Selective Harvest Preservation: The Future of Fishing in Canada - two roads diverge in the forest -

Reprinted with permission from Gord Pyzer from In-Fisherman magazine's 25th Anniversary Special Issue (Vol. 25, No. 3); 2000.

For the past half dozen years, the United Nations has voted Canada the best country in the world in which to live, based on education, health care, and quality of life. If fishing opportunities are ever added to the list of criteria, the distinction might as well be awarded on a permanent basis.

Canada is the second largest country on earth, behind only the new Russian Federation. It covers 10-million square kilometres, spans six time zones, and encompasses everything from warm, temperate Carolinian landscapes in the south - at a latitude parallel to northern California - to treeless tundra in the far North.

It is not surprising then, with its rich and abundant natural resources combined with a relatively small population of some thirty-million people, that many have speculated the 21st Century will belong to Canada. There would be little disagreement from anglers who have long and lovingly looked north for some of the most accessible and spectacular fishing opportunities. Friendly, Foreign, and Near has been the nation's tourism slogan for much of the past decade. But will the catch phrase apply in the future? And will the fisheries be there, in the same quantity and quality?

Robert Frost, the great American poet, wrote that when he came upon two roads in the forest, he took the one less travelled. And that has made all the difference. Canada is at a crossroads in the use and management of its fisheries. And that has made all the difference. Canada is at a crossroads in the use and management of its fisheries. How those fisheries will fare in the next century will depend on the path the country chooses. If it takes the traditional, well-travelled route with liberal limits and seasons, based on scant or no scientific data, against a first-come first-served tragedy-of-the-commons backdrop, with neither federal nor provincial fishery blueprints - let alone adequate funding - many managers believe it will fail miserably.

Ironically, Canada's blessing - an overabundance of resources - is also its curse. With so many lakes and rivers, it's as easy for politicians, promoters, and tourism agencies to sell, as it is for anglers to believe, that Canada's fisheries are inexhaustible. They are not.

One needs only to look to the Atlantic Grand Banks to see a poignant reminder. They supported the single, greatest fishery the world has ever seen. When Jean Cabot explored this area shortly after Columbus discovered America, his crew had difficulty getting water into the wooden barrels they tossed overboard. They were so full of cod. Within living memory, cod schools were measured in miles long, wide and deep. Today, the Canadian Federal Government is spending billions of dollars to pay east coast fishermen not to go to sea because so few cod remain. If we can deplete the single greatest stock of fish in the ocean, we can do the same to lakes and rivers.

A problem unique to Canada is the length of time needed to grow fish. in far northern Arctic waters, it's almost unimaginable. In magical places like Great Bear, Great Slave, and Kasba lakes, huge trophy trout prowl the depths. Fish weigh 40, 50, 60 or more pounds. These fish were born when Babe Ruth was smacking home runs out of Yankee Stadium. They were adults when the Second World War was raging. When we kill one of those behemoths today, on purpose or inadvertently, In-Fisherman magazine will be planning it's 22nd Century Special Edition before a trout born this year will have a chance to replace it.

Even much farther south, it takes time to grow a Canadian trophy. In most lakes and rivers, it's amazing how many 12-inch small mouth you can catch. Ten, twenty, thirty, or more a day pester you as you cast for bigger bass. These foot-long dinks, weighing about 14 ounces, have yet to spawn for the first time; and in most tournaments, they're barely long enough to weigh in. Yet these same small mouth, had they been born in Tennessee or Kentucky, would weigh over four pounds.

A typical Canadian lake trout lake grows trout and sustains harvests in the range of four ounces an acre a year. Conservation officers routinely see an entire year's trout production lying beside ice fishermen in a single afternoon patrol. Even the most productive bass and walleye waters grow fish at rates of only one to three pounds an acre a year. That's a far cry from the double digit pace of warm, southern American reservoirs where fish grow year-round. Being blessed with an abundant resource - albeit an extremely slow-growing one - carries another curse. When stocks are fished down or collapsed, they typically take decades if not centuries in the far North to recover.

The well-travelled-route theory of fish management says "We'll stock when problems occur." But stocking is rarely the answer. The west coast salmon fishery has proven that. The number and vitality of returning salmon has declined precipitously, in direct proportion to the number of wild fish that have not been allowed to spawn and the number of naive, inferior hatchery fish that have been planted in their place.

There are three other obstacles with the stocking-will-solve-our-problem solution. One is that a gullible angling public usually is only too eager to buy the simplistic dogma. The second is that as a management tool, stocking corrects problems of recruitment, not harvest and exploitation. Indeed, if hatcheries are the solution, then we should allow the forest industry to indiscriminately clear cut the forest as fast as they can saw - so long as they build tree nurseries and plant tiny seedlings to replace the massive giants they cut down. See the folly?

Finally, because Canada measures the number of her lakes, not in tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands, but in millions, having enough money to stock or restore more than a handful of fisheries is a fantasy. Not enough money is available in the free world for an endeavour of that proportion, let alone in a country where, as in most democracies, health care, education, welfare and even the military capture the political limelight - and the greatest share of the public purse. To be successful in the future, Canada will have to maintain and enhance her wild natural fisheries. To adopt any other approach will be to court disaster.

For these reasons, together with rapidly increasing leisure time, unsurpassed disposable incomes, and angling technology not thought of even five years ago - not to mention industrial development, global warming and acid rain - many fishery managers in Canada are wondering if they're not simply monitoring the decline. One of the most vocal is Dr. David Schindler.

Schindler, a Rhodes Scholar, is recognized as one of the world's greatest living freshwater ecologists. He is the person singly most responsible for proving the harmful effects of phosphates in the 1970s and 80s, lobbying for their removal, and restoring lakes and fisheries like Lake Erie to their former glory days. Schindler, who twice has been awarded the equivalent of the Nobel prize for ecology, warns about the fate of the Boreal Forest - that huge swath of the Canadian Shield holding most of the productive walleye, muskie, northern pike, bass and trout water.

According to Schindler, Canada's boreal forest has for over 65 million years functioned like the Amazon basin, albeit with far fewer plants and animals. He predicts that this ecosystem will collapse within the next 50 years. For anglers, he says that means lakes without fish, or fish too poisonous to eat.

For scientists like Schindler, the salvation of Canada's fisheries lies in choosing Frost's less-travelled road. Indeed, many fishery managers believe this is the only hope.

The less-travelled route is the road of special regulations - minimum, maximum and slot limits - that allow for the controlled, selective harvest of smaller fish, while protecting the long-lived prime brood stock - the selective harvest principles that In-Fisherman magazine popularized years ago. Examples abound: the lake trout regulations found throughout much of the Northwest Territories, northern Manitoba, and in places like Whitefish Bay on Lake of the Woods; the catch-and-release channel cat regulations that protect the magnificent giants of Manitoba's Red River; and the high minimum muskie length limits on waters like Lake of the Woods, Eagle and Lac Seul in Ontario.

But the examples are too isolated. And for them to work, anglers must cooperate. As soon as the muskie world discovered and descended on Lac Seul in the early 1990's, for instance - as it did a decade earlier on Wabigoon - the fishery changed. Within a few years, it was taking twice as long to catch a muskie half the size.

The fish are getting smarter, some folks say. Perhaps, but, I doubt this. For the past 25 years, I have lived and muskie-fished on Lake of the Woods, and the number of fish I've seen with major facial wounds, blind eyes, and oozing sores around split find - the result of improper netting and handling - has increased significantly in the past five years. Famed muskie angler Dick Pearson has witnessed the same thing.

For special regulations to work (and they do), good intentions aren't enough. The fish have to survive. That means using one treble hook, or preferably one or two singles, for casing and trolling muskies. It means cradling a caught fish in the water as you snap off the hook points, lickety split, with a pair of bolt cutters. And you don't drag the fish back to the resort to take ego shots in order to prove to everyone that you're a hero.

Similarly, when you find a school of big walleyes in 40, 50, or 60 feet of water, pull away and look for shallower fish. You don't jab needles into their swim bladders, fizz them, and honestly expect them to live. If only it were that simple. Likewise with giant crappies that suspend in deep water in winter. One ice hut operator in the Sabaskong Bay area refused to drill any more ice holes last winter. Too many dead slabs - a result of uneducated or unethical anglers - were clogging up the holes.

As the human population swells and fisheries deteriorate elsewhere, Canadian lakes and rivers will continue to feel the osmotic onslaught. Kevin Costner's character in the movie, "The Field of Dreams," was right when he said, "if you build it, they will come." In Canada's case, God already has. The pressure on many lakes far exceeds their capability to support fishing pressure under normal rules and regulations.

As more and more anglers flock to Canadian waters, tensions are bound to rise. They're already apparent in some border areas. Resident Canadian anglers are exerting tremendous political pressure to protect their fisheries and have formally allocated what they believe is their sovereign right. In areas like Northwestern Ontario, where non-resident visitors catch a disproportionate number of fish, resident anglers are digging in their heels.

Their concern is that as harvest meets and exceed sustainable levels, natural resource agencies will either cut seasons or limits - or worse yet, do nothing and let the fishery degrade. But since non-resident anglers harvest the majority of fish, residents view them as the problem. Differential seasons and limits, that favour residents over non-residents occurs across North America with hunting, is a reality looming on the horizon for fishing as well.

Ironically, though, as the resident/non-resident issue accelerates, the debate isn't being lost on Canadian First Nations. "Wait a second," First Nations leaders are saying, "You guys have it all wrong. The fish don't belong to either one of you. They're ours."

Unlike in the United States, where conquered tribes were forced to sign treaties following years of war, Canada's history of dealing with its aboriginal peoples has been more peaceful. Indeed, Canada never waged war with its aboriginal people. Instead, Canadian treaties are agreements of settlement and co-existence. For certain, they contain wording, negotiated as they were centuries ago, that is as unclear and ambiguous today as are the treaties in the United States. But just as in the U.S., the Supreme Court of Canada is in favour of the aboriginal interpretations than those of the federal or provincial governments.

Results have been profound. Recently, the Supreme Court of Canada decided that the Mi'maq tribes in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have a treaty right to lobster fish in the rich waters of the Canadian Atlantic without regard for federal or provincial seasons, limits or quotas. The decision coincidentally, was rendered when the lobster season was closed to protect the spawning crustaceans.

When First Nation fishermen rushed out to exercise what they viewed as their reestablished right, their boats and lobster traps were vandalized, buildings on First Nation reserves were burned, and violent confrontations between native and non-native fishermen flared. The scenes were reminiscent of the shield-wielding leather-clad riot police who protected Chippewa fishermen in Wisconsin while they speared spawning walleyes in spring.

As Canada moves into the new millennium, more aboriginal court challenges and uncertainty is certain. Already, legal notice of multi-billion dollar claims for compensation, as well as total control and management of some of Canada's most famous fisheries have been filed by First Nation people.

How it will all unfold is anyone's guess. If First Nation leaders, federal and provincial government, tourist operators, resident anglers, non-resident anglers, and industrial users can't part their vested self interest and cooperate, the resource will be sacked and pillaged, and everyone will lose.

On the other hand, if those with a stake can work together, the future could dawn brightly. To be certain, everyone involved in Canada's fisheries in the next millennium will learn the meaning the meaning of the ancient Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

Bass Master Classic winner Guido Hibdon stood on the stage at the annual Kenora Bass International tournament a few years ago and told the thousands of spectators what it was like fish on Lake of the Woods for the first time with his son Dion. "Every time I came around the tip of an island," he said in a hushed voice, "I expected to meet God."

For God's sake, let's hope we get it right.

Editor's Note: The views expressed in the above article are those of the author. The article is presented to stimulate your thinking and not reflect any position by NOTO.

This article was taken from pages 11-14 of NOTO's "The Outfitter" publication, Nov/Dec 2000 Issue


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