'Fishing is cool again': More Manitobans casting lines, but sustainability concerns surface for fisheries
Number of Manitoba sport fishing licences sold jumped by over 13% between 2008-17
Thousands more people are casting fishing lines into Manitoba lakes and rivers than there were a decade ago.
That may be a sign of a thriving recreational angling scene — but the rise in activity also underscores the need for a more robust commercial and sport fishery management strategy in places like Lake Winnipeg, where experts say they've urged government to implement one for years.
Recreational fishing licence sales rose by 13 per cent in between 2008 and 2017 — jumping from about 169,000 licences to 195,000, according to data from Manitoba Sustainable Development.
The department expects the final tally on licence sales for 2018 will break the 190,000 mark for the fourth year in a row.
There are a variety of explanations for why more people are getting lured in.
The growing popularity of ice fishing, the promotion and accessibility of urban angling, targeted marketing, and the growing appetite for niche regional fishing content online have all been important factors since a slump in licence sales in the 1990s, says a Winnipeg-based national fishing pro.
"Fishing is cool again," said Don Lamont, the editor of Hooked Magazine and a fishing columnist with the Winnipeg Free Press.
Sharing fish tales
To an extent, the fish have always marketed themselves. In the north, lake trout and northern pike have long been a draw. In the south, the Red River's reputation for producing massive channel catfish and walleye — and lots of them — initially spread through word of mouth.
The prospect of catching one of those monsters is attractive and in the fishing world, secret honey holes never stay secret long.
As protective as anglers can be about their favourite spots, they also take joy in getting others hooked. Some are storytellers proud of their catches and can't resist dishing about what bait they used and where they found the fish during their latest outing. Many are eager to listen.
But while word of mouth has traditionally helped that process along, the digital space has amplified the signal. Instead of sharing tips about a lucky lure or a hot spot with a small group of family and friends, thousands of anglers now go trolling for information online.
Today there are a number of Manitoba Facebook community groups focused around different elements of fishing culture. One group has over 8,000 members, and it's exclusively devoted to giving anglers a platform to sell, buy and trade used ice fishing gear to each other.
'Word is out'
Travel Manitoba picked up on that trend in recent years and has managed to exploit it to the benefit of local recreational fishing economies, says the president of the Manitoba Lodges and Outfitters Association.
"With Manitoba being almost like an unsung hero for a lot of years, I think the word is out now," said Paul Conchatre, who is also a former board member of Travel Manitoba.
"We are not the hidden gem anymore."
He credits the rise in fishing licence sales to an aggressive shift in how Travel Manitoba approaches the marketing of fishing and tourism online. A different funding model has made that renewed focus on marketing possible, he said.
Travel Manitoba became a Crown corporation in 2005. Between then and 2016 it received about $7.4 million in annual government funds, said president Colin Ferguson.
The provincial tourism agency has received a $12-million annual operating grant from the province each year since 2016 when the 96-4 funding plan was implemented, said Ferguson.
The new model sees 96 per cent of tax-based revenue generated by local tourism industries go to the province. The remaining four per cent goes to Travel Manitoba and is earmarked specifically for marketing local tourism, including fishing.
Ferguson said that has enabled Travel Manitoba to expand the number of staff devoted to promoting hunting and fishing from one to three, and their collective social media marketing IQ has grown.
Angling for anglers
In the same way anglers learn through studying the moods and movement of fish, Travel Manitoba's marketing team has found itself studying the changing temperaments and appetites of anglers online, like they were hungry schools of walleye.
They've noticed anglers can be particularly active online in the off-season, or between seasons doing research, said Ferguson. Searches about ice fishing have also jumped.
Ferguson said Travel Manitoba has learned to target these groups at key times through videos, ads and sponsorship deals with online industry personalities.
See one of Travel Manitoba's YouTube videos:
They've sponsored videos on YouTube produced by the fishing pros behind the Uncut Angling web series. That channel has 183,000 subscribers and often features Manitoba fishing destinations and pros in its videos, which have amassed nearly 33 million views since 2011.
Travel Manitoba also manages the 62-year-old master angler program and markets it to people looking to catch the fish of a lifetime. Having a master angler catch to your name — a designation reserved for big fish that measure in at a certain minimum length that differs by species — is considered a badge of pride.
The organization gave the program a digital makeover in recent years. In 2013, it became possible to register a master angler catch online, and that's how the majority of entries now come in, as opposed to through the mail.
It also implemented a mandatory photo-measurement requirement in 2017, which Ferguson said didn't initially go over especially well with older, less smartphone-savvy anglers. The number of master angler fish registered dropped that year, but has started to climb again.
More Manitobans fishing
At the same time, there have been more people from other provinces and countries visiting Manitoba in search of those big fish in the past five or six years.
There was a dip in visitors from the U.S. and other countries following the 2008 global financial crisis, but between 2013 and 2017 the number of nonresident licences sold increased 23 per cent.
Even as that trend continues, the bulk of the recent growth in licence sales is primarily being driven by more Manitoba residents taking up fishing, provincial data suggests.
Lamont said that could be a result of more people and families taking part in ice fishing, because it's more accessible and cheaper than renting or buying a boat for open-water fishing.
Out-of-towners typically spend far more on single outings, hiring guides, booking accommodations and transportation costs, said Conchatre.
All told, Conchatre estimates local and non-resident anglers have spent $221 million in the past two years on walleye fishing-related activities just in the south basin of Lake Winnipeg and Red River tributaries.
That's just targeting one species in one place in a province that is home to more than 100,000 lakes.
With that comes the suggestion fish stocks are under more pressure, between Lake Winnipeg's commercial fishing industry and more people fishing recreationally.
'Lake Winnipeg is at risk'
That's why Conchatre said he is encouraged by recent policy changes announced by Manitoba Sustainable Development.
"We are seeing early warning signs the sustainability of fisheries resources in Lake Winnipeg is at risk," Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said in a March 11 statement.
Last month, the province offered a voluntary quota buyback option for commercial fishers, giving them the opportunity to sell off their individual allowable catch limits to the province. Sustainable Development plans to retire those entitlements to reduce the commercial catch of walleye, sauger and whitefish taken form Lake Winnipeg every year.
The province also vowed to consider increasing recreational fishing net mesh sizes to allow smaller walleye and sauger to wriggle through, so they can go on growing and spawn before ending up on the dinner plate. A similar change to the minimum length of fish recreational anglers can keep is also being considered.
We don't actually manage the walleye in Lake Winnipeg. That's the problem.- U of W biologist Scott Forbes
Conchatre and University of Winnipeg fisheries biologist Scott Forbes say the changes are a step in the right direction, and the issue is something people like them have seen government after government fail to act on until now.
But Forbes said more still needs to be done to protect Lake Winnipeg's fishery.
"We don't actually manage the walleye in Lake Winnipeg. That's the problem there," he said, adding the issue is in part due to consistent funding cuts to the Sustainable Development ministry (formerly Manitoba Conservation) going back to the 1990s.
He referenced a scathing 2015 report by the sustainable fishery organization SeaChoice, which gave fish from Lake Winnipeg, Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipegosis "do not buy" ratings and said the lakes are "some of the most poorly managed fisheries in the world."
"I've got to tell you, I'm pretty hard-pressed to dispute the argument," Forbes said.
"There's no way to reduce fishing pressure on them in the management system we have. It's extremely inflexible, it's not based on science and it has been based primarily on political expedience for the last half century or longer."
'Manitobans enjoy their fish'
Forbes said Manitoba has one of the highest participation rates in terms of fishing licence sales per capita in Canada.
"Manitobans enjoy their fish," he said.
But in terms of the impact on Lake Winnipeg fish populations, recreational anglers harvest a relatively small amount compared to the commercial industry.
PHOTO GALLERY | See Manitoba ice fishers in these December 2015 photos:
Forbes said recent data suggest commercial fishers harvest three million kilograms of fish from Lake Winnipeg annually — 20 times the amount sport anglers do every year. A previous economic survey of the lake that he was involved in also found recreational fishing is worth three to six times what the commercial fishery is to Manitoba's economy, he said.
"You do the math, and the single walleye which is taken in the recreational fishery is worth anywhere from 80 to 120 times what that same walleye is worth in the commercial fishery," said Forbes.
'The time is now'
Fishing pro Lamont agrees that in light of the increasing interest in fishing, Lake Winnipeg's fishery is badly in need of a new management system and robust science-based monitoring program.
He's also happy with what he sees Sustainable Development doing, and the fact the ministry is trying to involve scientists like Forbes along with commercial, sport and Indigenous fishers in the discussion.
Lamont thinks the best solution would be to create a science-driven Crown corporation dedicated to managing Lake Winnipeg and Manitoba's fish like a business.
"That way, we can make sure we protect our resource and still reap the rewards of all that extra return on investment, all that tourism money, all the happy anglers and happy hunters that come back from Manitoba saying what a great resource it is," he said.
"The time is now, before some of our resources — and not just Lake Winnipeg — are no longer good for anybody."