs to be managed in one way or another to avoid them displacing the rainbow trout. “Intensive, long-term suppression efforts could reduce their overall numbers, but [the efforts] are difficult to sustain in the long term (especially in larger, complex ecosystems),” the spokesperson noted.
As for the future of Dragon Lake as a trophy fishing destination, Fougere said he worries that the size of rainbow trout in the lake could be reducing, since the goldfish are competing for trout’s food resources.
“If we lose that larger size of fish, people are going to stop coming here,” he said. “So that’s a concern. If people stop coming here, then they’re not spending their money in Quesnel. And we don’t want that. We want a world-class fishery. We want people to come from United States to fish Dragon Lake.”
The ministry spokesperson said staff will continue to work with residents, anglers, and volunteer groups to coordinate the work at Dragon Lake.
“The lake’s rainbow trout population and the fishery they support will be monitored annually. The results of the feasibility study and the annual assessments will help determine the path forward for actions related to goldfish,” they said via email.
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