Lake Winnipeg fish species in 'grave peril' due to mismanagement, wildlife group says

Some Lake Winnipeg fish species are on the brink of extinction due to "decades of mismanagement" of the commercial fishing industry, says the Manitoba Wildlife Federation.

State of fishery not only detrimental to fish species but jobs and economy: wildlife federation

The province's quota system encourages intense fishing pressure on whichever species is most in demand at the moment, which has meant a heavier focus on walleye for many decades due to market prices, said the MWF. (CBC)

Some Lake Winnipeg fish species are on the brink of extinction due to "decades of mismanagement" of the commercial fishing industry, says the Manitoba Wildlife Federation.

"The issue of declining fish stocks in Lake Winnipeg is a direct result of commercial fishing policies that are not based on science," said Brian Kotak, managing director of the wildlife federation.

"The harvest levels are unsustainable."

Commercial fishers are allowed to catch a quota of any of the three main species — walleye, sauger and lake whitefish.

That system encourages intense fishing pressure on whichever species is most in demand, which has meant a heavier focus on walleye for many decades due to market prices, said the federation.

"The commercial catches of walleye from 2000 to 2010 reached record levels of over five million kilograms but were based on a house of cards — one strong year class in 2001, which could not last," said Scott Forbes, an ecologist at the University of Winnipeg.

"Once the 2001 walleye had aged out of the fishery, catches began to decline sharply, starting in 2012, and have fallen to under three million kilograms today."

The current state of the fishery is not only detrimental to the fish species, it does not bode well for the jobs that rely on it, nor the provincial economy, the MWF said. (Manitoba Wildlife Federation)

Smaller, immature walleye now make up half of the walleye catch by commercial fishers, the wildlife federation says. That means the losses are actually much greater when you take into account that many of them haven't had any offspring.

"About two-thirds of those medium-sized walleye that are still being harvested have not had a chance to spawn even once," said Forbes.

"Worse still is the harvest of baby walleye in small-mesh nets typically used to catch perch. Lake Winnipeg has lost most of its spawning walleye — the medium, large and jumbo-sized fish — and we are now propping up the fishery by taking baby walleye."

In 2017, three-quarters of the fish harvested were immature, the wildlife federation said.

"This practice is unsustainable and places the future of the fishery in grave peril," it said in a news release.

"The future for sauger, which for many years made up a significant percentage of the commercial harvest, is even more bleak. The sauger catch has declined more than 96 per cent from its peak in the first half of the 20th century and today faces possible extirpation from the lake."

The federation says the data comes from Manitoba Sustainable Development annual reports, as well as reports from the Lake Winnipeg Quota Task Force Review.

The current state of the fishery is not only detrimental to the fish species, it does not bode well for the jobs that rely on it, nor the provincial economy, the MWF said.

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires says the province takes the sustainability of Lake Winnipeg and its fisheries very seriously and has already taken steps to protect mature walleye populations, including setting new limits on net mesh sizes which were brought in during the 2017 season.

The province also conducted a voluntary quota buyback through the Fish and Wildlife Enhancement Fund, Squires said.

"We do believe that the sustainability of our fisheries and of our fish stock is paramount in this province, but it's very important that we listen to all the voices which include commercial fishers.

From Sept. 1 to Oct. 13, the department conducted a study of fish populations in the lake and found that the walleye population was down 15 per cent compared to last year, but whitefish and sauger were up 15 and 10 per cent, respectively.

"We just need to have a long-term data set that we can all agree on in order to make effective decisions that will protect the sustainability of our fishery," Squires said.

The Lake Winnipeg Fishery Co-Management Board and departmental staff are working on enhancing data collection to better monitor the health of the fishery, she said.

Still time to make it better: ecologist

The federation and its partners recently commissioned a study, conducted by Probe Research, on the economic impact of the recreational fishery for walleye on Lake Winnipeg.

The results found that over the past two years, there was $221 million in direct spending by anglers, adding $102 million to the province's GDP.

There was also $44 million in wages supporting more than 1,500 jobs and contributing $52 million in taxes.

"That's for one species and one lake," the wildlife federation said.

Forbes believes things can be turned around if the quota system is scrapped in favour of "a flexible, science-based system where harvest levels depend on the state of the fishery."

"There would be plenty of fish for everyone, with proper management in place," he said.

The Manitoba Wildlife Federation and its partners are holding a rally at noon on Tuesday, on the Manitoba Legislature grounds, to draw attention to their concerns.