Roughly 25,000 fish have been saved from canals in southern Alberta and reintroduced to fresh, flowing water this fall.

Each summer, thousands of fish get trapped in canals in Calgary and the surrounding areas when waterways are opened to divert water from local rivers — such as the Bow, Oldman and Waterton — for irrigation purposes.

Electrofish scoop

A volunteer scoops stunned fish from a canal near Vulcan so that they can be reintroduced to the Bow River as part of the fish rescue project spearheaded by Trout Unlimited. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

"Once the fish get in the canal, they can't get back to the river, and we consider them essentially lost to the system," said Lesley Peterson, provincial biologist for Trout Unlimited Canada, the organization leading the initiative.

"They can't carry out their life cycle and they're basically lost from the population they came from."

The annual project mobilizes hundreds of volunteers each fall, when the canals are drained, with the aim of rescuing as many fish as possible and returning them to their appropriate waterways, Peterson said.


'This is actually our most popular volunteer project that we do every year,' says Lesley Peterson, provincial biologist for Trout Unlimited Canada. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Volunteers in hip waders and fishing boots head into shallow canal waters to zap fish with their electrofishing rods.

The stunned fish are then scooped into buckets and taken to shore, where volunteers as young as preschoolers are able to measure and identify the species and deposit them in an oxygenated tank before they are released to the Bow.

Fish rescue kids

Young volunteers pour buckets of fish into an oxygenated tank after the individual species are measured and counted. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

But the program isn't just about conservation, Peterson said. It's also one way to monitor fish species for diseases and educate volunteers about Alberta's native fish population.

Ten-year-old Griffin Schultz has been active in the program since he was six years old.

Griffin Schultz

Since their first volunteer experience with Trout Unlimited four years ago, Griffin Schultz and his mom have managed to convince his dad, brother and sister to also join the ranks. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Over the past four years, he's learned how to measure fish, what types of fish are native to the Bow and how to handle them.

"Personally, for myself, I love fishing. It's like the best experience of my life," Schultz said.

The initiative, which began in 1998, has rescued nearly 900,000 fish in southern Alberta.

Peterson says data collected since then confirms that fish are being lost to canals, but she said it's unclear what the full effects of that loss are on river ecology and fish populations.

With files from Sarah Lawrynuik