Killing Lake Winnipeg’s Golden Goose


Anglers on Lake Winnipeg enjoy an ice-fishery like no other. Target Walleye last fall named it North America’s top ice-fishing destination. The reason? The chance to catch trophy walleye, the hungry greenbacks, many 10 pounds and over, that roam the lake under the ice.

But will this last?

In recent years commercial fishers on Lake Winnipeg have been chasing rapidly declining walleye populations and have begun to target these jumbo fish. This is very bad news for anglers and walleye in Lake Winnipeg. It is killing the geese that lay the golden eggs.

The trophy walleye in Lake Winnipeg are the remaining members of a record year-class dating from 2001. If the commercial fishery continues on its current course, we may never see its like again.

Anglers on Lake Winnipeg and the Red River take roughly 5% of the walleye catch. The commercial fishery by comparison takes over 90%, the indigenous fishery the remainder. The commercial fishery is governed by a multi-species quota system. The quotas are for a fixed quantity of fish that can be filled with any of three species: walleye, sauger and lake whitefish. Commercial fishers target whatever species is most valuable at the time, and for more than half a century that has been walleye.

As recently as 2011 and 2012 the commercial fishery had never been better. The catch of walleye soared to unprecedented levels — over 5 million kilograms annually — making up the bulk of the roughly 7 million kg quota for the lake. But since those peak years, the walleye catch has fallen dramatically and not for lack of trying. In the most recent year the walleye catch was down nearly 50% from its peak and set to fall further.

Now fishers desperate to make quota have turned to setting large mesh (>6”) gillnets to catch the remaining walleye from the 2001-year class. These jumbo walleye are worth less to the commercial fishers than the ‘mediums’ that fish processors desire, but these 1-2 kg medium walleye have been overfished and are now scarce. Commercial fishers now struggle to fill quota with walleye.

The trophy-sized walleye from the 2001 year-class are almost all female and produce more and better quality eggs than smaller fish. They are a critical component of the spawning population, and without an adequate population of spawners to replenish the stock, there is no walleye fishery.

The Lake Winnipeg walleye are characterized by occasional strong year classes that make up the bulk of the population. There have been three such year classes this century: the very strong 2001 year class; and weaker year classes in 2005 and 2011. And not much else.

The Lake Winnipeg commercial walleye fishery soared toward the end of the last century and the early part of this century. The underlying reasons were two-fold. First, the cultural eutrophication of Lake Winnipeg with rising phosphorus levels mainly from agricultural runoff and cities. This has increased productivity in the lake. Second, the rise in walleye populations coincided with the arrival of an introduced species, the rainbow smelt. The irony of this is that the thriving walleye populations owed their success to the two worst sins of freshwater ecology: pollution and invasive species.

Recent changes in the ecosystem, such as the arrival of zebra mussels, do not bode well for walleye. But most importantly, rainbow smelt populations have since 2011 collapsed. This is important because the smelt, which first arrived in 1990, had become the chief forage species for walleye, especially in the lake’s north basin. With the collapse of the smelt, the walleye are literally starving. The condition of the fish is poor and growth recently has been negative. That is a very bad sign.

Walleye populations in Lake Winnipeg are now in rough shape and can’t sustain the same harvest levels from the commercial fishery that they did just a half-decade ago. But the fishery managers have no way to reduce commercial fishing pressure.

The commercial quota is fixed and paid for. Taking away quota takes away the ability of commercial fishers to make a living. The quota system was introduced in the early 1970’s when established fishers were given a fixed quota and in the 1980’s the right to transfer it to others. The goal then was to restrict entry to the fishery, and to enter the fishery now, one needs to buy quota. On the south basin of the lake, quota is worth about $11 / kilogram of fish, giving the right to catch 1 kilo per year. Quota is worth less on the north basin. The current value of the quota on the entire lake is about $60 million.

In 2008 the Minister of Water Stewardship called for a review of the quota system on Lake Winnipeg. Though never stated publically, the intention was for the task force to recommend an increase to the then quota given the rising commercial catches on the lake.

That is not what happened.

The expert panel indeed noted that walleye catches were at record highs, but also noted that these were driven by the single strong 2001-year class. When the 2001 fish disappeared, so would the fishery. Concern about the potential for overharvest lead the task force to quite sensibly recommend breaking up the overall quota of 6.5 million kg into three separate quotas for walleye, sauger and whitefish. The quota for walleye was to be set at 3.65 million kg.

That was not done and two things happened.

First, not getting the expected recommendation to expand quotas, the task force report was shelved by the government of the day. They did not implement its recommendations. The report languished until 2015, when SeaChoice, a consumer watchdog group, used the task force findings to call out the Lake Winnipeg commercial fishery as the worst managed in the world. All that SeaChoice had to do was point out the many shortcomings of management identified by the quota review task force.

Second, the catches of walleye continued to soar to unsustainable levels of over 5 million kg in 2011 / 2012. Fished too hard, the result was predictable. Lake Winnipeg walleye started to collapse. The signs were obvious, especially when the Minister of Conservation extended the fishing season in 2015 when commercial fishers complained they couldn’t make quota.

If we continue down this path, there is a real risk that we could be headed for a collapse of Lake Winnipeg walleye, as happened on Lake Winnipegosis in the 1960’s. That stock collapsed due to overfishing, and despite continued efforts at rebuilding, remains collapsed today. Without a mechanism to control fishing pressure on Lake Winnipeg, there is no possibility of sustainable management. The logical solution – the only solution – is to reduce the quota on Lake Winnipeg.

This won’t be cheap and it won’t be easy. It will require a buyback of quota from commercial fishers. For some commercial fishers, their quota is by far their most valuable asset, their life savings. We shouldn’t vilify them for trying to make a living under the current rules of the system. It is the rules of the system that must be changed if we are to ensure the long-term health of the fish and fishery.

Should a buyback program be implemented, it would obviously work best if voluntary. And it must be done at full and fair market value. Just as important, it must also be permanent. Once retired, the quota must stay retired.

The previous provincial government, not getting a task force recommendation to increase quota, just went ahead and did it anyway. Over the last decade the quota on Lake Winnipeg was increased by nearly 700,000 kg. A bad problem got worse.

If there is a quota buyback program, there will need to be legislation to ensure it is not just given away again by a government seeking cheap votes. Who should pay for a quota buyback? The provincial government effectively privatized a public resource when they created the quota system. Our Lake Winnipeg walleye were effectively ceded to a relatively small group of individuals by the government of the day. That should never happen again.

The onus is on the provincial government, therefore, to correct this earlier mistake. But one would have to be obtuse not to notice the current government’s lack of enthusiasm for more spending right now. Could anglers play a role? Maybe. Perhaps a voluntary surcharge on angling licenses could be used to build a quota buyback fund. Or something different with the same goal might be designed. An incentive for anglers could be the creation of a commercial fishing exclusion zone as quota is bought and retired from the fishery. This idea is not original and it is not new: it was posted in an online angling forum a couple of years back. But it is now perhaps very timely.

An obvious place to start would be the mouth of the Red River. The south basin of Lake Winnipeg is about a quarter million hectares in area. At the current quota level, one hectare of lake yields about 7.4 kilograms of fish. Each hectare of lake to be ‘retired’ from the commercial fishery would cost about $80. A half million dollars could therefore ‘buy out’ 2% of the south basin. If you drew an eastward line starting at Chalet Beach Road on the west side of the lake, the water south of it would represent 2% of the south basin.

For $2.5 million, one could take the boundary as far north as Winnipeg Beach. Everything to the south would be excluded from the commercial fishery. For commercial fishers, with reduced fishing pressure on the lake, those remaining could more easily make their quota. For anglers, it would protect the mouth of the Red River, and reduce the commercial catch of not only walleye, but other valuable species as well, such as channel catfish, sauger and drum. It’s a concept worth thinking about.

Anglers would have the chance to invest in their own future on Lake Winnipeg, and ensure that future generations could enjoy the fishing opportunities we enjoy today.

(Reprinted from the February issue of Hooked magazine)


About Author

Scott Forbes is an ecologist at the University of Winnipeg who works on fish and wildlife. He and his students participated (pro bono) in the ecocertification of the Waterhen Lake fishery.

Leave A Reply

Hooked Magazine Newsletter

  • Get more fishing stories
  • Get special offers
  • Did we mention more fishing stories?