Commercial fishers on Lake Winnipeg claim fishy science led province to clamp down on industry
Research from Ontario suggests requirement to use larger nets has no effect on pickerel population
Another study commissioned by commercial fishers on Lake Winnipeg casts doubt on the science behind provincial changes to the lucrative walleye fishery.
Since 2020, commercial fishers in Manitoba have been required to use gill nets with larger mesh that allows smaller walleye, sauger and other commercially valuable fish species to escape and spawn.
This result is fishers now catch larger fish the restaurant industry deems less desirable. The new nets also represent a capital cost some fishers found tough to justify during the pandemic, when demand for walleye — colloquially known as pickerel — plummeted.
A study produced by the Anishinabek/Ontario Fisheries Resource Centre — a non-profit research organization based out of North Bay, Ont. — suggests the change to a larger mesh size "had no meaningful effect" on the volume of walleye or sauger in Lake Winnipeg.
This study also suggests Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development does not conduct enough research or monitor commercial catch in enough detail to warrant the changes to mesh sizes.
"Going forward, the effects of changes in gear regulations should be examined further" using state-of-the-art science, the Ontario researchers concluded.
"Until then, it cannot be ruled out that there is a risk of perverse, unintended consequences as a result of the change in [maximum mesh size] for fish and fishers."
This study follows an earlier study that suggested there was less than a one per cent chance commercial fishers overfished walleye in Lake Winnipeg in 2019.
Size change forced fishers to quit: Sveinson
The Pioneer Commercial Fishers of Manitoba, which commissioned both studies, said the mesh-size change forced fishers to quit the industry because they could not afford the new nets or couldn't make enough money using them.
"What it did was it took out a lot of the next-generation fishers getting into the industry," said Einar Sveinson, a Gimli-area fisher who speaks for the commercial fishers.
Standing outside the Manitoba Legislature Tuesday, he said some fishers took walleye quota buyouts before the mesh-size changes went into effect.
"You got a lot of your fishers that are at the end of their fishing career and instead of handing it down to their kids, they took the buyout instead of letting their kids take a chance at fishing with nets that don't work any more," Sveinson said Tuesday.
"The quota buyback, the mesh size change — all this is completely unnecessary."
Sveinson said the buyouts have made it difficult for some small fishing communities to operate processing stations because fewer commercial fishers are on the lake.
The fishing co-operative at Matheson Island has closed its station at Pine Dock in the Lake Winnipeg Narrows, while stations at Dauphin River and Grand Rapids, both in the north basin, are struggling to survive, he said.
Manitoba Liberal leader Dougald Lamont said the changes have had a greater impact on Indigenous fishers because buyout payments are lower further north.
"That ends up being discriminatory because it's far more likely that people in the north are First Nations," he said.
The fishers say they cannot get a meeting with provincial ministers responsible for fisheries. They claim Manitoba Wildlife Federation has undue influence over provincial policy, which they claim favours sportfishing.
In a statement, Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development said the province must update the way it manages commercial fisheries in order for those fisheries to be certified as sustainable.
The province also said it's developing a plan to manage the Lake Winnipeg fishery and improve the way it collects fisheries' data.