Management Changes for Long-Term Sustainability of Lake Winnipeg’s Commercial and Recreational Fishery

By Carly Deacon, MWF Managing Director

Our group convened at the dock in Gimli, dressed in casual attire and overall, truly happy to spend the day out of the office.  Kevin Casper, Regional Fisheries Manager with the Department of Agriculture and Resource Development (ARD) danced around the boat slopping gear, nets and handing out slickers.  This was not a normal research day for him gathering annual index data for the Department on Lake Winnipeg.  This was a unique opportunity for the Wildlife and Fisheries Branch to explain the relevance of recent management changes to their Minister Blaine Pedersen, his staff, and to the Manitoba Wildlife Federation.

I would like to take a moment to reconvene on a file that MWF has classified as one of our advocacy priorities – the status of our Lake Winnipeg Fishery.  Back in January 2020, MWF was eager to see all the stakeholders reconvene and work collaboratively on a management plan that protects the resource, so our economy and resource users can continue to share the opportunities that the Lake Winnipeg Fishery provides.  We brought together representatives from MLOA, WAAM, FAAM, Hooked Magazine, CWT and Fish Futures to gather support from the angling community and strengthen communication around the importance and value that this fishery brings to our lifestyles, the economy and all Manitobans.  Every group around that table expressed a unanimous desire to work with all Lake Winnipeg stakeholders and committed to exploring any regulation changes brought forth by government that helps ensure a sustainable fishery. Well, Lake Winnipeg fishers, both commercial and recreational, can take a sigh of relief in knowing that the recent management changes will benefit the long-term sustainability of this incredible fishery. Here at the MWF office, we call these “wins”. In our books, these “wins” are due to the collaborative effort of passionate organizations, businesses, commercial fishers, the Wildlife and Fisheries Branch and our Minister, who just so happens to see the value this fishery brings to Manitoban’s lifestyles and livelihoods.  

It was refreshing to see Minister Blaine Pedersen in his element.  Prior meetings with the Minister were always formal, brief discussions at the Legislative Building.  The moment Blaine, Kevin and I stepped on the boat, the atmosphere was relaxed, engaging and insanely informative.  We left the dock that morning and ploughed across the lake to get some hands-on experience pulling nets and some quality time with Kevin. Kevin’s vast knowledge of the fishery and science he has collected on the lake was rather impressive.  Not to mention his ability to explain the science in a way that the Minister and I could understand. I knew right away that Kevin had a knack and the ability to relate to anyone – an extremely valuable asset on a Lake with so many stakeholders and invested resource users. Andrew Heald (son of Chris Heald, MWF Executive Directors) took one for the team and volunteered to be the muscle behind pulling up the nets.  Blaine and I assisted Kevin with removing the fish as Andrew hauled the net into the boat.  Over the next two hours, the Minister and I picked Kevin’s brain on how recent management and regulation changes have ensured sustainability of Lake Winnipeg’s Fishery, as well as how the commercial fishing sector is surviving significant impacts due to Covid-19.  

Win-Win-Win – 3 Regulation and Management Changes with Direct Benefits to the Fishery

I feel like I had a solid background and understanding on the need for the implementation of the first Lake Winnipeg Quota Buy Back Program, the new minimum mesh size changes and the recent changes in angler regulations.  However, this was the first time the science was explained to me as to how those changes have and will have direct benefits to the Lakes Walleye and Sauger populations going forward.  

Before we dive into some interesting science, I’ll quickly recap on the changes that were implemented. The first round of Quota Buy Back was completed in March 2019 where nearly 520,000kg of quota was retired from 89 fishers (127 individual quota entitlements purchased) for a cost of $5.4 million.  ARD implemented a new minimum mesh size of 3.5 inches in the South Basin and Channel of Lake Winnipeg on April 1, 2020.  In conjunction with the new mesh size on the South Basin, ARD put forward the new angler regulation establishing that Walleye and Sauger less than 35cm in total length must be released on Lake Winnipeg, the Red River and The Winnipeg River and their tributaries up until the first impassable barrier for fish. The combination of the angler regulation change with an increase in minimum mesh size will allow a greater proportion of smaller fish to grow to spawning size before they can be harvested, increasing the overall natural productivity of fish stocks. Win…Win…Win!  

2019 Index Data Collected on Lake Winnipeg

I will try not to get too far over my head on the science.  However, Kevin’s explanation on the impact of increasing the minimum mesh size to 3.5” from 3” has on improving the long-term sustainability of fish stocks in the lake is information we all need to hear! 

Walleye caught in 3.5” mesh nets are 32% larger in weight than Walleye caught in a 3” mesh net.  So, this means that roughly 30% less individual fish would be caught by a commercial fisher for the fisher to reach their quota.  Thus, 3.5” mesh nets will allow more fish to be unharvested and left to spawn.  A larger minimum mesh net size will also assist female Walleye to reach maturity.  50% of female walleye caught in the 3.5” mesh nets have reached maturity (able to spawn) compared to using a 3” mesh net where only 34% of female walleye will reach maturity.  What this means is the Walleye caught in the 3” nets are still growing. Once a Walleye reaches maturity, energy is put more towards spawning and less towards growing (growth rate slows down).  The benefits of using 3.5” mesh nets also apply to other fish populations such as Goldeye and Sauger that are harvested both commercially and recreationally.  

Blaine, Kevin and I continued to remove fish from the net as Andrew slaved away at the bow of the boat hauling in the heavy net.  It was fascinating to see the different species come in – Catfish, Goldeye, Walleye, Sauger and Whitefish.  There was not a silent moment in our conversation and Blaine and I seemed to share the same excitement anticipating what was caught in the next few feet of net. 

Manitoba Economy and Livelihoods Through Rough Waters

Our conversation led to a great discussion around our economy and the deep investments commercial fishers and local businesses have in the fishery.  The impacts of Covid-19 on both the commercial fishing sector and businesses thriving on tourism that depend on non-resident anglers will have and continue to experience significant impacts.  However, in relation to the commercial sale of Walleye, fish caught in the larger 3.5” mesh net sell for a higher price than fish caught in a 3” mesh net.  This means commercial fishers will earn more from their harvest in the larger mesh size.  Thankfully, the market has been historically strong for all Walleye harvested regardless of size. In fact, the majority of commercial fishers on Lake Winnipeg have expressed their support for the change in the minimum mesh net size to 3.5”.  They understand the benefits and are supportive of a long-term management plan that will bring sustainability to the fishery. 2020 will be a hard year for them though.  Two of the largest fish buyers ceased purchases of high-value Walleye in late March, largely a result of a decline in international markets due to restaurant closures.  The Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation has begun to purchase Walleye at a significantly lower price forcing many fishers to not fish in 2020 until conditions improve. Staff from the Wildlife and Fisheries Branch have been working closely with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on the implementation and advertisement of two federal financial support programs for net fishers and commercial bait fishers.  Fishers who expect to experience an income loss in 2020 of more than 25% (as compared to 2018 or 2019) due to Covid-19 can apply for funding through this program. 

Plans for Future Wins

Our day together on the water got better by the minute.  The four of us finished pulling the nets and made our way back to the docks to meet up with the rest of our gang.  Rob Olson, Director of the Wildlife and Fisheries Branch for ARD had his fishing boat tied off, rods, tackle, snacks and water all set up just waiting for our arrival.  We piled into his boat to troll along the shore of Lake Winnipeg and discussed plans for the Lake going forward. 

Currently the North Basin of Lake Winnipeg has a minimum mesh net size of 3.75”.  This will remain at this size and has been at this size for many years.  The new implementation of 3.5” in the South and in the Channel reduces the gap between the North and South basins.  All impacts will continue to be monitored through the Departments annual index netting program. 

Regarding a second phase of Quota Buy Back on Lake Winnipeg, the Minister explained that this initiative is being considered once consultation occurs.

We ended the day with a fish fry in the park prepared to perfection by our Executive Director, Chris Heald. The day was an exceptional combination of exposure to vast knowledge, interesting science and time well spent with strong individuals, all looking out for the betterment of this fishery.  With talented staff and biologists in the Wildlife and Fisheries Branch working under the leadership of a Minister that values fishing both from a recreational and commercial perspective….MWF left that day with nothing but confidence that we are on the right path to a sustainable fishery for everyone.
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