Omineca Region EPD

Lake Care - A Property Owner's Guide to Conserving Fish Habitat in Lakes

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Ministry of Environment
Habitat Conservation Trust Fund Logo

Habitat Conservation Trust Fund

As a lake property owner, you have an important part to play in preserving a valuable, publicly-owned resource. The Ministry of Environment and local governments want to ensure that you are aware of the complex and delicate systems that exist in lakes. We hope that the information in this brochure will help you appreciate the importance of leaving the lakeshore as natural as possible.

Why Take Care of Lakes?
Lakes are important for many different reasons. Their beauty and serenity attract people who want to relax and enjoy themselves. They are important sources of clean, fresh water. Lakes are also home to many unique species of plants and animals, including fish.

B.C. is blessed with hundreds of thousands of lakes. Many have been relatively undisturbed since the end of the Ice Age, but in populated regions, lakes have been affected by humankind for decades. The recent population boom in B.C. has brought with it a dramatic increase in residential and commercial development along lakeshores and this has many people, including fisheries biologists, concerned.

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The Issue
Many lakeshore property owners wish to make changes to the foreshore areas of their properties. The most common changes are clearing, adding fill and building retaining walls. Unfortunately, these "improvements" are not always to the benefit of the lake's natural inhabitants, especially when you add up changes along the entire lakeshore and throughout the watershed.

Often these projects are undertaken without knowledge of the biological impacts. Alterations made without an understanding of the lake as a whole system are likely to upset the delicate balance and have a negative impact.

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The Natural Balance
A lake is made up of many different parts, including the land, the water, the chemicals and gases dissolved in the water, plants and animals. These parts work together in complex ways and are referred to as an ecosystem. Each lake ecosystem has evolved over thousands of years in response to local conditions. The stability of these systems depends on variety — a variety of species and a variety of physical features.

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An Ounce of Prevention or a Pound of Cure?
An ecosystem can be compared to a game of pick-up sticks. Take away (or add) one 'stick' and chances are the balance will be lost and the whole structure will shift. Once the balance is upset, a lot of time and money can be spent trying to recreate or replace nature's design — usually in vain.

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Fish in B.C. Lakes
B.C. lakes offer some of the best recreational fishing in the world. There are few countries that can boast wild, native stocks such as we have in many of our lakes. It is essential that we maintain these wild stocks — not only the high-profile game fish, but also the many species of non-game fish.

Fish in B.C. lakes share the same basic needs:

  • oxygenated water that is free from excessive nutrient and toxic input, and
  • habitat — places to hide from predators and carry out their basic activities of feeding and reproduction.

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Fish Habitat
Most fish are both predators and prey so they depend heavily on cover — both for feeding and for safety. They are constantly on the move. Even though we most often see fish jumping out in open areas of the lake, it is the hiding places, often within 30 metres from shore, where fish spend the majority of their time. The quantity and quality of such habitat often determine how well fish do in a lake.

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1. Riparian Vegetation

The lake ecosystem is dependent on influences outside the water. Trees, shrubs, grass and other plants around the edges of the lake are important fish habitat. There are many reasons why both fish and the rest of the lake ecosystem benefit from this fringe of vegetation:

  • bank stabilization provided by roots - prevents erosion
  • reduced septic field nutrients - uptake provided by roots
  • reduced run-off, leading to better water clarity and quality
  • shade and temperature stability
  • source of insects
  • overhead cover provided by overhanging branches and leaves
  • under-water cover provided by roots and partially submerged vegetation

In addition, vegetated areas near lakes support many wildlife species including weasels, muskrats, frogs, salamanders, waterfowl and songbirds.

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2. Vegetated Shoal Areas

The most productive parts of lakes are shallow, protected shoreline areas. Nutrients collect in the fine sediments providing sites where aquatic plants can grow. These plants provide tremendous surface area for algae, shrimp, snails, insects and other invertebrates. They help stabilize sediments, reduce waves and currents and provide protective cover in which many small fish live, feed and spawn. Many delicate organisms live in and amongst their roots, in the fine mud. The greatest variety of species in any lake are present in these vegetated shoals. Not only are these areas the dining rooms of many of the important game fish, but they act as important supply kitchens for the lakes’ open waters as well.

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3. Rocky Lakeshore Habitat

Lake char, kokanee, sockeye, bass and many other species are shore spawners. They lay eggs in gravel, cobble or large stones along the lakeshore. Important features of this habitat are clean stones and a good flow of cool, oxygenated water amongst the stones. Spawning usually occurs in fall and the eggs remain in spaces between the rocks through the winter. Eggs hatch in early spring and the young fish rely on the rocky cover for a few more weeks before beginning their life in the open water.

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Government Guidelines to Protect Aquatic Habitat
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and MoE have developed a set of Land Development Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Habitat. These guidelines, as well as limiting alterations to aquatic areas, require strips of natural vegetation (usually 15 m wide) be left next to any stream, lake or swamp that contain fish or fish habitat.

The Federal Fisheries Act states that it is illegal, and subject to severe penalties, to: "carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat." (Section 31.1)

The Act also requires that plans must be provided to MoE by anyone who intends to carry out work that might result in damage to fish habitat or in the introduction deleterious substances to waters inhabited by fish.

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TAKE CHARGE! — What You Can Do to Become a Steward of Your Lake

  1. Start at Home - Plan your own property development carefully to conserve natural vegetation and consider replacing lost habitat where possible.
  2. Observe and Report - Notify your local Fisheries Branch if you notice anyone carrying on work that could be harmful to the lake environment or fish habitat.
  3. Educate and Cooperate - Discuss conservation issues with your neighbours and promote the idea of shared responsibility for the whole lake.
  4. Form a Group - If there isn't already a local lake conservation society, consider forming one. There are a growing number of such organizations in B.C. As a group, it is possible to persuade local government to implement bylaws that limit the impact of residential and commercial development.

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Close-up: The Omineca

There are more than 5000 lakes in the Prince George area. They are generally shallow and fairly rich in nutrients. As a result, any addition of nutrients (mainly phosphorus) to the drainage area has a dramatic influence on the ecology of a lake. Fisheries concerns are closely linked to water quality, but also include the preservation of wild fish populations, spawning and rearing habitat, diversity of species and rare and endangered species. Although many of the lakes in the area are stocked with rainbow or brook trout, the focus of fisheries biologists is on wild stocks and the natural habitat on which they depend.

The main game species are:

  • rainbow trout
  • lake trout (char)*
  • bull trout (char)
  • kokanee*
  • lake whitefish*
  • brook trout (stocked)*

*Spawn on gravel or rocky shoreline.

As well as these high profile game fish, there is a vast array of insects and smaller fish, such as redside shiners and brassy minnows (endangered).

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Lakeshore Property Development — What is the Impact?
There has been a surge in lakeshore development over the last 10 - 15 years with more growth anticipated in the near future. The Fraser-Fort George Regional District, with input from MoE, has developed a set of Lakeshore Guidelines to address water quality problems and help prevent future degradation of the aesthetics and ecological balance of the region’s lakes. At least one lake in the region (Ness Lake) has an Environmental Protection Society to offer local input to government planning.


Increased Nutrients and Toxic Run-off

- due mainly to faulty septic systems, detergents, lawn and garden fertilizers and livestock

- storm drain run-off

1. Water quality deterioration.
2. More algae blooms and aquatic weed growth.
3. Storm drain run-off, often diverted into lakes, introduces toxins such as gas, oil, heavy metals and salts.

1. Maintain septic tanks and fields. If installing a septic system, install it as far from the lake as possible (should consult MoE).
2. Use phosphate-free cleaners.
3. Minimize lawn size and watering. Lawns should be as far from lakeshore as possible. Don't use fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
4. Maintain a strip of natural vegetation between developed area and lakeshore. Plants help to soak up nutrients and harmful chemicals dissolved in run-off.
5. Discuss routing of storm drain run-off with municipal government. What is the impact and what are the alternatives.

Removal of Natural Aquatic and Riparian Vegetation

- to clean up shoreline, remove weeds

- to create lawns and open up view

1. Loss of physical fish habitat, shade and cover.
2. Loss of insects and bottom-dwelling organisms which are important to fish production.
3. Loss of bank stability. Erosion.
4. Increased effects of nutrients and toxic run-off.
1. Consider strategic clearing for partial view and pathway to lakeshore, rather than "clean-sweep" approach.
2. Leave patches or strips of native plants where possible and consider replanting shoreline areas with native species such as alder, black cottonwood, willow and red-osier dogwood. Should consult with MoE habitat biologist for best choices.
3. Consult with MoE for advice about weed removal. You must have approval to remove aquatic plants.

Lakeshore Infilling / Breakwaters

- includes sand, rock and cobble

- to create a beach

- to build boat launches, wharves, retaining walls, breakwaters

1. Buries food organisms.
2. Covers spawning beds, both in lake and outlet streams (sand migrates).
3. Destroys fish rearing habitat.
4. Breakwaters alter the natural currents, movement of sediments and migration of plankton and fish.
5. Fill may be a source of nutrients.
1. Build a small floating dock for swimming and lake access (approval is required for fixed docks but not those that are removable).
2. Use public beaches for swimming.
3. Consult with MoE and BC Lands to obtain approval before beginning any project that results in alteration of the shoreline.
4. Operation of equipment in lakes requires authorization (consult MoE).

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Who to Contact for More Information

To discuss plans or concerns about your lakeshore property, please contact:

Ministry of Environment
3rd Floor, 1011 - 4th Avenue
Prince George BC V2L 3H9
Phone: (250) 565-6135
Fax: (250) 565-6629

This web page was based on a brochure that was funded by the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund. The Habitat Conservation Trust Fund was created to preserve, restore, and enhance populations of fish and wildlife and their habitats in British Columbia. Projects are financed by a surcharge on angling, hunting, trapping, and guiding licences. The Habitat Conservation Trust Fund also accepts donations and bequests from private citizens. All donations are tax deductible. The Fund is, therefore, self-perpetuating and there is virtually no direct cost to the general taxpayer. The Habitat Conservation Trust Fund welcomes donations from individuals, corporations, sportsmen's clubs, and conservation organizations. In addition, suggestions for habitat projects are also welcome. It's a chance to become involved. Truly, an opportunity for fish and wildlife. For further information about the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund, contact the nearest regional office, or write to:

Habitat Conservation Trust Fund
PO Box 9354
Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC V8W 9M1