Trophy Channel Cats – for sale?

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According to anglers from all around the globe, Manitoba has the absolute best trophy channel catfish fishery in the world.

Anglers and guides in the province are concerned that might change as commercial fisherman show increasing interest in selling catfish in a free market system which was introduced this past year by the provincial government. To address that problem, the government had implemented a regulation early in the new year that made it illegal to commercially harvest catfish. That didn’t sit well with the 43 commercial fishers that right now sell smoked catfish.  These fishers have asked the government to change the law back allowing them to sell their incidental catches out of their storefront operations.

Manitoba Fisheries held a meeting this week in Lockport with concerned stakeholders to get their viewpoint on how to deal with this request. Dr. Brian Parker, Senior Fisheries Manager chaired the meeting. Parker provide a history of the commercial catches of catfish since the 1920’s. He noted that when the Freshwater Fish Marketing took over the sale of commercial catches in the mid 1990’s catfish were not allowed in the plant because the fish were not kosher. This meant the fishers who wanted to sell catfish had to do so locally. Regulations in place also did not allow them to sell catfish to restaurants or stores or put them on the open market

Sport vs Commercial Value

Statistics from the recording of special dealer licenses indicate the sale of commercial catfish has tripled over the last three years. This has placed the value of sold catfish at about $40,000 and put the channel catfish fishery possibly at risk. The value of the fishery from an angling perspective is close to $15,000,000. All the stakeholders at the meeting questioned whether this amount of harvest would damage the fishery. Parker indicated his department did not yet have the scientific data available to make that call.

Executive Director of the Manitoba Lodge and Outfitters Paul Turenne, who attended, had this to say. “Our primary concern is the health of the angling fishery. Our members want to ensure that any changes that are made to commercial fishing regulations do not harm the channel catfish population, a valuable asset to the province, and to economy of the Red River North area in particular. If the biology dictates that a commercial fishery and an angling fishery can co-exist sustainably — and if the province believes it can properly monitor and control the catch to ensure it remains within sustainable limits — then many of our concerns would be alleviated. Our understanding is that the science is still being worked out, therefore Manitoba may be taking a bit of a risk by allowing a commercial catch with no cap on harvest to occur, prior to having all the science at our disposal to inform this important decision.”

Science Should Come First

Scott Forbes is an ecologist at the University of Winnipeg who works on fish and wildlife. He is also a constant contributor to Hooked Magazine. “What they teach you in fishery science class (not in the first week, maybe the second or third week), is that slow-growing, late reproducing, long-lived species are extremely sensitive to harvest.  A slight increase in harvest on channel catfish will have dramatic effects on their population structure. The most important effect is that the first fish to go are the big, old trophy catfish that are the mainstay of a $10 to $15 million-dollar catch and release fishery on the Red River. For the sake of a $40K commercial fishery? Given that we do not yet have solid data on population structure to measure the effect of changes in harvest, any commercial fishery presents considerable risk with almost no material reward. This kind of thing – dramatic changes in fisheries for long-lived species — has happened time and time again in fisheries across the world with the same result. And it’s why we now try to rely on science and not anecdotes in fishery management.”

In Government’s Hands

Dr Parker told the group that their concerns would be taken under advisement and a decision by government would be made shortly on whether to change the regulation back to the way it was. Parker says the government does not want a directed fishery, which means no quota. The government feels a directed fishery, one that targets catfish, would put too much pressure on the channel catfish as commercial fishers could then target them for sales.  Policy would then revert back to the way they were before the new marketing policy came in place, which means they can sell them out of their storefront operation only if it’s a bycatch.

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