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Professor weighs in on declining walleye stocks in Lake Winnipeg

Hank Steinberger of Jamestown, N.D., took this photo during a recent trip to Lake Winnipeg of tubs of walleyes that had been pullled from a commercial fishing net on the big lake. Hank Steinberger / Special to Forum News Service1 / 5
Jim Stinson of Lockport, Manitoba, shows off a big Lake Winnipeg "greenback" in January 2011. The fish are known as "greenbacks" for their striking iridescent bluish-green coloration. Brad Dokken photo / Forum News Service2 / 5
Scott Forbes, a biology professor at the University of Winnipeg, holds a Port Jackson shark he caught during a trip to Australia in this undated photo. Special to Forum News Service3 / 5
Scott Forbes, University of Winnipeg biology professor4 / 5
A commercial fisherman pulls walleyes from a net in this photo taken from a video Hank Steinberger of Jamestown, N.D., shot during a recent ice fishing trip to Lake Winnipeg. Special to Forum News Service5 / 5

Scott Forbes is a professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg who has been following changes in Lake Winnipeg's walleye population, the "greenbacks" that attract ice fishing enthusiasts north by the thousands every winter.

Forbes, a Vancouver native who joined the University of Winnipeg faculty in 1992, has a doctorate in biological sciences from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He recently wrote about the big lake's decline in an article titled "Killing Lake Winnipeg's Golden Goose: Is the Greenback Walleye Population in Danger?" for Hooked, a Winnipeg-based fishing magazine.

In the article, Forbes writes that changes in managing Lake Winnipeg's commercial fishery are necessary to avoid a collapse of walleye stocks. He has been especially critical of Manitoba's multispecies quota system, which allows commercial netters to target the most valuable of three species—walleyes, saugers and whitefish—which skews the quota toward walleyes, which fetch a better price on the market.

The annual quota is 6.52 million kilograms, more than 14 million pounds, and walleyes make up about two-thirds of that catch.

Lake Winnipeg in recent years has become one of North America's premier ice fishing destinations so the fate of the walleye population is of considerable interest to U.S. anglers. Anglers on Lake Winnipeg and the Red River take about 5 percent of the annual walleye harvest, compared with 90 percent by commercial fishing, Forbes says.

He recently talked about Lake Winnipeg and the challenges it faces with Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken.

Here's an edited transcript of that conversation:

Q. When did you become interested in Lake Winnipeg's fishery?

A. It's been a few years. I was involved with a process called eco-certification on Manitoba's Waterhen Lake, the first eco-certified freshwater fishery in North America. We eco-certified the walleye and northern pike (commercial) fisheries, and I had students involved in that project. Around that time, discussion was going on to look at eco-certifying Lake Winnipeg.

Q. What is eco-certification?

A. It's a third-party review process where external auditors come in using a set of principles developed by the Marine Stewardship Council. It's not the only eco-certification auditor, but it's the gold standard. It ensures fisheries management adheres to very stringent principles that protect the ecological integrity of the system, harvesting is sustainable and if overharvest occurs, there's a mechanism in place to take care of that.

As a biologist, I support this enthusiastically. It puts in place a more rigorous system than is presently the case.

The management regimen on Lake Winnipeg is very inflexible and built upon a fixed quota system. There's no ability to back off on harvest when the stock is in bad shape, and there's evidence that's the case.

Q. When did the decline become apparent?

A. It started around 2012 in the commercial fisheries data. We sort of reached a peak in the first decade of the 2000s. The fishery was better than it's ever been, and it's a little bit ironic: The reason for that is phosphorus pollution and an invasive species, the rainbow smelt. Rainbow smelt showed up in 1990, and phosphorous, it turns out the data is pretty strong the phosphorus has increased the productivity of the walleye and is the reason for giant greenbacks and record catches in the commercial fishery. There is too much of a good thing and we're probably approaching that point.

(The decline since) 2012 coincides with the collapse of the rainbow smelt. They (smelt) stopped spawning in 2011 and we're not sure why.

Q. How has the smelt collapse affected walleyes?

A. The fish right now are in very bad condition. Physically, they're not growing well. They're showing evidence of starving, and the commercial catch of walleye has fallen about 50 percent in the last four years, and that's not through lack of trying.

Q. Did that prompt you to look at the lake more closely?

A. It sort of had been percolating, but it was coming to a head with deteriorating conditions in the fishery. I've been interested in fisheries in Manitoba for a number of years and exploring things like trying to find markets for rough fish. We're sitting on one of the largest unharvested fish populations in the world, which is our carp population.

We have a Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. (a federal Crown corporation), which until this week when legislation was introduced, had a monopoly on marketing all fish in the province and never had interest in rough fish.

I was interested in developing these markets, and it became clear from that work that things were deteriorating on Lake Winnipeg. We started seeing it in the summer of 2015. Any person interested in fisheries science knows a fishery in free fall—it's when commercial fisheries say they need an extended season to get their quota, and (Manitoba's Conservation and Water Stewardship) minister arbitrarily extended that season without consulting his biologists, and the arguments used were the standard arguments—that it was bad weather and they couldn't get out on the lake, and with every collapsing fishery, it's the same story.

That really prompted me to start being more vocal about what was going on, and this was just evidence of a fishery that was being not scientifically managed.

Q. What's the current makeup of the walleye population?

A. The big ones come from 2001. Recruitment is sporadic, and the 2001 year-class was a monster year-class, and it sustained the commercial fishery and recreational fishery ever since then. There was another one in 2005 and a weak year-class in 2011.

When other fish in the lake started becoming scarce, some of the fishers started putting out bigger mesh nets and targeting big fish, which from a biological view is almost disastrously bad. They're almost all female and when they're gone, that's a big chunk of our spawning population, and that makes one worry about the future. That's where we'd like to have the ability to restrict mesh size.

Q. What's currently happening in terms of managing the fishery?

A. A group of individuals is looking at the fishery now for the provincial government and are about to turn in a fairly substantial report about changes to the fishery. The fishery is undergoing major change because of the removal of the monopoly of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp.

The big thing is just reducing the commercial quota, which would require buyback of quota from fishers. We have no flexibility to reduce the fishery when the stock is depressed, and there's growing evidence the stock is depressed. The simple fact the commercial fishers can't make quota is the strongest evidence of that.

Q. How do commercial netters react to your views?

A. Some are not openly hostile. The commercial fishers, if you have 100 commercial fishers in the room, you'll have 150 opinions. Herding cats is the phrase that comes up. I've always advocated the commercial fishers should be treated fairly, and changes to the system should be voluntary. If we did it voluntarily and did it at full and fair market value, I think you would get the least resistance.

Some commercial fishers have been royally (angry) at me, which I expect. Others, you can have a conversation with, and others see the need to make changes.

Q. What's the status of eco-certification on Lake Winnipeg?

A. It's still being discussed. Right now, there's not agreement from the commercial fishers. They're very divided on that. Some are open to it, others dead set against it, which is going to make it tough. I think if you had some strong leadership people who can persuade people, it could be done, and there are some good people in the fisheries branch who are leading the effort, but it's going to rest on getting more data and I think alteration to the management scheme.

That won't be simple.

Q. Do you see anglers having a louder voice, given the lake's recent ice fishing popularity?

A. One of the interesting things about eco-certification if the anglers want to, if there is an eco-certification process, they become a stakeholder group, and for eco-certification to proceed, all the stakeholders have to be onside. So, anglers have to be onside if they decide to go to the table. They have a lot of power if they choose to exercise it.

The limited information we have on the economics of the fishing suggests the recreational fishery is by far the more lucrative economically for the province of Manitoba.

You would think economically it makes sense to pay attention to angler interests. Manitoba is not necessarily a top tourism destination in the middle of the winter. When you get people coming in the middle of the winter, that's a real bonus.

Q. How do you see this playing out?

A. If any major changes are implemented, it's going to be contentious. There are three major groups: there's the indigenous fishers, the anglers and the commercial fishers. They don't always see eye to eye, and so I think any change will be contentious. That's just a given.

Q. Any parting thoughts?

A. I think a properly managed fishery can accommodate all the interests. It could go down several different pathways, and I think it's going to get better for anglers in the long run. In the short term, with the heavy harvest of the walleye, we could be in for some lean years.

There's enough fish for everyone. They just need to manage it properly.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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