[Note: The following was first published in the February 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
If you’ve been following the dustup over whether anglers should be allowed to take a fish for supper from many of our lakes , you know there is a communications problem between our provincial fisheries biologists and stakeholders with regard to the state of certain lake populations and what is planned for those lakes. Reports of studies are not being released (or are difficult to find), and many anglers do not believe explanations as to why catch-and-release regulations are not being lifted for fish populations that appear to be viable.
Ray Makowecki (a fisheries biologist and Alberta Fish and Game Association’s Zone 5 Fish Chair) has not been idle on this issue. Following the meeting of concerned anglers he organized last September at Lac Bellevue, Ray gathered together a small group of former government biologists (including me) to discuss the issues. He subsequently arranged two meetings between this group and Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) headquarters fisheries biologists in November, and in December with AEP Assistant Deputy Ministers of Policy and Planning, and of Operations—the two areas involved in fisheries management decisions.
At those meetings, there was much discussion about fisheries management policies and processes, and the lack of communication with stakeholders. All agreed there was room for improvement, especially in the communications area, but there was no indication whether changes would be coming any time soon with regard to more consumptive harvests on lakes.
For me, the two meetings illustrated the dichotomy of viewpoints between the former and current government biologists and managers. The current biologists are not as concerned about harvest opportunities as are the biologists of my generation. The latter believe that fish harvest is an important component of the management of a game fish population, and that anglers who harvest fish for the table have a stake in the health of that population and should be consulted about its management. The current biologists and managers appear to downplay the roles of both consumptive use and the opinions of anglers in the management of fisheries.
This was brought home to me at the end of the December meeting when Ronda Goulden, ADM of Policy and Planning, stated we should be aware that there is a “paradigm shift” in fisheries management in Alberta away from consumptive use; that biodiversity and endangered species take precedence in all decisions affecting fish and wildlife populations. In a later e-mail message, she clarified that this shift has been ongoing and that AEP “strives to ensure the conservation of healthy, sustainable fish populations and fish that are available beyond those required to sustain populations are allocated to domestic fisheries followed by recreational fisheries and finally commercial fisheries. Further, fish allocated to recreational fisheries are not primarily for consumptive harvest like it was decades ago.” She added that anglers these days prefer “a greater variety of fishing opportunities such as high quality catch and release fisheries.”
And there lies the rub. I don’t doubt many anglers enjoy catch-and-release (C&R) fishing. But how many and for what lakes? For example, government fisheries biologists have told both the Stony Plain Fish and Game Association and the Wabamun Watershed Management Council that a survey of anglers who fish Wabamun Lake found that many want to see Wabamun Lake remain a C&R-only fishery. However, when the members of these organizations were polled at their respective meetings, few expressed an interest in C&R at Wabamun. Most wanted an opportunity to take a lake whitefish, walleye, pike or yellow perch home for supper. So questions arise: When was the survey conducted? How was it conducted? What questions were asked? What were all the results? Meanwhile the lake remains C&R for all species, and many anglers are wondering why when they are catching and releasing what they believe to be harvestable fish.
Yes, the shift away from consumptive use as a priority has been going on for a while. The fish allocation hierarchy that ADM Goulden mentioned (1. conservation, 2. first nations [domestic] fishing, 3. recreation fishing, and 4. commercial fishing) was set down in court rulings and government policy many years ago. Fish and Wildlife officers and biologists followed the hierarchy and in past years were able to allocate fish to consumptive recreational anglers in most lakes and streams. What changed in the last 20 or so years? Well, fish populations in some water bodies collapsed, we’re told, because of overfishing. So, zero-catch-and-keep rates were imposed. But for some lakes, the limits appear to have worked and numbers are up. Yet, there is a reluctance to lift the C&R regulations.
If you read the 2014 Alberta Fish Conservation Management Strategy, you see the emphasis on consumptive harvest is being downplayed in favor of C&R. Also the strategy states that AEP operates under the “precautionary management principle” where if uncertainties exist, the least risky alternatives will be used. So, if there is a lack of scientific information about a lake, a biologist might decide to maintain a C&R regulation on the lake despite what anglers are telling him. But what if there are ways of ensuring a limited harvest without threatening the viability of the population (e.g., tags, limited seasons)? We don’t know because stakeholders are not being consulted about the lakes they fish.
Which brings me to another key piece of the Fish Conservation Management Strategy: stakeholder consultation. The strategy goes on and on about how anglers and other stakeholders should be consulted and their views taken into account when making management decisions. Yet, we have seen little current evidence this is happening. Perhaps there are good reasons to maintain C&R on all these lakes, but quoting surveys and studies that are not available for independent review does not build a lot of trust.
The Value of Consumptive Use
So, what’s wrong with consumptive use, anyway? Why are AEP fisheries biologists so afraid of it? Is it because there are too many anglers for the number of water bodies and fisheries available? That’s what some would have you believe. However, there are other jurisdictions with large human populations and fixed fishery resources that allow limited harvest, apparently without harming the resource. It just takes proper science, regulation and enforcement.
As I related in last month’s column, most game fish populations have a harvestable surplus of fish that are going to die anyway, whether from other predators, disease, starvation, or indeed C&R fishing. A limited harvest compensates that mortality to a certain extent and just might aid the health of that fish population and others in the lake.
As admitted in the Fish Conservation Management Strategy, there is mortality related to C&R. Some fish are foul-hooked or poorly handled and die after release. Others are just plain poached. So, if you are allowing C&R-only fishing, you are consuming the resource to a certain extent. By allowing some harvest, you just might reduce the number of soon-to-be-dead fish returning to the water, and indeed reduce poaching.
As you can see, there needs to be a serious discussion about what kinds of fishing Albertans want to have on their lakes and streams. Making decisions behind closed doors and using information not available to stakeholders is not the way for governments to do business.
Comments are always welcome (below).