US and Canada Clash Over International Walleye Crisis

US and Canada Clash Over International Walleye Crisis

You’re bound to get differing opinions on the health of a lake’s walleye population when its shoreline zigzags for 25,000 miles through one state and two provinces.

So whose opinion do you embrace when agency biologists on one side of the Minnesota-Ontario divide say walleye fishing in Lake of the Woods is “unsustainable,” while their counterparts across the border say it’s just fine?

Will the biologists with the most accurate analysis please stand?

Don’t look now, but biologists in both countries just stood up.

Is the nearly million-acre Lake of the Woods (LOW) big enough for such opposing beliefs to both be right? Well, its surface area features 1,680 square miles of tannin-stained water that covers parts of Minnesota, Manitoba, and a vast section of northwestern Ontario—the province holding most of the lake’s 14,552 granite islands. In fact, LOW’s perimeter is seven times longer than California’s coastline, and its surface area would cover Rhode Island and leave 135 square miles in reserve.

All those vital stats rank LOW as the 36th largest freshwater lake in the world and the sixth largest inside or bordering the United States. Only the five Great Lakes are larger. Its size requires U.S. and Canadian agencies to divide their management duties across nine lake districts. Only one district—Big Traverse Bay—is managed by Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, which oversees 307,010 acres of the entire 951,337-acre lake. Manitoba manages Buffalo Bay, a western slice of Big Traverse. Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry manages the other seven districts, roughly two-thirds of the system.

Besides its vastness, LOW receives varying amounts of fishing pressure across its many bays, inlets, channels, and backwaters. And although recreational fishing accounts for most of that activity on both sides of the border, First Nations people use nets for subsistence and commercial fishing in Ontario. Further, the immense mud flats of Minnesota’s Big Traverse Bay taper to only 35 feet. Its surrounding marshes and shallow habitats contrast with the maximum 210-foot depths in LOW’s Ontario waters, which feature the Canadian Shield’s granite-walled shorelines, thin-soiled islands, and glacier-polished outcrops.

One Lake, Two Fisheries So, yes, it’s possible the walleye fisheries in Lake of the Woods are two sides of the same coin. And, right or wrong, Minnesota’s DNR does not foresee changing its LOW regulations. Minnesota allows a daily bag of four walleyes, but anglers cannot keep walleyes 19 ½ to 28 inches long, and only one that exceeds 28 inches.

Nonresident anglers in Ontario’s LOW waters currently can keep two walleyes daily and possess a maximum of four, but only one can exceed 18 inches. Canadians can keep four daily and possess four. Ontario’s MNRF, however, told MeatEater that anglers can expect changes to those already strict regulations to “improve the walleye fishery’s quality and buffer it against future pressures.” The MNRF didn’t say when it would make changes, only that it would review proposed changes publicly and consult with Indigenous communities.

The province understands LOW’s importance to the region’s fishing-based tourism. At the 2021 International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Forum in March, MNRF’s Steve Bobrowicz said LOW is the province’s most economically valuable recreational fishery of all of its inland lakes. He put its annual value at roughly $112 million Canadian Dollars in direct spending for the region.

For perspective, Ontario contains more than 250,000 lakes that hold about 20% of the world’s freshwater. Ontario’s recreational anglers spent $3.835 billion province-wide in 2018.

However, the MNRF considers LOW’s walleye fishery the most vulnerable of the 40 lakes it analyzed from 2015 to 2017. Bobrowicz said agency assessments “indicate the walleye population in Ontario waters is experiencing high fishing mortality and low biomass of mature fish, suggesting the current fishery is unsustainable.”

Bronson Carver, a reporter with the Kenora Miner & News, wrote on April 21, “Lake of the Woods was the only [lake] to fall into the danger zone of MNRF’s risk assessment.” That assessment also found LOW’s region the most susceptible of the 40 lakes analyzed to experience social or economic impacts from a fisheries collapse.

When the Kenora Miner & News requested specifics on LOW’s walleye population in Ontario, the MNRF responded nearly two weeks later. But instead of details, the agency simply said walleye numbers were “approximately half of what is needed to sustainably support current levels of harvest.”

In his brief abstract for the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Forum, Bobrowicz also noted the lake “supports a significant, though largely unquantified, ‘First Nations’ commercial fishery,” but didn’t speculate on its impact to the system’s walleye population. The MNRF, however, told the Kenora Miner & News that “the amount of recreational fishing alone on Lake of the Woods is too high to be sustainable, before either commercial or subsistence fishing also comes into the picture.”

Minnesota bought out the last of its commercial fishing operations on LOW in 1984.

Vague Information Recently, headlines from Canadian media have included phrases like “dire straits” and “in danger” to describe LOW’s Ontario walleyes. Few people doubt the ability of combined commercial, subsistence, and recreational fishing to crush a lake’s walleye population. After all, one LOW district, Shoal Lake, has been closed to recreational fishing since 1983 after its walleye population collapsed. Only First Nations people can fish it today.

Further, as with many accessible North American waters, the entire Lake of the Woods is dealing with invasive species like rusty crayfish and spiny waterfleas, and locals on both sides of the border routinely blame outsiders with fast boats and high-tech electronics for depleting their walleyes.

Meanwhile, experts note that without data on commercial harvests, biologists can only focus their management efforts on recreational fishing. In a scientifically reviewed assessment of Ontario’s LOW and adjoining waters from 2017, the Ocean Wise conservation program reported 13 commercial licenses available on LOW waters and said, “Negative impacts from commercial fishing on retained populations are possible. Additionally, enforcement of regulations is limited and compliance reported to be poor.” The report’s executive summary concluded, “Stronger policies are needed to fully protect the ecological role of commercially targeted fish.”

Ontario’s MNRF consistently declines to share specific data about fishing pressure and the LOW walleye population. When MeatEater requested recent creel-census and population-assessment numbers, its communications office emailed scripted talking points such as:

“The Ontario waters of Lake of the Woods continue to receive a substantial amount of fishing pressure,” and “Monitoring data … also indicate the walleye population is vulnerable to continued high levels of harvest to the point where the current harvest poses a risk to the quality of the fishery.”

“The ministry is also engaged in initial discussions with Indigenous communities to better understand their goals and objectives for the commercial and subsistence fisheries.”

The MNRF said if new fishing regulations are approved, they would take effect on Jan. 1 of the following year.

Minnesota Stands Firm Meanwhile, the Minnesota DNR must respond to all those concerns, scary headlines, and agency warnings from across the border, as well as homegrown accusations that its biologists are asleep at the helm. Phil Talmage, the DNR’s area fisheries supervisor in Baudette, said the agency’s regulations and annual assessments make him confident that walleyes in Minnesota’s LOW district are faring well.

“Lake of the Woods is a huge, complex ecosystem stretching from Kenora to Baudette,” Talmage said. “It has a long, wide gradient of resources and a long gradient of walleye size and abundance. The three-year averages for walleye abundance in Minnesota waters are still above management goals. All of our data show a very healthy spawning stock with good production and recruitment.”

Talmage said the Minnesota DNR couldn’t conduct creel surveys on anglers over the summer of 2020 because of COVID-19, but it completed its annual net surveys to assess walleye populations last year and finished analyzing the data this spring.

“Our walleye data are complete through 2020,” Talmage said. “We don’t cover as large of an area as Ontario does, so we can check the same spots every year. Ontario has to monitor two-thirds of the lake, so they have to rotate their assessment sites. Some of their data are from 2016 to 2018. Plus they have to factor in a commercial fishery, so theirs is a much more complex fishery than ours. They have a lot going on up there.”

Talmage said the Minnesota DNR documented consistently strong walleye recruitment in LOW’s Big Traverse sector the past decade, except 2012 and 2017. He considers those the only weak walleye year classes since 2010.

Talmage said the weak 2017 class basically explains recent angler complaints about too few keeper-size walleyes. Walleyes from that year would have been in the sub-19 ½-inch “keeper” range. He said the lake’s 19 ½- to 28-inch slot limit, however, is protecting the strong stock of spawning-age walleyes.

Talmage expects strong classes from 2018 and 2019 to boost keeper-size numbers soon and thinks the 2020 class won’t disappoint.

“I’m anticipating we’ll see good overall abundance this year,” Talmage said.

Ice-Fishing Booms That doesn’t mean the Minnesota DNR is ignoring big increases in winter fishing pressure. The agency estimated that ice anglers logged 2.72 million hours on LOW’s Minnesota waters during its December 2020 through March 2021 creel survey. That tally was down only 2% from a record 2.78 million ice angling hours the previous winter.

Talmage also said this past winter’s catch—an estimated 215,000 pounds of walleyes—declined 12% from 244,000 in winter 2019-‘20, and 42% from 370,000 pounds in winter 2018-‘19. Further, the catch for sauger, a smaller cousin of walleye, also declined. Talmage attributed at least part of those declines to an early March 2021 heat wave that made LOW unsafe for ice travel, ending the ice fishing season about three weeks early.

In comparison, LOW’s summertime anglers have averaged 750,000 to 800,000 hours in recent years, less than a third as much fishing pressure as reported the past two winters. The Minnesota DNR’s “harvest threshold” for LOW’s walleyes is 540,000 pounds annually, and it has averaged 520,000 pounds the past six years. The agency said the walleye fishery could sustain infrequent annual catches above 540,000 pounds without harming its growth, abundance, or age at maturity; but would likely require stricter regulations if anglers consistently exceeded that target.

Talmage said LOW’s anglers also enjoy a prolific sauger fishery that occupies them when walleyes aren’t biting. In fact, anglers have consistently exceeded the Minnesota DNR’s 250,000-pound annual sauger harvest threshold by about 72% recently, averaging 434,000 pounds the past six years. Those totals included a sauger harvest of 313,000 the past year and 461,000 in 2019-‘20, with 80% of it occurring during winter.

Talmage attributes those excesses to an unusually high sauger population. Even though recent harvests probably aren’t sustainable, the agency’s data don’t suggest long-term harm to the sauger fishery.

Walleye and sauger numbers on Lake of the Woods—and Minnesota’s combined six-fish daily bag limit in which two or more must be saugers—have helped make it a wildly popular destination the past 20 winters. Still, Talmage was surprised by the record numbers of anglers the past two winters.

“Until the year 2000, we never had 1 million angling hours in winter,” Talmage said. “Since then, we’ve seen exponential growth. We were hovering around 2 million hours for four to six years, and I thought we had kind of peaked when it hit 2.1 million in 2018-‘19. But then it shot up to 2.8 million hours in 2019-‘20. I first wrote that off as an odd winter where everything came together: early freeze-up, good fishing, and good ice-travel conditions because we dodged the early heavy snows that fell elsewhere. But then we hit 2.7 million hours this past winter. Now I think we can expect these numbers for some time.”

Talmage said he’s seen little change in LOW’s summer fishing pressure during his 13 years in Baudette.

“It ebbs and flows during summer, and it’s always limited by the number of beds and parking spots available at bars and resorts,” he said. “We just don’t have the infrastructure and accommodations in summer that we now have in winter. The road network on the ice has really grown. The total mileage out there is unreal. We have more bridges across expansion cracks than ever. People are reaching places they never could before. They pay a resort’s access fee to the ice road, pull their sleeper-houses out there, stay for days, and never stop fishing the entire time.”

A ‘Shrinking’ Lake Joe Henry, Lake of the Woods County’s tourism director, said fishing generates about $100 million annually for the county, which was home to about 3,760 people as of 2018. Henry said locals have long known their county held more whitetails than people. In recent winters, however, the number of humans on LOW’s ice also outnumbers its land-dwellers.

Henry said the lake’s endless ice-roads, tracked vehicles, smartphones, GPS technology, and fishing electronics have “shrunk” the lake.

“Visiting fishermen used to depend on our resorts for accommodations, but the new wheelhouses are mansions on wheels,” Henry said. “They’re basically RVs or camper-trailers with holes in the floor for ice-fishing. They’re fancy, warm, comfortable and ready to fish. Their hydraulics lower the floor flush with the ice. Then it’s ‘rattle reels down and TV on.’ They’re fishing all day and night. Just a few years ago, most people ice-fished early in the morning and again late afternoon and early evening. They spent midday at the resort eating, drinking, and watching football. Now, they can watch football in their ice castle with their friends and family and never come off the ice until they head home.”

Henry attributes LOW’s exploding popularity to a “perfect storm” of factors: “Ice fishing itself has grown more popular across the entire North, not just here. Besides that, we usually have safe ice by December 10 and it usually stays until late March. Plus, the water is a copper color from all the tannins, so it’s just dark enough for walleyes to bite all day. We also have good fishing for saugers and northern pike, and you can take home enough fish to make it worthwhile. No one else has all that going for them.”

Henry said he’s confident in the Minnesota DNR to manage the lake’s fishery.

“It might sound like the sky is falling over in Ontario, and I’m not saying there aren’t any problems, but our DNR has the current data and keeps us informed,” Henry said. “They’re watching and they’re very interested.”

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