• Jim Mosher

Too little, too late for ‘unified voice’ from lake commercial fishers? We're patiently waiting

Winnipeg Beach Mayor Tony Pimentel asks questions of a senior staffer of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation during a tour of the corporation's Transcona processing plant in the fall of 2014. Elected officials from the municipalities that rim Lake Winnipeg took part in the plant tour and the subsequent Q & A with senior operations staff.

— Jim Mosher file photo

The depredation of the Lake Winnipeg commercial fishery is proceeding in lock-step with an increasingly clear government agenda propped up ‘stakeholders’ who have no stake in this historic fishing sector.

The recently-announced a $5.5-million buy-out of 126 quotas from 90 commercial fishers is hung out by Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires as a step in ensuring the sustainability of the lake fishery. (See Endnote 1.) She won the day when Winnipeg news outlets responded to that announcement May 6.

Those news reports were perfect cover for the government and its allies in the angling sector and others. (2) The issue was the ‘long-term sustainability’ of the commercial fishery. The word ‘sustainability’ has cachet, for reasons we do not fully understand. Many people want foods that have been ‘sustainably harvested’; they want assurance of ethical harvesting; and so forth.

The buy-out permanently retired 525,000 kgs of the allowable harvest of 7.3 million kgs under the quota system. The buy-out moves the yardstick closer to the 5.3 million kgs the government believes is sustainable. And there are likely more buy-outs to come as commercial fishers see increasing uncertainty in the fate of a robust fishery that has for more than 100 years provided them sustenance and meaningful work.

Commercial fishers are viewed as easy prey. It’s been said that obtaining a consensus from them is akin to herding cats. Their interests do not lie in exposing what they as individuals or families are doing to maximize the bottom line and improve their lives. Fishers covet information about where they set their nets, their daily catches and the composition of species harvested. They are individualists who cherish a lifestyle others would find daunting.

The core of the government argument vis a vis the commercial fishery is that the Lake Winnipeg quota system is deeply flawed and has led to overfishing of a valuable resource to such an extent that pickerel stock is headed to an inevitable collapse. It’s a view proffered by fishery advisors under both the current and previous government who have consistently painted a bleak picture of the future of the Lake Winnipeg commercial fishery. It’s also a view shared by some fisheries scientists and their associates.

The Manitoba Wildlife Federation, which represents anglers and other harvesting groups, fully supports the government’s position. That may be no surprise because the federation’s former president Rob Olson recently served as deputy minister to Squires at Sustainable Development.

Enter Scott Forbes, an avid angler, who spoke three years ago at the federation’s annual general meeting. (2, 3) Forbes is an oft-quoted ecologist who works at the University of Winnipeg.

Forbes’s lengthy presentation to the federation's faithful invoked science and evidence without offering anything current in science or evidence. As you'll understand when you watch the You Tube narrative, he focuses on an eight-year-old government report on the three species quota system.

Much of what he spoke about was conjecture but it was enough to motivate the troops on the ground. Those troops and, famously, Forbes have not only won the ear of government but had former MWF president Olson in the driver-side passenger seat.

Basing decisions on evidence, in this case scientific evidence, is good governance. Basing decisions on sketchy, incomplete and anecdotal evidence is bad governance.

If it were not so serious, one would have to have found the links attached to the government’s release May 6 hilariously absurd. There is no explanation as to why the links were included with the news release but anyone who has studied the Lake Winnipeg fishery, presumably Forbes among them, would find them hilarious and baldly irrelevant.

One link takes the reader to that eight-year-old task force report on the Lake Winnipeg quota system. (4) Another links the reader to a nicely-formatted pamphlet from the federal Lake Winnipeg Basin Initiative. (5) It’s a layperson’s guide to which fish are threatened and those that are doing well. Unfortunately, there are but two citations in the pamphlet: one to an abstract of a paper in a 2012 edition of the Journal of Great Lakes Research and the other taking the reader to the provincial government web site.

There are also links to spreadsheet data about the results of index gill netting during the periods 1979-2003 and 2009-2018. The links to these numerical results come with an ominous warning: “This data is being provided for personal use, and the republication of this data, or its use in whole or in part in any published work, is subject to the prior permission of Manitoba Sustainable Development.”

We would publish the whole kit and kaboodle if it was even halfway meaningful. Maybe the province could put out its own pamphlet telling the story of index gill netting — if it’s as well produced as the federal non sequitur, they may have a winner.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. The province and its friends in the angling community are winning the day, even in the absence of vigorous scientific data and demonstrable dissemination of that data by working scientists without taint of bias.

The ball, as it has been for some time, is in the commercial fishers’ court. If they fail to address the mad rush to put them under, they will, individually and collectively, be drowned by the court of public opinion.

SUPPORTING THE LAKE WINNIPEG FISHERY: Among the reeves and mayors participating in the September 2014 tour of the Winnipeg plant were, from left front-and-centre, Don Forfar (St. Andrews), Tony Pimentel (Winnipeg Beach), Steve Strang (St. Clements), Rick Gamble (Dunnottar) and Brian Hodgson (Victoria Beach).

— Jim Mosher file photo


1.) The province uses the term buy-back to describe their purchase of individual quota entitlements (IQEs). We use the more appropriate term ‘buy out’ because the purchased quota is permanently retired, e.g. it ceases to exist.

2.) Winnipeg media respond to provincial release of May 6

CBC News Winnipeg, May 6:

Headline: Manitoba aims to restore fish supply in Lake Winnipeg by buying back quotas, changing net sizes

Lede: The Manitoba government is trying to replenish the fish stock in Lake Winnipeg by reducing the number of allowable catches, and changing the mesh size on fishing nets.


Winnipeg Sun, May 6:

Headline: Province sets smaller net size, new limits for Lake Winnipeg fishers

Lede: The minimum net size for commercial fishers on Lake Winnipeg is being changed, the province announced on Monday.


Global News Winnipeg, May 7:

Headline: Fishing changes coming to Lake Winnipeg to help restore fish population

Lede: The Manitoba government announced Monday that it hopes to restore Lake Winnipeg's supply of fish by implementing a number of new measures.


Winnipeg Free Press, May 7

Headline: Fish harvesters unhappy about new mesh size for nets

Lede: A larger mesh size for commercial fish nets being imposed by the provincial government is being condemned by commercial fish harvesters who operate in Lake Winnipeg’s south basin.


Winnipeg Free Press, May 18

Headline: 'Good management model' key for fishery

Deck: Scientist backs Manitoba's move to restore fish supply in Lake Winnipeg

Lede: The Manitoba government did the right thing when it paid millions to buy back fish quotas from local commercial fishers and set new limits on what kinds of nets they can now use on Lake Winnipeg, a Manitoba research scientist says.

And: "If you have a well-managed fishery, there is room enough from everyone, but you need a responsible system of management," University of Winnipeg fisheries biologist Scott Forbes said.

“’There is room for all the fishers if we can all get along and agree on a good management model.’”


3.) See the presentation "Lake Winnipeg fishery in decline":


4.) The report delivered to government Jan. 11, 2011 raises important questions about the three-species quota system. It was, however, unable to conclude whether the quota system should be replaced given scientific gaps in fishery and other data.

See: “Technical Assessment of the Status, Health and Sustainable Harvest Levels of the Lake Winnipeg Fisheries Resource”


5.) The pamphlet “Fish Populations: LAKE WINNIPEG BASIN INDICATOR SERIES” provides a single scientific citation but nevertheless draws attention to putatively science-based evidence. See the pamphlet at https://gov.mb.ca/sd/pubs/fish_wildlife/fish/indicators_fishpop.pdf

The link to an abstract of the 2012 paper, “Temporal and spatial patterns in pelagic trawl fish catches in Lake Winnipeg”, is available at


Interestingly, from what can be read in the abstract, this paper has nothing to do with fish stocks.

Instead: “To better understand patterns of temporal and spatial variation of fish assemblages in offshore waters of Lake Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada), midwater trawl tows were conducted near lakewide monitoring stations from 2002 to 2008.”

Editor's Note: People often complain about my use of 'big' words. 'Depradation' will be a poser to many. I've used it because it precisely the word to use in the context of this piece.

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