By Steve Hubrecht 

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Keep that fishing rod and standup paddle board tucked away: waterbodies in Kootenay National Park will remain closed for at least another year.

In fall 2023, Parks Canada closed lakes, rivers, ponds, wetlands, streams and creeks in the national park (which begins immediately to the east of the Village of Radium Hot Springs) until March 2024. It made this decision after it found the parasite that causes whirling disease in Yoho National Park. Waterbodies in Yoho were also closed. (Yoho borders Kootenay National Park.) Whirling disease has extremely high mortality rates (up to 90 per cent) in certain kinds of fish, including iconic Columbia Valley species such as Kokanee salmon, westslope cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish.

At the time, Parks Canada Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit aquatic ecologist Shelley Humphries explained to the Pioneer that the closures were a precaution, taken to prevent the spread of the parasite while Parks Canada figures out its next steps.

Last week Parks Canada extended the waterbody closures in Kootenay and Yoho for a full year until March 2025. The federal agency outlined in a statement that it spent the winter months analyzing its options and that the continued closures will help protect fish and allow Parks Canada to conduct further sampling and monitoring.

There is no treatment for whirling disease, and once the disease is established, it is extremely difficult to eradicate.

Kokanee salmon, westslope cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish are important ecologically (both Kokanee and westslope cutthroat trout are considered keystone species in certain ecosystems). All three species are very popular with anglers (and tourists who visit the valley to fish), and all three species (especially the Kokanee) hold significance for local First Nations.

The cases of whirling disease in Yoho last year were the first cases anywhere in B.C. But the disease had been present in nearby parts of Alberta for several years. The disease probably spread across the continental divide by hitching a ride on recreational equipment such as fishing gear, stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, or boats.

“That’s the most likely method of transfer — people and recreational activities, especially if people don’t handle their equipment properly or clean it well,” Humphries told?the Pioneer last fall.

To make sure fishing equipment and stand-up paddle boards are truly whirling disease free, all water, mud and plant matter must be thoroughly removed and the equipment then left to dry for a minimum of 48 hours before it is used in a different water body.

This process is inconvenient, especially for those who want to visit a certain lake one day and a different lake the next. But it’s necessary. Humphries, an avid angler herself, has two pairs of waders: if she visits two different fishing spots in one weekend, she uses a different pair of waders at each.