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Report shows economic impact of ice fishing on Lake Winnipeg

Lake Winnipeg in the past 15 years has become the go-to destination for big walleyes in the winter, and the results of a newly released market study paint a powerful picture of the impact recreational fishing has on the region’s economy.

Lake Winnipeg’s big “greenbacks” mean big bucks to the Manitoba economy. Exponentially more bucks, in fact, than the commercial fishing industry that historically has dominated the big lake and a management approach that has driven walleye stocks to the brink of collapse.

“During the fishing season, I could probably fill another two hotels,” Andrea Gruyters, general manager of the Canalta hotel in Selkirk, Man., says in the report.

Commissioned by the Manitoba Wildlife Federation and several partners, the study queries the spending habits of more than 700 anglers who fish Lake Winnipeg in the winter.

Winnipeg firm Probe Research conducted the study, and the Manitoba Wildlife Federation unveiled the results Tuesday, Oct. 23, during a rally at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg.

A few of the highlights from the survey:

  • Nearly 100,000 adult anglers fished walleyes on Lake Winnipeg and its southern tributaries in the past two years.
  • Those anglers contributed $221 million in direct spending.
  • That spending added $102 million to the province’s Gross Domestic Product and $44 million in wages, supporting more than 1,500 jobs and $52 million in taxes.

By comparison, Lake Winnipeg’s commercial fishing industry contributed $29 million to the GDP over two years, supporting 696 jobs -- or “person years,” as they’re called in the report -- $20.5 million in wages and $8 million in tax revenues.

While no one is calling for an end to commercial fishing on Lake Winnipeg -- which is where most of the walleyes you order in a restaurant come from -- the Manitoba Wildlife Federation and others are calling on the government to implement more sustainable fisheries policies.

Driven by a huge year-class of walleyes from a massive hatch in 2001, commercial netters pulled more than 10 million pounds of walleyes from Lake Winnipeg annually from 2000 to 2010, a number that now has dropped to less than 6 million pounds, the Manitoba Wildlife Federation said in a news release.

In response, the commercial fishing industry increased the mesh size of its gill nets to target larger walleyes, the proverbial geese that lay the golden eggs. Last year, three-quarters of the fish harvested commercially were immature, the MWF said, further jeopardizing the future.

“The issue of declining fish stocks in Lake Winnipeg is a direct result of commercial fishing policies that are not based on science,” Dr. Brian Kotak, managing director of the Manitoba Wildlife Federation, said in the news release. “The harvest levels are unsustainable.”

Hook-and-line anglers also are feeling the impact of declining walleye numbers, and trophy fish aren’t nearly as abundant as they were just a few years ago.

If that trend continues, I’m glad I at least have the memory of what ice fishing on Lake Winnipeg was like before populations began their downward turn. I’ll never forget the afternoon in 2013 or 2014 when a friend and I released seven walleyes from 27 inches to 30 inches long and lost several other whoppers at the hole.

Fish like that are the reason anglers come to Lake Winnipeg, and the opportunity to catch a trophy greenback is what will keep them coming back.

“The economic impact of both the commercial industry and recreational anglers can’t be ignored,” Kotak went on to say in the news release. “Both are valuable contributors to the economy, jobs and livelihoods and our shared heritage.”

The challenge, he says, is finding a sustainable balance, a balance that won’t happen without a change in how the lake is managed.

“It needs to be about supporting families in commercial fishing as well as supporting tourism and angling opportunities,” Kotak said.

A full summary of the survey results is available on the Manitoba Wildlife Federation website at https://mwf.mb.ca

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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