• Jim Mosher

Dearth of data stymies Lake Winnipeg fishery management

The future of Lake Winnipeg is snared in a gnarled knot of mistruth and hyperbole.

The principal fact is that there’s precious little data about the state of our dear lake that would justify the proclamations of its impending ecological death — prognostications that are at best facile and worse self-serving.

The fractious debate about whether the harvest of the lake’s fish is sustainable is a case in point — and an unfortunate diversion. In one corner, commercial fishers. In the opposite corner, recreational fishers (e.g. anglers). Commercial fishers talk about their hard-won, generations-long understanding of the ups-and-downs of the harvest. Anglers point to the rapaciousness of the commercial fishery, suggesting it is hoarding the lake’s bounty.

Both sides have anecdote as their ally. Evidence is missing in action, as proponents of both sides agree.

There is no credible data to back one side or the other. The anglers claim their numbers show that the fishery is not sustainable while commercial fishers talk about the variation of the harvest over time. A task force studied the lake’s commercial fishery in 2011 to determine whether management of the commercial fishery should be changed. Its final report concluded that there was not enough data to argue for replacing the existing quota system. (See End Note 1.)

“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,” the task force report concluded.

The economic value of the Lake Winnipeg commercial fishery can be reasonably pegged at $300 million annually. (See End Note 2.)

Quantitative ecologist Scott Forbes, an avid angler and frequent contributor to the Winnipeg Free Press op-ed pages, suggests the value of the recreational fishery province-wide is $400 million. (See End Note 3.)

(It’s noteworthy that the suggested commercial fishery number is lake-only, while the other is attributable to the angling fishery across the province.)

Never mind. The numbers are largely spun and incredibly unreliable.

The fact, as agreed by both gently-warring parties, is that there is not enough data to hang one’s hat on.

That central problem cannot be ignored.

In the absence of fulsome data, no decisions about Lake Winnipeg can be made.

That simple truth should be a touchstone when it comes to mediating commercial-recreational fishery interests, each side of which must be respected.

The spat between commercial fishers and anglers is a side-story. We miss the larger picture — one that spans across the entire spectrum from the higher-order fishes to the bottom-dwelling creatures who are an underlying part of the lake’s foodchain. The deeper story is not the local debacle, rather it’s entwined in the issues of ecological health and the broken data chain.

Media have a part to play in educating the public about the lapses in data. Instead, many media outlets have slavishly glommed on to the ‘sexy’ and ‘sensational’, e.g. Lake Winnipeg is dying, suffocating and so forth.

If the lake is dying, it is because it has been suffocated by an absence of data about its biota, its fishery, and all the factors that affect its ecological health.

Unfortunately, scientists are not helping. Many academics have abandoned the lake in favour of well-funded research elsewhere. They invariably go for ‘the big fish’ elsewhere. Boots-on-the-ground Lake Winnipeg scientists, however, while disparaging their cousins in academia and media in general, have finally turned the corner.

True lake scientists, not those in cloistered ivory towers, now say that the focus of research should be Lake Winnipeg, and not its vast almost million-square-kilometre basin. (See End Note 4.)

This conclusion is a breath of fresh air — one that senior governments should appreciate. We need Lake Winnipeg science, not basin-wide science, though there are salutary benefits to the latter.

Successive federal governments, however, have opened the spigot to funding broad-based freshwater science even though the long-time Lake Winnipeg scientists have been saying for decades that they need to be funded for their work. A Lake Winnipeg researcher with whom I spoke years ago said she had many samples she could not analyze because she was not funded to do so. (Hey, even scientists need to be paid for their work.)

We need a data-driven process that thoroughly examines every aspect of the Lake Winnipeg ecosystem, not to the exclusion of its basin but simply to the inclusion of our great lake’s health.

Researchers have families and mouths to feed. Scientists may be the most significant part of the lake’s intellectual foodchain. Scientists believe they can help but they need focussed funding and a focussed, multi-component strategy to do that.

When there’s more money spent on research in the Arctic, were you a scientist, where do you suppose you would go?


1: “Technical Assessment of the Status, Health and Sustainable Harvest Levels of the Lake Winnipeg Fisheries Resource”; prepared for the Minister of Water Stewardship by the Lake Winnipeg Quota Review Task Force.

2: “Lake Winnipeg fishery neglected, under-valued”: https://lakewinnipegbulletin.wordpress.com/lake-winnipeg-fishery-neglected-undervalued/

3: “Manitoba fisheries foundering”: https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/manitoba-fisheries-floundering-500452981.html

4: “Lake Winnipeg: State of Science II: Toward the Integration of Lake Science and Management”: http://www.lakewinnipegresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/2015-LWRC-SOTS-II_Report_Final.pdf

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