Todd Nivens, executive-director of the Waskasoo Environmental Education Society, thinks it’s important for the public to know what lives in the Red Deer River. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).

Public gets close-up view of Red Deer River’s aquatic life

New Dow Freshwater Aquarium officially opened Thursday

We raft and boat on the Red Deer River and get our drinking water from it.

But how often do we think of the other creatures that depend on the river for their survival, questions Todd Nivens, executive director of the Waskasoo Environmental Education Society.

Nivens is eager to introduce to the public a few of those scaley creatures, now on display in the new Dow Freshwater Aquarium at the Kerry Wood Nature Centre.

At a time of many applications for withdrawing huge volumes of water from the river, Nivens feels it’s important to remember the plant and animal systems that are hidden from view.

Three different fish species can be spotted swimming around the 150-gallon tank: two large silvery goldeye, a secretive burbot (who mostly hides under a rock), and a small but aggressive walleye.

These were caught from the Red Deer River by Fish and Wildlife officers and turned over to become part of the nature centre’s permanent exhibit.

Nivens says aquatic life was always meant to be part of the centre’s recently revamped educational display, but it wasn’t possible to finance the aquarium until Dow Chemical provided a $5,000 donation.

He feels the four fish ambassadors are important additions to the centre’s interpretive displays, as the public knows very little about what’s actually in the Red Deer River.

Although the central waterway is vital to our city, which straddles both sides of its banks, it’s often taken for granted, says Nivens.

“The river is murky because it’s heavily sedimented, and because you can’t see what’s in it, a lot of people don’t realize there’s a lot of fish life in the Red Deer River.”

The three species in the aquarium are only a few examples. Trout, sturgeon, whitefish, pike and sauger also live in our river — and have to exist with the chemical run-off and other contaminants that enters the water, says Nivens.

He hopes to gets more people thinking about water conservation.

While a portion of the river water that’s removed for human or agricultural consumption eventually returns to the waterway through the evaporation/precipitation process, Nivens says water that’s injected deep into the Earth for industrial purposes does not.

He believes this should be of growing concern, since the glaciers that feed our rivers are shrinking and climate change is affecting rain and snowfall.

Although Nivens once worked at the Vancouver Aquarium, he admits little is known about the longer-term impacts of keeping river fish in a freshwater tank.

He’s not sure, for example, if these specimens will eventually outgrow the aquarium, or if their new environment will determine their size.

But the tank is set up with a circulating flow so that the fish can swim with or against the current if they choose.

Nivens said he hopes to add one or two more fish species eventually — but careful consideration is needed, as “big fish tend to eat smaller fish.”

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Todd Nivens, executive-director of the Waskasoo Environmental Education Society. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).

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