• Jim Mosher

‘Early warning signs’ prompt changes in Lake Winnipeg fishery


Fishers return from a bountiful morning catch.

— Jim Mosher File Photo


Commercial fishers who harvest fish from Lake Winnipeg have 10 days to sign-on to a voluntary quota buy-out, Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires announced late yesterday afternoon.


Lake Winnipeg has a three-species quota system that regulates the harvest of pickerel (walleye), sauger and whitefish. The value of an individual quota varies based on its allowable weight of harvest.


The provincial plan to purchase individual quota entitlements is one of a series of three provincial initiatives to create a sustainable lake fishery, Minister Squires said.


Another measure involves a 30-day consultation with affected fishers about a regulatory change that would establish a 3.75-inch minimum mesh size in the South Basin of Lake Winnipeg. (Some South Basin fishers use a mesh half-an-inch smaller, the minister explained later.) The third in the series involves a reduction of the minimum size of walleye caught by recreational fishers to 35 centimetres.


“We’re seeing early warning signs that the sustainability of our fisheries are at risk, particularly in Lake Winnipeg,” Squires said March 11. “To address these very serious concerns about the sustainability of our fishery, we have taken three measures. One is the voluntary quota entitlement buy-back.”


The minister said Lake Winnipeg has 7.3 million kilograms of quota allotted to approximately 500 commercial fishers. “We know that we need to reduce that substantially,” she said. “We know that what will be a sustainable yield is somewhere around 5.3 million kgs. of three quota species. So today we’re offering a voluntary quota buy-back for commercial fishers to consider.”


The minister hopes the quota buy-back will retire between five and eight per cent of the current quota — or anywhere between 350,000 kgs. and 650,000 kgs. In that range, the reduction will still fall short of the 2 million kgs the province believes needs to be shaved from the harvest. However, it will be permanent because the quota will no longer be available to be sold to others, including those who would like to enter the fishery.


Squires says the introduction of a new minimum mesh size in the South Basin will allow young fishes to grow.


“We’re hoping that both commercial and recreational fishers will weigh in and share their thoughts,” Squires said of the change in minimum catch size. “What happens with these small three-and-a-quarter mesh sizes that are currently being used by some fishers on the South Basin is that we’re catching the spawning walleye and sauger before they’ve had a chance to spawn. That is definitely affecting the fish sustainability of the fish stocks.”


New measures will also be introduced for recreational anglers “for the first time ever, that they cannot keep any walleye or sauger that doesn’t meet the minimum size restriction of 35 cm,” the minister said.


“We want them to make sure that these fish remain in the lake so that they can spawn and help ensure that we’ve got sustainability at the forefront of our fishery. Currently, there is no minimum lake restriction for anglers when it comes to walleye and sauger on the Red River and other Lake Winnipeg tributaries. This would make angler size retention consistent with many other water bodies where minimum size limits are in place.”


WHERE'S THE DATA?


We asked Squires about the data she used to support the position that the harvest is not sustainable.


"Our department has worked collaboratively with other user groups," she said, citing environmental groups and the Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). "We work very collaboratively with other stakeholders to come up with what we think would be a long-tern sustainable yield."


She said a DFO report expected to be released soon would support the province's push to establish a data-based approach to maximum sustainable yield (MSY) on Lake Winnipeg and, presumably, generally. She says the report reflects the contention that 7.3 million kgs. is not sustainable.


"Their data certainly does back up our data. We have our data from our staff and others through our index netting," the minister said, adding our figure regarding MSY "is a figure that many people agree on."




QUOTA BUY-BACK TIMELINE


March 11: Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires announces a buy-back of individual quota entitlements. This measure was recommended in a report by the fisheries envoy, shortly after the province opened the market to commercial fishers.


March 21: Deadline for fishers to provide an expression of interest in a voluntary buyout. Fishers have been contacted about the information required, including quota size and price sought.


March 25: The department will respond to fishers to acknowledge their intentions. There is no need to commit to a buy-out before a formal offer.


March 31: Province will be making offers for the fishers’ approval.


LOOKING IN THE REARVIEW


January 2011: “Technical Assessment of the Status, Health and Sustainable Harvest Levels of the Lake Winnipeg Fisheries Resource” prepared by the Lake Winnipeg Quota Review Task Force is delivered to the provincial government.


The overarching and defining conclusion was that a dearth of data makes recommending a change to the quota system problematic.


“The biological assessment of fisheries has been a topic of scientific interest for over a century and data are the foundation of any such assessment. We have found significant uncertainty in the fishery data of Lake Winnipeg, and as a result, absolute estimates of current or past biological productivity, proper application of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) methods, and determination of reference points are not possible with the data that are currently available. Moreover, the uncertainty in the fishery data of Lake Winnipeg is exacerbated by environmental uncertainty from factors such as exotic species, nutrient loading and climate change. Thus, the basis of our conclusions is limited to considerations of relative productivity and stock health based primarily on catch rates in the index-net survey and commercial fishery, limited analyses of biological variables of quota species and input from fishers,” the technical assessment concludes.


August 2016: Province announces it is withdrawing from the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act (1969), which gave exclusive right to the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation to market the three species of commercially-harvested fish. This would usher in an open market for commercial fishers.


May 2017: Fisheries envoy releases a report about the future complexion of the commercial fishery. A key recommendation was that the province consider a buyout or retirement of existing quotas. The report also recommended eliminating the three-species quota system as the province moves toward eco-certification.

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