A 25-year-old Calgary electrician has become the first person to be charged under the Fisheries Act in Alberta for driving in a sensitive fish habitat in Waiparous.
But according to Jesse Bertram, who now faces a $2,000 fine, he was just trying to get his 1987 Dodge pickup across Waiparous Creek to join his friends camping during the May long weekend when his truck got stuck.
“(The) crown could see it as joyriding at the expense of the environment,” federal Crown prosecutor Erin Eacott told a Cochrane provincial court judge Aug. 11.
“I would like to say if I was offroading I wouldn’t have had a camper on my truck,” Bertram told the court.
While the Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) officers patrolling the area could have ticketed him for driving off trail in the Ghost Forest Land Use Zone — an area with restricted recreational uses — it was decided instead to charge Bertram under the Fisheries Act.
Bertram was two kilometres south of a legal creek crossing and didn’t enter the creek from a lawful spot.
“It’s been really difficult to catch these individuals,” said Eacott. “We know there’s a lot of people who drive in water bodies, and officers see the tracks, but they can’t catch anyone.”
She has been in the field for 10 years and has never successfully prosecuted an offroader for destroying sensitive areas.
“It is a precedent setting case,” said Eacott. “I hope it sends a message to stay on the trails.”
Eacott said Bertram was even warned by bystanders that he wasn’t allowed to drive through the creek, but continued in order to get to a “crossing” he could see in front of him.
Bertram said the water was deep and he was trying to avoid the steep slope in front of him.
He had moved to the Calgary area from New Market, Ont., eight months ago.
“I wasn’t out to kill fish,” he said.
Bertram said he is unfairly being made an example of and if his finances were in order he would have fought the charge but instead agreed to a guilty charge.
Fines under the Fisheries Act can run up to $300,000, although Eacott said it’s almost impossible for one individual to cause that much damage. In this case, Bertram was offroading in a critical spawning habitat for bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.
According to information provided to the crown by Jim Stelfox, senior fisheries biologist for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, bull trout are designated as a sensitive species in Alberta and westslope cutthroat is listed as threatened.
Stelfox said driving in the creek creates silt that can cause suffocation of eggs and food sources for the fish as well as the crushing of fish eggs and juvenile fish.
Bertram will be paying $200 of his sentence as a fine and the other $1,800 will go to the Ghost Watershed Alliance Society for managing, conserving and protecting fish habitat.