Temagami Stewardship Council

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To preserve, protect, restore and improve, the natural resources and environment of Lake Temagami & Cross Lake !
Fisheries News
Darryl Choronzey 
Comments on the Collapse of the Georgian Bay Fishery From Owen Sound Sun Times
Editor: Nothing hurts more for me than to disagree with a fellow angler, especially Owen Sound fishing guide Tony Degasperis and nothing hurts more for me to agree with a naturalist such as Patricia Gray, but both have their points when it comes collapse of the sportfishery and their reasons.

Tony is correct to blame the cormorant, but only partly correct. Ms. Gray also is correct to point to other reasons, but like most tree huggers can come up with other reasons that either aren’t relevant to the present situation or aren’t the major reasons for today’s local fisheries problems.
Like many longtime residents to this area, I do get more than a little disturbed when new arrivals to the region, as Ms. Gray admits she is, come out with opinions and facts that do not relate to the this region or the present situation. It’s easy for a naturalists or as I prefer to refer to them as tree huggers to defend an issue with a hundred different reports to protect the bird, while hundreds of other reports condemn this predator and it’s effect on the fishery. I understand Degasperis’s frustration as he sees the local sportfishery collapse and at the same time watches as thousands of cormorant pass over his charterboat.

Before I go any farther with this letter, allow me to give a little of my history and the reasons for my concern for the fishery. I’ve resided in the Grey/Bruce for thirty years. Before that I lived my early life on the shores of Lake Ontario. I’ve always made my living dependant on sportfishing. I owned the province’s only sportfishing magazine and now host one of Canada’s most popular television fishing series. I was also the first volunteer to collect coho salmon eggs on Lake Ontario tributaries back in the early 1970’s when the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources methods or should I say intelligence to collect their own eggs for hatchery purposes proved futile. Myself and a friend who happened to work for the MNR were responsible for helping to save the Lake Ontario chinook salmon fishery. We spent weeks on the Bruce Peninsula back in the late 70’s attempting to trap a few migrant spawning salmon collect eggs andset up a primitive hatchery operation on the Credit River. Moving to Wiarton, I was often credited with if not introducing the Community Fisheries Involvement Program to the Province of Ontario, at least promoting it through my magazine. I introduced the upwelling incubation egg box for steelhead propagation to Ontario fishing sportsmen’s clubs. I was instrumental in obtaining then Minister of Natural Resources Alan Pope’s permission to set up the first non-government salmon rearing facility to improve sportfishing on Ontario’s Great Lakes, which took place at Owen Sound. I was also one of those responsible for establishing the Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular, which at the time generate millions of dollars annually into the coffers of Owen Sound businesses and produced what at the time was the finest fishery found anywhere on the Great Lakes. Myself, along with longtime Owen Sound resident Jack Ozaduk were members of the original splake/lake trout study, which proved the folly of rearing releasing splake and instead shifting focus on pure lake trout for Georgian Bay and Lake Huron.

The preceding paragraph is not boasting, just a list of credentials. For most of my life I’ve strived to improve and protect not just Ontario’s sportfishery, but also Ontario’s entire fishery. I’ve had more than a few anonomous phone calls made to me in the middle of the night, personnel threats levied against me by a few drunks and uneducated idiots and even been warned on a couple of occasions by provincial law enforcement officers to watch my back. I’ve been recognised by the Federal and Provincial governments for my contributions…..it’s been a hell of a ride.
For the last three or four years I’ve sat back in disillusionment as I’ve watched the local sportfishery, especially on Georgian Bay collapse and that includes Owen Sound’s once world famous salmon fishery. Again, cormorants slaughter, consume and also at times simply slaughter and waste large percentages of our fish populations. No matter what Ms. Gray has to say, American studies around the Great Lakes and now studies in Ontario prove that cormorants do have a destructive impact on tvaluable baitfish and also sportfish stocks. The feathered creatures are also destroying valuable foliage not only around the Great Lakes but also across our far north as well. We should follow the lead of the Americans and control through culls the cormorant.

The decline in bait stocks can be attributed just as much and more to the invasion of European exotics than cormorants. Again, let’s cull the cormorants because they are a major factor in the problem, but zebra mussels and quagga mussels residing on and covering the bottom of all our Great Lakes are like living vacuum cleaners. They have just about eliminated a native creature called a Diporeia or scud that is near the start of the underwater food chain and an importance source of forage for smelt, chub, alwife and other bait fish. These invasive exotics are cleaning the lakes from Superior to Lake Ontario. The water is clearer because they also suck up all important zooplankton which along with the Diporeia is another important ingredient at the base of the underwater food chain. If our forage fish can’t find food, they can’t survive. Predator fish such as chinook salmon now average half the size they did a decade ago and it’s not occurring just here in, but in most of the other lakes as well.

Then there are the Indian commercial gill netters who have through the courts, protests and the press won the rights to set gill nets in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay not only for substance but for commercial purposes as well. Personally, I’ve never agreed with one group of people having access to a natural resource over other races of people. What also bothers me is the fact that in my fifty years, I’ve never once witnessed these people work to improve a fishery. They were never once at our early fisheries improvement meetings or on our work and study splake/lake trout committees. In all those years, I can never remember once these people building hatcheries, raising fish and releasing fish for sport, commercial or rehabilitation purposes. They may say they were never asked to support the cause, but the truth is the rest of us were never asked either. Many times we had to fight the government tooth and nail to become a part of the process.

Our early splake/lake trout committee meetings acknowledged first and foremost that to achieve our goals for the creation of a natural reproducing, self-sustaining lake trout fishery, we had to purchase the two remaining commercial gill net operators working the waters of Owen Sound and Colpoy Bays. The commercial operators were bought out, the two bays were established as sanctuaries from commercial operations and the lake trout prospered. It looked to most of us that our goal of a return to self-sustaining lake trout populations were on the horizon. The cost to taxpayers at the time was judged to have been in the neighbourhood of twenty million dollars or more at the time. Then the natives entered the sanctuaries with a combination of small boats and large tugs and the deadly gill nets. The courts and the government said they had the right due to their blood lines. I only know the lake trout numbers collapsed with the return of nets in the once established sanctuaries.

The Indian tribes can hire all the well educated university biologists they want. They can employ all the people from their own community to study, patrol and collect data that they want. To me it’s nothing more than propaganda and believe me it’s well very organised propaganda. The fact is, the majority, if not all lake trout caught in their nets since that day almost two decades ago when the first Indian commercial fishers entered the sanctuary of the two bays have been born and raised at the Chatsworth hatchery before being released. That’s a cost to taxpayers of tens, upon tens of millions of dollars, an immense amount of our hard taxpaying money. This is money that was not intended to support an Indian gill net fishery, but in fact to attain the goal of creating that all important self-sustaining natural reproducing lake trout fishery for Georgian Bay and that will never happen with gill nets in the bays or surrounding waters.

Almost from the beginning we heard from the Indian people that they were not catching significant numbers of our stocked steelhead or salmon and seldom caught wild steelhead, stocked steelhead or stocked salmon. Reports from local sportsmen’s organisations such as those from Meaford, Collingwood, and Wiarton of Indian gill nets claiming otherwise should surprise no one. Simply put, gillnets are kill net!

They do not distinguish their victims by species, just by size. The small fish swim through, the rest die. Those nets set for lake trout and whitefish kill salmon and steelhead as well. Ask the Ministry of Natural Resources why the Indian netters in the past attempted to have a quota established for the salmon and steelhead that are protected now with a sports species status? If they aren’t killing sport fish, why ask for the quota?

It’s tough not for me to blame even the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association for the collapse of the local sport fishery. Here’s a club that spends thousands of hours raising fish only to have them slaughtered by outside influences. A decade ago, then Owen Sound resident Grant Curry staged a rally at the Owen Sound market to protest the presence of the Indian gill nets inside the two bays. At the time the the local sportsmen’s club would not endorse the protest. Too bad, at the time Grant could have used the support and the event just might have caught the attention of our provincial law makers.

Yes, the SSA in the meantime has sat on a number of Ministry of Natural Resources staged committees with the two local tribes, but what has it got them. The jurisdiction for the nets has, increased, the MNR has all but ignored the sportmen clubs and the new treaty was signed without any input from clubs. No one likes to be politically incorrect, but that’s been the problem in this instance and only the fishery suffers. I’m hoping that if they ever get a chance to start over again, they learn that protests, complaining and bitching gets results when working with the government…not just meetings.
Then there’s Bill Murdoch, our supposed redneck, outspoken MPP. When it comes to saving, improving and protecting the local sport fishery I think he’s been a dud. Bill is an artist at attracting press, but what really has he accomplished for the sportfishery in his twenty odd years at Queen’s Park? That is besides having a couple of big shot MPP’s and ministers up to Owen Sound every year to take part in his annual fish fry under the beer tent. When it comes to the fishery he has been a bust. The ministry hasn’t stocked anymore fish because of him. The ministry didn’t handcuff the Indian netters as our tax paid for fish are slaughtered. The Minister of Natural Resources definitely didn’t bring Wild Bill in to sit at the table and advise on the newly signed fisheries treaty. His influence on the fishery has been nil. 

Finally, let me explain what has had the most impact on the local sportfishery. Cormorants, zebra and quagga mussles, Indian gill nets, a lack of backbone with our sportsmen’s clubs and our local MPP have all had their effects someway or another on our once prized sportfishery….but most of all the blame should be put squarely on the shoulders of the Ministry of Natural Resources and especially those working in the Ministry of Natural Resources Upper Great Lakes Management Unit located up on Owen Sound’s east hill.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s the Ministry of Natural Resources spent more than twenty years and twenty million dollars on a idiotic splake and the splake /lake trout backcross program. It took concerned sportsmen as many years to get these geniuses to see the light and cancel the program and get back to stocking true lake trout. Finally on the proper path to rejuvenating the fishery, the Indian nets invaded the bays and surrounding water and the Ministry of Natural Resources played ostrich, sinking their heads in the lab coats and hoping the problem would go away. Only the fish went away….fish that were hatched, raised and released at taxpayer expense.

Seven years ago, this same ministry mandated all Lake Huron and Georgian Bay volunteer fish hatcheries to begin a fin removal system to help identify chinook salmon in the lakes as wild stock or hatchery bred. I warned at the time that 3inch fingerlings would not survive in the wild missing these all important fins. Guess what? Wild fish still survived even with a reduction in the food base, but the hatchery fish which in the past made up the greatest percentage of our sportfishery became almost non-existent. Nowhere on the west coast do they remove pectoral or pelvic fins due to the survival factor. In Owen Sound in some instances the fish were released with not only one, but three fins missing and a metal nose tag stuck in their noses as well. This program continued for five years and can be totally blamed for the dismal returns to the local sportfishery in the same number of preceding years. Anglers don’t forget. They stay home and will never come back. The ministry managers who devised this idiotic method of identifying fingerling salmon are seldom seen out fishing on the bay and in my opinion know nothing about fish or fishing. When they pass out those early pensions in the future, these guys should be forced to take them.

Just what has the local Upper Lakes Unit done to protect those valuable lake trout being raised at the Chatsworth hatchery for the rehabilitation of Georgian Bay? They choose where to release these fish into Georgian Bay and for some reason it’s right on top of the Indian gill nets strung out from Lion’s Head to Craigleith. That’s exactly where the Ministry negotiated the treaty waters. When it comes to the commercially fishery for lake trout, the Ministry has made sure that the taxpayer pays for the fish the netters catch., the Ministry raises them and the Indians harvest them. Then if we want to consume them, we have to go to the grocery store to buy them. Ouch! That’s twice we’re hit in the pocketbook.

Again it was this same Ministry that went to the negating table with the Indian bands, ratified a deal and not only did not include the paying public, but now won’t disclose the particulars of the new treaty. What’s next, do Indians and Ministry exclude fishermen from certain areas of Gerogian Bay and Lake Huron? Don’t be surprised.

Now for the final travesty concerning our backyard fishery and how the Ministry handles it. An Ontario government publication “Guide To Eating Ontario Sport Fish” warns that what we catch and eat from our local waters could be down right lethal. For instance the book warns that in the case of lake trout between 20 and 22 inches we should eat only one meal a month and no meals of fish greater than 22 inches. Women of child bearing age and children under the age of fifteen are advised to avoid lake trout over 20 inches in length entirely. The same holds true for whitefish. A whitefish larger than 20 inches can be eaten once a month by some of us. Again though, women of child bearing age and young children are warned to refrain from eating any whitefish over 20 inches in length. This being the case, why are the commercial netters allowed to distribute fish that are deemed unsafe to consume. Check the size of those fillets at the market on Saturday morning, or those freshly caught lake trout and whitefish laying on ice at the local grocery store. If they have come from the nets in this corner of Georgian Bay, then why aren’t they stamped with a great big warning sign on them. We do it with cigarettes, we do it with alcohol, why not lake trout and whitefish? Is this the way the Ministry of Natural Resources handles a resource? You bet and it all starts up the hill at the Upper Lake Unit. They are letting it all happen.

Like I said, I’ve been around the Ontario sportfishery for more years than I care to remember. I witnessed the Owen Sound sportfishery grow to the best in the Province. I’ve also witnessed it’s collapse. This fishery was worth millions of dollars annually and those dollars have gone done the tube, along with the fish stocks.. Today, whether we like it or not, the sportfishery as we knew it a decade ago is gone. We can blame the cormorants, the exotics and the Indian gill nets. I blame the Ministry of Natural Resources. 

Will the sport fishery bounce back…I doubt it!