Tories proceed to ecocertify Manitoba lakes

The Pallister government intends to ecocertify the fisheries on Manitoba's largest lakes, following through on a plan hatched during the waning days of the Selinger government.

Commercial fishers continue to oppose plan initially pursued during waning days of Selinger government

The Pallister government intends to ecocertify the fisheries on Manitoba's largest lakes, following through on a plan hatched during the waning days of the Selinger government. 1:45

The Pallister government intends to ecocertify the fisheries on Manitoba's largest lakes, following through on a plan hatched during the waning days of the Selinger government.

In the mandate letter handed to Sustainable Development Minister Cathy Cox, Premier Brian Pallister asked the River East MLA to "develop and implement a credible strategy to secure certification of Manitoba's commercial fisheries."

In 2015, environmental watchdog Seafood Watch issued a report declaring the fisheries on Manitoba's three largest lakes — Lake Winnipeg, Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipegosis — among the worst-managed in the world. The organization also urged consumers everywhere not to consume the fish caught on these lakes, the source of about 80 per cent of Manitoba's fish by weight.

The report alarmed the commercial fishing industry as well as rural communities around Manitoba lakes, as about 85 per cent of the $22 million worth of fish caught in this province every year are exported to markets in the U.S. and Europe, where buyers are beginning to give preferential treatment to fisheries certified as ecologically sound.

The large size of Manitoba's freshwater fishery — the second-biggest in North America by volume, after the Great Lakes — led the Monterey, Calif.-based Seafood Watch and its Vancouver partner SeaChoice to conduct the assessment, initially with the expectation this province would fare well.

Instead, the negative assessment led the Selinger government to announce a plan to ecocertify the fisheries on Manitoba's largest lakes. This means changing the way fish stocks are monitored, managed and caught to satisfy ecologists that Manitoba's fisheries are sustainable in the long term.

Sustainable Development Minister Cathy Cox says ecocertification will open up more markets to Manitoba fishers. (CBC)
During the 2016 provincial election campaign, the Pallister government promised to follow through on ecocertification after consulting with commercial fishers.

"I'd say there's a lot of positives to ecocertification. It's going to broaden their markets and it's going to enable them to sell their fish to different outlets," Cox said earlier this month in an interview in her office at the Manitoba Legislature.

To date, Manitoba's Waterhen Lake is the only freshwater fishery in North America to undergo ecocertification, which many commercial fishers view with suspicion if not outright contempt.

"Ecocertification is not going to preserve fish stocks. It has nothing to do with the fish stocks," said Bill Buckels, a Gimli-based commercial fisher who owns quota on Lake Winnipeg.

"This is a 450-kilometre-long lake. There's many different schools of fish in this lake. Managing a lake this size is absolutely impossible."

Buckels, like other commercial fishers, is upset Manitoba fishers may be forced to jump through new regulatory hoops while there are no similar barriers to fish and seafood imported from developing nations where there are no environmental standards.
Commercial fisher Bill Buckels is opposed to a provincial effort to ecocertify the fisheries on Manitoba's largest lakes. (CBC)

Buckels said he and other fishers doubt the veracity of the research that informed Seafood Watch's 2015 report. Lake Winnipeg has one of the oldest successful fisheries on the planet, he said.

"It seems there's a small number of fishermen who aren't properly informed and have no equity in the fishery who are calling for ecocertification," he said. "But for the most part, the fishers on Lake Winnipeg don't want ecocertification."

Fishers and ecologists have both complained, however, that the province has not invested enough resources into fisheries science. The 2016-17 Manitoba budget calls for the province to spend $900,000 more on environmental science overall than it did in 2015-16.

The cost of ecocertification has been estimated at no less than $250,000. The process will take years, Cox said.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.