Extreme winter puts $100M Great Lakes fishing industry behind schedule

Some commercial fishing boats remain frozen in 30 cm of ice on Lake Erie alone, putting crews weeks behind schedule.

Fishermen fret over losing out on sales during Lent

Don Rutgers is the owner and captain of the William T.R., a six-man fishing trawler that's currently trapped in about 30 cm of ice in Kingsville, Ont. (CBC)

The commercial fishing season is weeks behind schedule because boats remain lodged in ice formed over the course of the second consecutive extremely cold winter on the Great Lakes.

Don Rutgers is the owner and captain of the William T.R., a six-man fishing trawler that's currently trapped in about 30 cm of ice in Kingsville, Ont.

"Ideally, we like to be out, approximately the first week of March," Rutgers said. "Every day counts for us. Markets, with Lent coming in, are pretty demanding and markets are strong now and we'd like to get going."

Fish is often served on Friday nights during Lent, which started Feb. 18 and ends April 2 this year.

Until the ice melts, those markets will go untapped.

There is also an annual quota to fill, so every day lost in the late winter and early spring means extra work for fishermen in the fall.

"There's only so many days in the year and if you start losing out on two or three weeks at the start of the year, that's less days you have to fill your quota for the remainder of the season," Rutgers said.

The Great Lakes sustain a $100 million commercial fishing industry, according to the federal government.

Record ice coverage

Lake Erie's ice coverage reached 96 per cent this year and remains above 80 per cent.

Greater ice coverage last year delayed the 2014 commercial fishing season by nearly six weeks. Once fishing started, it was so good that 2014 went down as one of the strongest years in recent memory.

That could happen again this year but experts say future years could be in trouble due to consecutive years of extreme cold winters and high ice coverage.

Researchers at the University of Windsor's Great Lakes Institute are keeping a watchful eye on how fish are coping with two cold winters.

"I think the effect will not be seen directly this year within their catch because they're after fish that are two, three and four years old,"  professor Doug Haffner said.

Haffner said he will have a better idea once this year's spawn reaches maturity.

One thing is already clear, he said.This year's fish will have to adapt to an increasingly unpredictable environment.

"These are the types of changes we're seeing with climate change, it's not that we're seeing a gradual progress towards one state to another state, we're seeing these high periods of oscillation or variability," Haffner said.

Lake Erie ice coverage began its current period of extreme fluctuation in the late 90's.

"Everything's always been pretty unpredictable in this industry, so, every year is different," Rutgers said.


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