The Future is Now! What Lake Winnipeg eco-certification means to anglers.

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Manitobans were told recently by two ecocertification agencies, Seafood Watch based in California and Sea Choice in Canada, that fisheries on our great lakes were among the worst managed in the world. The sins included management practices that are badly designed and based on poor data.

Why should anglers care what ecocertification agencies think of our commercial fisheries? They should care because it is a shared fishery resource. Bad management means fewer fish for all.

What is ecocertification? It is a consumer-driven process that guarantees fish at the grocery store were taken sustainably. It grew out of recognition that the majority of the world’s commercial fish stocks were overfished, many to the point of collapse. The East Coast cod fishery was a textbook example.

Ecocertification takes the decision making out of the hands of the politicians and replaces it with a scientifically-based framework subject to an independent third-party review. And it works because it creates an economic incentive for good management. The first and best known ecocertification agency grew out of a collaboration between the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, a giant consumer goods company. It resulted in the creation of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in the late 1990’s.

The MSC is the gold standard for ecocertification today, though there are others such as Seafood Watch and SeaChoice who borrow heavily from MSC methodology. The MSC provides a blue label for ecocertified fish stocks. Others use watch lists of recommended and non-recommended fish.

Manitoba’s has two ecocertified fisheries for walleye (pickerel) and northern pike, both on Waterhen Lake. These were the first freshwater fisheries to be ecocertified in North America. A team of independent auditors reviewed the biological data, the management practices, and consulted with stakeholders. The MSC rules are built to ensure the long-term health of the fish and ecosystem and are rigorously implemented.

It’s not cheap. The audit for Waterhen Lake cost $80,000, and must be renewed at five-year intervals (at lower cost). An audit for Lake Winnipeg would cost about three times as much. The province had been considering ecocertifying Lake Winnipeg for some time, and was prompted to action by the embarrassing announcement we have the worst-managed fisheries in the world. Attempting to limit political damage, Conservation Minister Nevakshonoff announced within hours that Manitoba will ecocertify these fisheries.

If he can pull it off it is good news for anglers. They will be a key stakeholder group in the process and all stakeholders must be on board for ecocertification to go ahead. If only it were that easy.

The commercial fishers on Lake Winnipeg have been hostile to ecocertification. They want less, not more regulation of their fishery. The Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC) that buys the fish is not enthusiastic either. They fear they will have to pay extra costs, and will need to modify their chain of custody practices to ensure that ecocertified fish are not slipped in surreptitiously with non-ecocertified fish.

Though they seem not to realize it, for both commercial fishers and the FFMC, the writing is on the wall. The market for their non-ecocertified fish is shrinking. The EU is moving rapidly in that direction, as are fish retailers in North America and Asia. WalMart, Loblaws, Safeway and McDonalds, for example, are committed to selling only ecocertified fish. It turns out that sound environmental policy is also good business practice. This is game changing.

If Lake Winnipeg is ecocertified, it would transform one of the worst managed fisheries in the world to one of the best. Both the commercial and sport fisheries would be conducted using sound management practices, with much better data and transparent decision making. It would prevent, for example, a Minister in charge from going rogue for political gain. This happened recently when Minister Nevakshonoff arbitrarily extended the commercial fishing season on Lake Winnipeg. Such seat of the pants management would risk loss of the valuable ecocertification designation.

So will the Lake Winnipeg fishery be ecocertified? Probably not.

The opposition to ecocertification from commercial fishers, which is already substantial, will grow when they learn the current multispecies quota system is doomed. Under this system, the walleye, sauger and whitefish catch is lumped together. When walleye are more valuable, as is the case now, they become the primary target of the fishery. Though denied by everyone, this leads to the bushing of less valuable species. This system is an anachronism from decades past and has no place in modern management. It is a deal breaker for ecocertification.

Because commercial fishers will oppose changes to the quota system, ecocertification on Lake Winnipeg is likely dead in the water. This leads to a different future for the Lake Winnipeg fishery. The commercial fishery dies a slow death as their market dries up. This more likely scenario, while bad news for commercial fishers is good news for anglers, though it need not end this way. Under sound management there is room for both to thrive. The simple truth is the sport fishery is far more valuable to the Manitoba economy than the commercial fishery. As such, the interests of anglers need to be better represented in decisions about how the shared Lake Winnipeg fishery is managed. The ecocertification process provides an opportunity for that to happen.

Anglers potentially possess considerable economic and political muscle and it is time to flex it. If and when it is announced that the Lake Winnipeg fishery will enter the process of ecocertification, anglers must be well represented during the consultation process. They can have a powerful influence on the outcome, but only if they are at the table. As that erstwhile philosopher Woody Allen said, 80% of success is just showing up.

 

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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.

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