EDITORS NOTE: In the 2018 Manitoba Anglers Guide the province came out with the following insertion in the regulations on page 10: “Winnipeg River between the Manitoba/Ontario border and the Pine Falls Generating Station – closed to lake sturgeon fishing all year.” This has many guides and anglers upset. Biologist Ken Kansas, who has done years of research on the sturgeon population in this section of the river, offers some solutions to the closure.
Confusion corner on the water.
Back in the early nineties, a Conservation Closure was implemented by the Manitoba Government to protect critically low populations of Winnipeg River lake sturgeon from the Ontario border downstream to the Pine Falls Generating Station. The closure includes recreational, commercial and First Nations subsistence harvest.
This initiative followed the development of Manitoba’s first Lake Sturgeon Management Strategy in 1992. The strategy was updated in 1997 and again in 2012. Inside the ‘Manitoba Lake Sturgeon Management Strategy – 2012’, it states that “The experience of managing lake sturgeon in Manitoba has shown that limiting mortality is the single most effect means of sustaining lake sturgeon stocks”, which seems kind of overly simplistic and is painfully true. Another statement enhancing this assertion in the document reads “There is mounting evidence that the combination of Conservation Closures, closure of the commercial fishery and elimination of recreational angling harvest is allowing some stocks to start recovering”.
There is no doubting the above declarations and the cool thing about it is that these statements are backed by quality data thanks to various university research programs, Manitoba Fisheries Branch – Eastern Region Winnipeg River lake sturgeon monitoring and Manitoba Hydro research initiatives.
STURGEON POPULATIONS REBOUND
There are six reaches of the river totaling approximately 158 km (Ontario border to Pine Falls) The research shows lake sturgeon populations are definitely increasing in three of the six reaches, and from Point du Bois to McArthur Falls this is the case. This represents approximately 87 km of river or about 55 % of total distance or available linear habitat.
Not only did populations start to recover, but a recreational angling fishery (catch and release) developed along with this population increase, especially from Point du Bois downstream to Seven Sisters Generation Station. Most certainly lake sturgeon angling activity has increased beyond Seven Sisters to some extent as well. Master Angler records show a tenfold increase in Winnipeg River lake sturgeon trophy fish from the early 1990’s to 2016.
This is a success story. I think we can say that, with vigor.
But there is a snag, of sorts, and it was first brought to my attention around the time I was putting together a pilot project on the impacts of the catch and release recreational angling on lake sturgeon through post release survival assessment. It occurred to me after reading a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) document on the status of lake sturgeon stocks across the prairies and some of the threats to their unencumbered recovery. It listed recreational fishing as one of these threats. Due diligence and common sense told me we need to fill this ‘science gap’.
We received funding and completed the project in 2013 below the Point du Bois Generating Station, with the hope this would stimulate a full-blown master thesis. Three things happened. Firstly, our pilot project showed a 100% survival rate over a range of river temperatures, fight length and holding duration. Secondly, looks like a master thesis will commence on this topic in 2018 (better late than never) and thirdly, I was told by colleagues that the conservation closure meant that it was illegal to target sturgeon by recreational angling from the Ontario border downstream to Pine Falls.
CATCH AND RELEASE OF LAKE STURGEON
I was surprised and not surprised by this. You know what I mean? I fully understood that this could get complicated. I got the feeling that it was a ‘if it ain’t broke…’ or even an ‘let sleeping dogs lie…’ kind of thing. Enforcement was not enthused about it and obviously not taking enforcement action. I found it strangely soothing. To that end, having ten weeks of field work ahead of me with 5 weeks to do it in, I sloughed it off as well, promising myself I would try and address it down the road. Again, better late than never.
Now in the 2018 Manitoba Anglers Guide the province came out with the following insertion in the regulations on page 10. “Winnipeg River between the Manitoba/Ontario border and the Pine
Falls Generating Station – closed to lake sturgeon fishing all year.”
Recently I revisited this potential conundrum in a blanket, after observing discussions regarding this issue on various social media venues over the last year or so.
So I probed.
I was to carefully peruse the ‘Manitoba Lake Sturgeon Management Strategy – 2012’ (available online) for clarification regarding lake sturgeon management and the conservation closure. Within the document it points to the value of a conservation closure coupled with the elimination of commercial and recreational angling as key efforts to promote recovery. It also clearly states that ‘A Conservation Closure prohibits all fishing for a species in an area for a specific period of time unless the fishing occurs under the authority of a General Fishing Permit’.
However further into the document in the lake sturgeon stock status section of the various reaches of the Winnipeg River in Manitoba, it states that in most of the reaches a recreational angling fishery exists on a catch and release basis only and as part of the management approach the angling fishery should be monitored. So, on one hand, lake sturgeon fishing is prohibited and on the other several recreational angling fisheries ‘exist’ and should be monitored. A little confusing.
So why bring this up?
ECONOMIC IMPLICATIONS OF A CLOSURE ARE HUGE
I get the scraggly implications of dealing with this now. Just look at all the outfitters that have lake sturgeon listed as one of their target species. It is potentially a huge business. Just look at the hundreds, maybe thousands of Manitoban recreational anglers that book that week off in late spring every year to catch that once in a lifetime giant. The economic spin offs both direct and indirect are obvious. Look at the growth of Master Angler awards for this species in the last 15 years. Travel Manitoba even had it listed as a feature species this past year. There is room for it. I do not want to see this totally sustainable recreational angling fishery cease in Manitoba. Far from it. I see room for growth. But some things have to happen.
“I especially like the fact that this activity (catch and release lake sturgeon angling) is biologically sustainable.”
SOLUTIONS FOR EVERYONE!
- I would suggest to totally back the upcoming master thesis on catch and release survival and use it as a strong biological counterpoint to any negative vibrations against this type of fishery. This study should take a minimum of two years.
- I would start a process to ‘modify’ the conservation closure to legally allow catch and release only fishing for lake sturgeon in the Winnipeg River. But its not that simple. You would also have to adjust the opening day to a later date to allow for sturgeon spawning to completely occur without ‘distraction’. To that end I would suggest somewhere between June 1 – 15 annually.
- I would suggest to open a robust dialogue with Sagkeeng First Nations in order to establish a Lake Sturgeon Management Board. Most certainly this would lead to positive things if all the key players were interested in solving problems and coming to common agreement for the benefit of all peoples. In these discussions, ‘down the road’ options for a subsistence quota and perhaps even sturgeon harvest tags for recreational anglers. Involve all the major players. Talk face to face. Get to know each other. Believe me, solid data is there for this to work on some of the reaches already.
- I would promote the continuance of the existing lake sturgeon population stock assessments and establish future research and monitoring needs for reaches that need more study.
This is a lot of stuff to consider. I can see why to some extent it has been ‘ignored’. Some of it is ongoing. Some of it has been tried and failed. There is absolutely no doubt that the conservation closure has played a massive role in the recovery of lake sturgeon in the Winnipeg River, but the provincial government needs to address this regulatory issue. But this is a good thing man. A lot of this work has been initiated already. We simply need to work together on this. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here.
Pull our heads out of the sand and it’s all good. We will progress.