Lake Winnipeg fishery neglected, undervalued



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Lake Winnipeg fishery


By Jim Mosher

The extreme under-valuation of the contribution of the Manitoba commercial fishery to the provincial economy is bad for the fishery and the management of fish stocks.

Policy-makers, fisheries managers and politicians have for too long accepted a low-ball estimate of the fishery’s economic and cultural value. That’s led to apathy about change because the status quo is preferable to the wholesale restructuring that is required.

From wasted fish to an entrenched low-balling of the true value of the lake fishery to an apparent unwillingness to enforce even the simplest management regimes to an abysmal understanding of the lake’s ecology and a true weighting of its fish stocks, the Lake Winnipeg commercial fishery — much like the lake itself — is largely ignored.

The gross undervaluation of the fishery is the elephant in the room and a barometer of the antipathy both fishers and fishery managers have to change.

While many sources place the value of the fishery at $25 million, it’s at least four times that by any reasonable measure one might apply.

The Lake Winnipeg commercial fishery produces about 70 per cent of the fish delivered to the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC). In dollar terms, the lake’s fishers are paid about $25 million a year for their efforts.

FFMC generates about $60 million in sales each year, though there is some variability, year over year, due to fluctuations in global markets and global currency exchange. In addition to paying fishers, FFMC employs about 150 people at its Winnipeg processing plant.

Created by an Act of Parliament in 1969, FFMC began as the sole marketer of fish caught in the freshwaters of Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Saskatchewan fishers opted out of the monopoly’s mandate two years ago; Alberta instituted a commercial fishing ban this year; while Ontario was the first to leave the fold many years.

That leaves Manitoba and NWT fishers as the primary source of freshwater fish, though many Saskatchewan commercial fishers continue to deliver to FFMC’s fish processing plant in Winnipeg.

Depending on who’s crunching the numbers, the fishery in Manitoba is valued at $23 million or $42 million. Both numbers fail to take into account the true economic value of the fishery.

More than that — and arguably the biggest challenge for Freshwater and fisheries managers — is the unreported harvest.

Fishers rarely report their full harvest. This puts more money in their pockets but leads to a skewed and largely inaccurate view of the lake’s bounty.

If one assumes that, say, $25 million is paid to Lake Winnipeg fishers, what’s the true value of fish harvested? If the entire $25 million was due to pickerel deliveries paid at $2 a pound (it’s less than that), what can one say of the $5-$6/lb. fishers sell off-quota? Fish is sold off-quota (unreported) at a premium price to consumers who are more than happy to wink and not tell.

Some studies have suggested that half of the Lake Winnipeg harvest is unreported. If that is true — and it’s not a stretch to believe it is true — the value of unreported fish sales is about $40 million. That brings to $65 million the amount fishers earn each year. Given that FFMC generates $40 million, that brings to more than $100 million the value of the Lake Winnipeg commercial fishery — or four times the normally-reported value.

Depending on the economic multiplier one chooses, the economic value of commercial fishing on the lake is in the order of $300 million to half a billion dollars each year.

However those who cite the value of the fishery routinely use either the amount paid to fishers by FFMC or the overall sales of FFMC as the only measures of economic productivity.

The sustainable management of Manitoba’s most robust commercial fishery is, while a goal, impossible to maintain if fisheries officials and fishers themselves continue to look the other way.

No one wants to see Conservation officers swooping down on all fishers. Rather, fishers will have to police their own. It’s in their interest to have a vibrant, sustainable fishery.

As it stands, the numbers are fudged — to no one’s advantage.

As a consequence of factors already cited, Lake Winnipeg fisheries management regime is based on illusory numbers, as well as a poor understanding of fish populations and dynamics. It’s also based on frequent consultations with fishers — as if fishers ‘own’ the resource.

A more balanced and inclusive approach is needed. Everyone has a stake in the future of the Lake Winnipeg fishery. And everyone should have a place at the table.

The blue whale in the sea, however, is the glaring lack of good fisheries science. In the absence of good science — based on data accumulated over many years — there’s not enough on which to base sound, evidence-based decisions.

But as we should know with the issues around the aquatic health of Lake Winnipeg, the blame game is neither productive nor desirable.

Fishers, to a person, are hard working men and women. They deserve our support and respect.

We all have to work together to protect Lake Winnipeg — that includes ensuring its health and protecting all the values that converge around the world’s tenth largest freshwater lake: economic, cultural and recreational.


Science about the lake is non-existent or woefully incomplete. This dearth of data affects both lake ecological management and management for a sustainable fishery.

* There is concern that some fishers are harvesting large pickerel using large-mesh nets. Critics believe this practice is depleting the number of spawners, thus undermining the sustainability of the fishery.

* Little is known about fish dynamics, as we reported in our recent story about the abundance of whitefish in the South Basin. (See “Whitefish invade Lake Winnipeg South Basin”, Oct. 15, 2014, available in our online archive at

Whitefish are particularly sensitive to changes in the lake’s bottom because they are bottom feeders. However, little is known about how they will react to the presence of zebra mussels, first found in the lake in the fall of 2013.

* A three-species quota system has been in place since the early-70s. The three species covered are pickerel, sauger and whitefish. The quota system should be revisited to ensure its sustainability, particularly in light of the off-quota harvest it seems to encourage.

* A handful of Aboriginal fishers harvest during the spring spawn, weeks before the spawn is complete. This must be examined closely. Once again, in the absence of data, managing this practice is problematic and runs into thorny Aboriginal rights issues.

* Fewer young adults are entering the fishing industry. It’s hard work but it’s good work. While there is no readily available data, those who own quota are nearing what many of us might call retirement.

The industry needs to address the shortfall in a meaningful way. The Interlake has experienced static or diminished population growth. Unless there is a new Baby Boom, the Interlake workforce will have to be replenished with immigrants, many of whom may see fishing as a viable opportunity.

* The issue of discarded fish — the lake’s forgotten resource — must be addressed. As we reported last week, a Riverton entrepreneur believes a business case can be made for using fish offal and dicarded fish for a liquid fish fertilizer.

This new market would provide a secondary income to fishers while addressing the practice of ‘trashing’ fish, which is particularly distressing in a world in which many people go hungry every day.

(This commentary originally appeared in the Nov. 12, 2014 edition of the Interlake Enterprise. It’s been amended to correct a calculation error that does not affect the author’s overall premiss. 

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