Commercial fishers on Lake Winnipeg tangle with province over requirement to use new nets
Larger mesh allows smaller fish to swim free; fishers already hurt by pandemic fear they will go belly-up
Commercial fishers on Lake Winnipeg's southern basin — already suffering from a pandemic-induced drop in demand for their catch — want Manitoba to put off a rule change requiring them to catch larger, less marketable fish.
The province has flatly refused, insisting the fishers have had a year to prepare for a move biologists say is needed to protect stocks of walleye, colloquially known in Manitoba as pickerel.
Since April 1, fishers in Lake Winnipeg's south basin have been required to deploy gillnets with mesh spaced 3.5 inches apart. That's half an inch larger than the nets they've been using for decades.
The 3.5-inch mesh allows smaller walleye, sauger and other species to escape and spawn. Commercial fishers say this will force them to catch fish too large for the Manitoba market at a time when the export markets — which accept larger fish — have all but dried up due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Every pound of fish — be it walleye or goldeye or sauger — that is consumed in Manitoba, I would say virtually every pound is eliminated from our catch," said Kris Isfeld, a commercial fisher based in Sandy Hook, a Lake Winnipeg community located between Winnipeg Beach and Gimli.
Isfeld usually sells almost all his fish within Manitoba. Commercial fishers who usually export most of their catch to the U.S. and other markets were counting on the Manitoba market as a pandemic backstop.
Commercial processors such as Winnipeg's Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation are not buying right now.
"We won't be able to catch goldeyes for our smokehouses [and] all the restaurants in the Interlake and all over Manitoba aren't interested in fillets that hang off both side of the plate," said Einar Sveinson, who runs a larger commercial fishing operation out of Gimli.
"Not only are we faced with no processing plant buying fish, such as Freshwater Fish [Marketing Corporation], but now we're forced to go out and use nets that we can't sell."
The commercial fishers claim they were blindsided by the requirement to catch larger fish, which would take effect when the spring commercial fishing season opens in late May or early June.
Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development Minister Blaine Pedersen said the fishers have been aware of the requirement to use new nets for more than a year.
"This is about the long-term sustainability of the fishing industry in Manitoba," Pedersen said in an interview.
The commercial fishers argue Manitoba fisheries officials have no scientific data on which to require the use of the larger mesh size.
The new regulation is one of the triggers that led the fishers to stop co-operating with the province on species management and hire their own scientists to combat what they call dubious data.
The provincial government also started buying back walleye fishing quotas. That led fishers long at odds with biologists — and fearful the province was siding with the angling industry over commercial fish harvesting — to vote to dissolve a co-management board with the province, set up their own collective and procure research they hoped will serve as a counter-narrative to the notion walleye are in trouble.
That research has not been completed. Sveinson accused the province of holding back data.
He and Isfeld say they are wary of spending money to purchase larger-mesh nets, only to catch fish they can not sell.
Pedersen said he's spoken to federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan about a net-buyback program that could help Manitoba fishers part with their old nets and buy new ones.
Pedersen said it remains unclear whether Manitoba fisheries will receive a penny from a $62.5-million kitty set aside by the Trudeau government to assist Canadian commercial fishers.
Isfeld said Manitoba fishers were hoping to be compensated to keep their boats in harbour this summer. He's calling it a "pay-not-to-fish program," rather than a buyback program, because the commercial fishers only want to sit out one season.
Pedersen said commercial fishers may also apply for the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit or $6,000 small-business loans.
He said commercial fishers must realize they are not the only segment of the economy in trouble during the pandemic.
"Whether it's your corner store or whether it's a large industry or whether it's the fishing industry, everybody is just in unprecedented hurt from this pandemic," he said. "It's not much consolation, the knowledge you're in a large crowd of businesses that are hurting, but they're not unique."
Isfeld said the new regulation could spell the end of a 125-year-old commercial fishery.
"If this mesh size sticks, if the province does this to us, guys want permanent buyouts, because we won't be able to catch the fish the market wants," he said.