Flights of hope as team restocks lakes with fish

Hoho Andrew pours rainbow trout fish into an alpine lake in Mt Kenya in an exercise aimed at increasing the population of fish. [Courtesy, Standard]
It’s 4am, and the crisp-cold air characteristic of Mt Kenya, is almost palpable. Noise from helicopters roaring 11,000 feet above sea level, will soon disrupt the pristine calm of mountain vegetation. 

By the time daylight pierces through the grey atmosphere, a team led by Tropic Air, would have started dropping tiny four-month-old fingerlings into the freshwater alpine lakes on the mountain.

The exercise is part of efforts to improve the population of a fish in Mt Kenya’s lakes. A group of conservationists have restocked the alpine lakes with 4,000 fingerlings of rainbow trout fish.

The stocks had depleted as they do not naturally breed on the mountain.

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In the latest exercise, the team dropped the fingerlings into several lakes including Fox Tarn, Lake Ellis and Lake Alice, all located on the upper slopes of Mount Kenya.

The intricate exercise starts at 4am when the fingerlings are counted one-by-one by the conservationists, before being bagged at the Jitunze Trout Hatchery located in Chaka, Nyeri.

This delicate exercise took an hour and a half and by the time the conservationists were ready for the next step of the restocking process, hints of daylight in form of faint sun rays could already be seen from behind the mountain, the crew was soon to confront.

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The water-filled bags that held the fingerlings were also pumped with extra oxygen to ensure the fingerlings were as comfortable as possible during the helicopter ride to their new home that started at the Nanyuki Airfield.

“It is a delicate and a quick exercise because the fish handlers had to count them and pack in the water-filled bags without wasting time to avoid oxygen depletion. The fish have high oxygen uptake,” said Robert Wambugu, the trout farm’s manager.

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Survival window

The water in the transportation bags had to be maintained at a constant temperature of 2°C.

At the airfield, the sacks were put on board two helicopters donated by Tropic Air for the exercise that took and an hour and half to fly and drop the fish into the chosen lakes located on the upper slopes of Mt Kenya and within their six-hour bag survival window.

On arrival at the lakes, the pilot landed about 10 feet from the water. It is at this point that the fish handlers then picked up one bag after another, gently undoing the fastening on them and lowering the fingerlings into the lakes.

Where the planes could not land, the pilots hovered some 15 feet above the lake water and the handlers would again gently place the fingerlings into the lake from the safety of the choppers.

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The population of the trout declined in the lakes and rivers over years after constant fishing by mountaineers on climbing expeditions.

“They would fish and carry them to cook. We are restocking often to maintain the population because fish cannot breed in still lake water,”said Tropic Air managing director Jamie Roberts. Rainbow trout is non-native fish species predominantly introduced in the high mountain lakes as it is the only fish species that can survive in low-water temperatures.

“We have done this for about ten years now and joint efforts from conservationists and sports fishermen have come in handy in purchasing the fingerlings,” said Roberts, adding the firm volunteered two helicopters to ferry the trout.

The participants who contributed to the exercise involved people who have interests in conservation, the mountain and fishing as well. Mt Kenya is significant in tourism sector particularly for mountain excursions.

Roberts said restocking the alps is significant as the introduction of fish species is mainly aimed for recreational fishing.

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Breakfast on the mountain

“The mountain is one of our most popular helicopter tours and we basically like to fly clients around the peaks and later land at one of the lakes for early morning picnic breakfast or refreshment. We may sped about an hour fishing,” he said.

He added: Tourists can catch a few for cooking but we encourage on catch-and- release fly fishing fun. We don’t allow them taking trout away,” said Roberts.

Rainbow trout are coloured and their coloration varies widely in relation to gender, habitat, age and spawning conditions. It’s mainly used for food and is highly-regarded as a game fish.

Use of helicopters, he said, has always made it easier to restock the lakes, adding that the firm intends to take part in the exercise as the lakes do not have inlet and outlet water supply.

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ConservationMount KenyaFox TarnLake EllisLake Alice