Fishery needs protecting or suffer consequences

First published:
Dec. 5, 2001

Walleye fishing in the Bay of Quinte is seriously threatened with a fishing ban, possibly a full closure of the area, the Ministry of Natural Resources announced last month. The decision is currently under review and public meetings will take place shortly. The plans were met with screams of horror from local anglers, tourism associations and merchants stretching from Napanee to Brighton. It could last up to three years. It is a situation that Rice Lake anglers and tourism operators need to heed.

The Bay of Quinte is a famous fishery, especially for its walleye. In the early 1980s, In-Fishermen magazine was one of many that featured the bay as a prime spot. It is also been the locale for countless fishing shows over the years. The annual walleye tournament held opening day of walleye season in May is viewed by winter-weary anglers as the first sign of spring. Boats pack the bay because it is so popular.

At its peak in 1989-90, 1.5 million walleye inhabited the bay. It is estimated to be 200,000 in 2000. The ministry reports that in 2000 the total harvest of walleye was between 120,000 and 130,000 fish. Recreational anglers harvested about 32,000 fish of those. And of the total number of fish taken by recreational anglers, only about 13,000 would have been mature breeding stock, according to figures released by the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.

But a combination of factors has led to a dramatic decrease in the walleye population since the mid-1990s says Peter Waring, acting Lake Ontario manager for the ministry. Everything from gill netting to zebra mussels is being blamed.

Local MPP Ernie Parsons has been tirelessly seeking a compromise since the announcement on Nov. 5. He has been successful in slowing down the process and, last week, the ministry agreed to hold public consultation regarding a ban. It is tough work for all those who are opposed.

Rice Lake’s fishery is another popular, well-known resource. Anglers from the United States, in particular the Ohio Valley, have come to Northumberland County for generations. Torontonians pack the lake and the shoreline to fish on any given weekend in the summer. The lake is also home to several tournaments. All of this activity sustains a number of businesses around the shores of the lake. It is also a major plank in the county’s tourism industry.

No doubt, tourism operators and anglers in Quinte once enjoyed the same pride and benefits as those around Rice Lake. It must seem like a nightmare to all the people who face a bleak future. Don Chatterton, a fishing guide in the Belleville area for 20 years, stands to lose his entire way of life. Countless businesses would face bankruptcy.

No one wants to see this happen in Northumberland, but it could, if precautions are not taken immediately. Increase pressure could result as local anglers seek alternative fishing spots. Regardless of how negotiations between the ministry and the public end up, the publicity of the ban will have a negative impact. Rice Lake could benefit from this, but only if it is careful.

To argue the details of the ban or to say it won’t happen here is missing the point. Whether the case can be made to blame commercial fishing or to say the ministry has got its number wrong is not a good approach. The best way to preserve a fishery is through conservation.

The Rice Lake tourism association should look at taking matters in to their own hands rather than expect the government to do anything. Cutbacks at the ministry means there are few resources available. So being proactive is the best strategy. Operators and anglers must take a long term approach rather than looking at short-term Band-Aids. Acting now will ensure the viability of the fishery’s future.

A serious catch and release program is the best way to go. Anglers release the fish quickly and safely after being caught. There are numerous techniques from immediate release at the side of the boat to placing the fish in live wells with special chemical protectors in an effort to reduce shock to the fish. Then those fish are released later once they are restored. The approach is solid and sound.

Many lodges in the Canadian North are banning the removal of fish from lakes. While this met with criticism at first, today these lakes are prized by anglers from around the world for their trophy-size fish. The investment in conservation through catch and release is a huge success story.

Everyone associated with tourism around Rice Lake must buy in. A self-imposed ban on removing fish would be ideal. Lodge owners could gently pressure visitors to release fish. Disposable cameras could be offered as a means of recording the catch rather than bringing the fish home. The possibilities are endless.

Winter may seem strange to be putting this issue on the table, but in reality it is the best time. Associations are setting budgets and giving time to planning next year’s agenda. The county is also getting ready to set its budget, as well. A joint effort by tourism operators and the county could result in an innovative approach, high-profile campaign that would result in the revitalization of Rice Lake and maintain the tourism industry well into the future.