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Fewer fish or fishy science? Industry, biologists differ over Lake Winnipeg walleye

New measures aimed at reducing the walleye catch on Lake Winnipeg have led commercial fishers to stop co-operating with Manitoba on species management and hire their own scientists to combat what they call dubious data.

Responding to what biologists describe as the deteriorating condition of walleye stock in North America’s second-largest commercial fishery, the provincial government started buying back walleye fishing quotas and announced that mesh sizes on gill nets will increase in size next year to allow smaller walleye, sauger and other species to escape and spawn.

Members of the fishing industry, who have long been at odds with the biologists, responded with a move the province didn’t expect: they voted to dissolve a co-management board with the province, set up their own collective and to procure research they hope will serve as a counter-narrative to the notion walleye — locally known as pickerel — are in trouble.

“We can get our own scientists and have our own research and data,” said Einar Sveinson, a fourth-generation fisher based in the lakeside town of Gimli and the president of the upstart Pioneer Commercial Fishers of Manitoba.

His gill nets have been full during the spring commercial fishing season, which comes to a close on Wednesday.

“Overall it’s been a terrific season, just like the last 10 or 15 years. There hasn’t been any difference, better or worse than any other,” he said.

Walleye, lifeblood of the lake

On Lake Winnipeg, commercial fishers head out before dawn every day of the season.

Accompanied by a flock of white pelicans, five Sveinson family boats speed out of Hecla Village Harbour, about 175 kilometres north of Winnipeg. The seven-metre skiffs are small enough to allow gill nets to be hauled up over their bows and pulled along their gunwales, revealing the catch ensnared below the surface of the shallow but enormous lake during the previous 24 hours.

Working as a team, Sveinson and his son Erik pull the net across the boat and carefully free each fish from the mesh before tossing the creatures into one of three sorting bins.

One bucket holds cisco, a freshwater member of the salmon family, better known as tullibee in Manitoba and usually smoked before it’s sold to consumers in Gimli or in Winnipeg. A second bin holds a jumble of species, including lake whitefish, yellow perch, goldeye and freshwater drum, the latter better known as sunfish in western Canada.

The third container holds the most valuable species of all. To commercial fishers, anglers and consumers in Manitoba, there is no more desirable fish than walleye, colloquially called pickerel.

On Einar Sveinson’s boat, there’s more walleye than any other species. Still, he’s not boasting about his catch.

“You should have come earlier in the season. You would have seen a lot of fish,” he said at Hecla Village Harbour on July 3, one week before the close of the spring window for commercial fishing in Lake Winnipeg’s southern basin.

“The season’s been very good, just like most of the others. I feel the industry is very strong and I’m very positive about the future.”

Sveinson, 38, is the fourth generation of his family to fish Lake Winnipeg. Erik, he hopes, will be the fifth.

Based in Gimli, the Sveinsons operate a small flotilla of boats as well as a processing facility that doubles as a retail outlet.

Walleye is the lifeblood of their business — but that blood is getting thinner, according to provincial fisheries regulators and independent biologists who are concerned about the future of the stock.

In a dynamic that’s played out around the world, commercial fishers and scientists have very different ideas about what’s happening below the surface of the water — and how the stock ought to be managed.

Sveinson, like many commercial fishers on Lake Winnipeg, doesn’t trust the opinion of scientists who spend their days sitting behind desks in Winnipeg.

“If you put it in the paper enough times, then people will start to believe it, correct?” he said. “This season has been terrific.”

Invasive species to blame?

Consumers prize pickerel for its mild, sweet flesh. Anglers love to catch them. And in an average year, commercial fishers in Manitoba deliver about 4.6 million kilograms of pickerel to the federal Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, which exports much of the catch to walleye-hungry customers in the U.S.

Manitoba Sustainable Development, the provincial ministry responsible for regulating fisheries, lists the walleye stock in fair but deteriorating condition. Provincial scientists say walleye are taking longer to mature, are ending up smaller when they reach adulthood and are being fished out at an unsustainable rate.

Commercial fishing, the biologists maintain, is not the main reason for declining walleye stocks. They also don’t point a finger at any of the inter-related environmental problems that afflict Lake Winnipeg, including the presence of too many nutrients within its waters, the growth of algae blooms as a result, or the recent arrival of invasive zebra mussels.

Instead, the biologists point to the near-disappearance of another invasive species from Lake Winnipeg.

For nearly two decades, Lake Winnipeg walleye thrived on a diet of rainbow smelt, a European species that first showed up in the lake in 1991. This oily prey fish allowed walleye to grow significantly, both in size and numbers, until the smelt population collapsed, possibly because of warming waters in Lake Winnipeg.

There are now so few smelt in Lake Winnipeg they don’t even show up in trawl surveys conducted by federal scientists, said Rob Olson, wildlife and fisheries director for Sustainable Development.

“We literally don’t find a trace of them any more in the north basin,” he said, adding the smelt have not yet been replaced by native prey species such as cisco and emerald shiners.

As a result, walleye are growing more slowly and are taking longer to reach sexual maturity than they did nearly a decade ago, Olson said. And too many female walleye are getting fished before they have a chance to mature, spawn and keep the species going.

“Since a peak of about 2008 and 2009, the catch has steadily declined for the fishers and I think anglers say their success has also declined,” Olson said.

“So that’s a concern for us and that’s partly why we’ve instituted some of the changes we’ve proposed for next spring.”

In May, the province bought back half a million kilograms worth of the quotas on Lake Winnipeg that allow commercial fishers to capture walleye, whitefish and sauger, a smaller fish believed to be in even greater trouble than walleye. Another round of buybacks is planned for the coming months.

The province also announced fishers will be required to use nets with larger mesh next year in an effort to allow more walleye and sauger to evade capture.

Rochelle Squires, the minister in charge of Manitoba Sustainable Development, said the province had no choice but to respond to a worrisome trend.

“Over a long period of time, you can extrapolate what that means and where that will lead you,” she said, sitting in her office in the Manitoba Legislative Building. “We felt we needed to address this so we could achieve some sustainability for the fisheries.”

Measures not enough — biologist

Buying back quotas and increasing the mesh size of gill nets are good first steps toward the survival of the fish stocks, but not enough to prevent further declines, said University of Winnipeg biologist Scott Forbes.

For years, he’s been warning of an impending collapse in walleye stocks and has criticized a quota system that allows commercial fishers to target any one of three species — walleye, sauger or lake whitefish — in order to maximize their catch and profits.

Even with the quota buybacks, Forbes insists, fishers are allowed to remove four times as many walleye from Lake Winnipeg than the population can sustain.

“There’s absolutely lots of fish in the lake. It’s just which fish are in the lake,” Forbes said outside the downtown Winnipeg university.

“Even when we’re harvesting unsustainably, it will look like there’s lots of fish in the lake,” he said, likening the walleye stock to a bank account with a high interest rate. “As long as you just take the interest out of the bank account, you can keep doing that year after year. That’s a sustainable fishery.”

Even larger mesh sizes will still result in more fish being removed every year than the lake can sustain over the long term, he said.

“Right now, we’re harvesting close to 60 per cent of the harvestable walleye population. The sustainable harvest is a little over half that,” Forbes said. “If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll drive the population into collapse, as it was driven into collapse in the late 1960s.”

Few fish, or fishy data?

According to the province, Lake Winnipeg’s walleye biomass — the total amount of the species in kilograms, not the number of individual fish — peaked in the lake’s larger and deeper northern basin in 2012 and has been declining ever since.

In the lake’s smaller and shallower southern basin, the walleye biomass peaked in 2014, the province said.

On May 9, provincial scientists planned to present their latest data, within a historical perspective, to commercial fishers and anglers at a science workshop.

One day before the workshop, the commercial fishers backed out. They voted to dissolve the Lake Winnipeg fishery co-management board, which saw the fishers work with the province to manage the walleye stock.

On May 21, a group of fishers led by Sveinson announced the formation of their own fishery-conservation group called the Pioneer Commercial Fishers of Manitoba.

“This collaboration was born when it was clear to fishers that unilateral decisions were made without consultation,” Sveinson said in a statement.

“There are thousands of jobs directly and indirectly that are impacted by changes to the industry, therefore consultation must be made with facts that are not driven by one side of the argument.”

The Pioneer Commercial Fishers have hired their own scientists and are promising to make what they find public.

“We’re going to have our own research and our own data and we’re going to bring it forward once our studies are complete,” said Sveinson, stopping short of saying the fishers want to manage the fishery themselves.

“We have to learn how to walk before we start running.”

Fishers, anglers and ‘eggheads’

Provincial officials have tried to strike a diplomatic tone ever since the fishers went off on their own.

“I completely understand their frustration,” the minister said. “They had never seen data coming from the Department of Sustainable Development. For years and years, they had asked for that information.

“That’s why we offered it up to them, and I understand they’re taking a look at it and they’ve got some extra eyes on that data.”

But a detente will take some effort. Two consultants hired by the province found fishers have little faith in the province and its fisheries data.

Brian Kotak, managing director of the Manitoba Wildlife Federation, said there’s a good reason for the distrust: the province doesn’t conduct enough fisheries science.

“I would agree with the commercial fishers when they say the science isn’t great, because there isn’t enough of it,” said Kotak, whose organization represents anglers.

“There needs to be more data that’s not related to the commercial harvest record. But the data we do have tells a compelling story, even the data is incomplete.”

Olson said he hopes the fishers will resume co-operating with the province. “I respect the fishers’ views about the lake. They’ve been fishing out there for more than a century,” he said.

One solution is to enlist fishers in the collecting of data. Indigenous Services Canada, for example, is considering hiring northern fishers to help gather data as part of a broader economic-development plan for Manitoba First Nations.

Federal officials declined interview requests, stating the work is in the consultation stage.

Forbes called this approach promising.

“If fishers participate in the collecting of the data, that’s a way to generate trust. They have a stake in the collection of science,” he said.

“When they see the numbers, they’re more likely to believe it if they’re gathering the data and interpreting the numbers rather than having some egghead in Winnipeg tell them what the numbers mean.”

For now, however, the fishers have had enough of the eggheads.

“I don’t want to get into this finger pointing, back and forth,” Sveinson said. “All I can say is that I feel very positive about our industry, and we’re looking forward to bringing forth our own data.”

Off the shore of Hecla Island, Sveinson and his crew spent about two and half hours removing the fish from all their gill nets. Their catch, packed with ice, gets trucked to their shed in Gimli for processing.

This far into the summer, most other commercial fishers don’t bother heading out anymore, due to diminishing returns. But the Sveinson operation has the capacity to keep going until the end of the season.

“I’m very fortunate. I’m fourth-generation, so there’s been lots of knowledge passed on to me over the years,” he said of his labour-intensive industry exposed to the whims of the weather, the environment and regulation.

“It’s like anything else: there’s good and bad and everything.”

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