The Damsa Chronicles 1: Extended Summary...

The Damsa Chronicles 1: Extended Summary and Overview

Few topics can catch the attention or have the potential to raise the ire of the public-at-large than the use - or misuse - of public resources. Environmental topics are a favorite and are debated at length. But from my experience, it is the angling fraternity that knows the value of Crown resources best - and they are amongst the most passionate in defending these resources against those that would lessen their angling experiences in any way. "Hell hath no fury like a women scorned" would be better phrased, as "Hell hath no fury like a fisherwoman scorned". You can take that to the bank.

Would you be willing to pay extra for the opportunity to angle for a fish of a lifetime?

So if one proposes that private enterprise - read that privately managed - fee fisheries in Crown waters can be a good thing for Ontario, yes Ontario, where anglers have the right to angle for free, one better do their homework. Because you will be discussing these concepts with some of the best-informed fisheries scientists, resource managers, anglers and public there are. Period. They do not suffer fools gladly. And you can rest assured that the bar is set very high for any commercialization of sport fisheries or other crown resources in Ontario. There is a long list of failures to prove my point.

But, well, let's give it a try. First a little background. In 1989, Damsa, a small Canadian company dedicated to resource enhancement, initiated a 14 year study on the technical and commercial viability of using sexually manipulated - sterile or monosex - stocks to create new trophy brook trout fisheries for tourism application in nine lakes previously devoid of sport fish. The lakes in question were relatively inaccessible, and received little or no use by the general public and were not considered for sport fish management by the government of the day.

The project was launched under the Crown Land As a Development Tool (CLADT) program under the provincial Liberal government and continued through NDP and Conservative parties when in power. Over half a million dollars have been invested in feasibility studies with support from the National Research Council (IRAP) and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund. The project ran until the summer of 2003 when remaining fish were removed. The science studies undertaken are some of the longest of their kind and have made the company a leader in the use of sexually altered trout for recreational brook trout fisheries.

From these studies the company found that brook trout fisheries averaged five pounds at near maximum trophy development - with some fish exceeding the ten pound barrier. It turns out that the technology can create exceptional fisheries, comparable to the best in the world. At full development these fisheries surpass those available in Ontario today, including the renowned Nipigon system, still considered the flagship of trophy brook trout waters in Ontario waters. In Lake Nipigon, anglers catch a brook trout just over three pounds about every six hours and a 2.3 kg (five pound) fish about every 70-75 hours.(R Salmon, Ministry of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist pers. comm.) For tourism operations, catch rates for Damsa fisheries would be typically three to five times greater than that observed for Lake Nipigon and five pound trout could be caught daily.

Much of the new fisheries science/technology was developed and tested using sterile and or monosex brook trout as the base of the fishery. Techniques to induce sterility and/or monosex brook trout stocks were developed from those used for other salmonids in the aquaculture industry. The assistance of Dr. Ed Donaldson, formerly with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, West Vancouver Laboratory, and his staff who pioneered many of these techniques was instrumental in our stock development.

Newly emerged try fry at hatchery rearing facilities

In theory sterile trout could grow bigger than their non-sterile counterparts particularly when the on sterile trout reach sexual maturity and energy is expended on reproduction instead of growth.

Field evidence shows that some of the largest trout ever caught were indeed sterile. Long term studies on the growth survival and performance of sexually altered trout in the field over one life cycle are rare and for brook trout, in particular, absent.

There are other ecological reasons for stocking these trout; however that may be more important than increased growth. The use of monosex and/or sterile stocks can protect the genetic integrity of systems stocked as well as eliminate the potential for stunted populations, a situation not infrequently found after stocking lakes in western North America. As well, the protocols developed by the company could reduce the risk of mercury poisoning to wildlife where current stocking of brook trout creates such risks.

A typical 2.3 kg (5 pound) sterile brookie caught and released during field studies (1992-2003)

Finally the creation of more world-class trophy brook trout fisheries in this area could perhaps alleviate some of the stress on the Nipigon Brook Trout Fisheries, which are currently under duress.

Damsa also undertook studies to mitigate winterkill waters to allow brook trout to grow to trophy status. Most waters in the study suffered winterkill and elevated temperatures stressed some as well. Improvements in water quality that supported year round populations of brook trout were deemed desirable in part because brook trout environs are perceived by the public and regulatory agencies as synonymous with very high water quality.

As Damsa was creating new fish for stocking, the company was given permission by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to examine waters in the Thunder Bay area, which may be suitable for growing trophy trout. The company objectives were simple. Waters with no sport fish were desired, as we did not wish to take away any current fishing opportunities for anglers. And preferably the lakes would relatively inaccessible such that there would be little use by the general public. A number of areas were considered before a location west of Kakabeka Falls was selected for detailed lake studies. These waters were eventually turned into sanctuaries to protect the fisheries during the development and testing of the fisheries.

The quality of the fisheries was tested/examined by numerous sportsmen/women including media experts such as Bob Izumi and Gord Ellis, as well as Doug Melville, a founder of the local fly fishing club and who has fly angled many of the better trout waters in both Canada and the USA.

At the time of the proposal (1988), emphasis was placed on fly fishing and catch and release protocols, concepts for angling in Northern Ontario that were well ahead of their times but which now, with the phenomenal growth in fly angling, and a stronger conservation ethic, are more readily accepted, if not embraced by Ontario anglers. In fact, the latest brook trout regulations on Lake Nipigon and Lake Superior have turned the fishery largely into a catch and release category as the size restriction will result in only a small part of the fishery available for legal removal. One could hope that many of the legally caught trophies would be returned as well, given the availability and quality of graphite replica taxidermy facilities.

Doug Melville drops a fly on some northern Ontario waters

The sustainable fisheries created by Damsa were intended to provide the basis of a commercial tourism operation where clients paid for the opportunity to angle for trophy fish. Gerry McEachern examined the potential markets for these fisheries in two studies. The first looked at the commercial potential from creating/marketing (1) resort (2) memberships (3) condominium and (4) science. The second examined in detail an upscale fly-fishing operation (resort). Included were research interviews with 36 "leaders and key influencers" in the fly fishing fraternity where angling and experiential preferences for potential clients were determined. The study also conducted a situational analysis that included place considerations, product considerations: authenticity, comfort, knowledge platform for anglers, main product components, personnel considerations: numbers and quality, price and finance, promotional considerations, and positioning and competitive forces.

Suffice to say here that there is a large and varied market for these fisheries, particularly with clients from the USA where much of their brook trout habitat has been lost in the past century to anthropogenic impacts. The projected fees are an interrelated function of the 'wilderness" experience the angler enjoys, the quality of the fishery and the supporting hospitality infrastructure. These fees would be comparable to other high quality fishing operations in Canada and could range from $100 to $500+ a day, depending upon services provided.

These very high quality fisheries with an upscale lodge were the heart of a proposed four-season ecotourism operation that could generate revenues in excess of one million dollars per year. According to a preliminary Socio-economic review by Bill Lees of William Lees and Associates Inc. this project would also generate about five times more economic activity than traditional forestry logging management for the study area encompassing the waters.

New trophy brook trout fisheries proposed for public

The Crown resources required to stimulate this economic activity are not believed to be large. Given the public sensitivity on the disposition of Crown Resources, the company is not particularly interested in the purchase of lands in the area in question, but rather in the right to share the resources for specified (tourism) purposes, mainly the lakes for fisheries development. Thus tourism development would require acceptance/accommodation by the other user groups for resource sharing, particularly the general public, hunters and anglers, the mining industry and forest managers. In our proposal, traditional land use activities - as defined as those undertaken in the last generation - would be honoured. A parallel could be drawn with forestry practices today on Crown lands where the public is allowed wide use of forests for a variety of activities - but the trees are managed (and protected) for commercial purposes.

Our preliminary discussion with many of the general public suggest that an agreement on sharing resources is not only possible but desirable, as with good planning, the DAMSA technology can be applied in the tourism sector with no net loss in resources to the general public, or other resource users. In fact net gains (enhancements) are probable and are the objective of any resource development proposal. The project proposal provides for additional resource development for the public (creation of new brook/rainbow trout fisheries using Damsa technology outside the study area in exchange for a fixed term access to Crown resources for the company's economic viability.

An early morning rise on a newly developed trophy trout fishery. Many lakes in northern Ontario have this potential

Much of the background to the project was covered by Gord Ellis and his articles can be found on the company website It should be pointed out that Gord Ellis has covered this project solely as an outdoors writer and his prominence in web site photos and future articles should not be construed necessarily as support for project goals. Since writing these articles Gord has gone on to become the Fishing Editor for the sports magazine Ontario Out of Doors, perhaps the widest read Canadian outdoors publication. This magazine represents the views of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and lets - shall we say it delicately - this organization is not completely in love with of some of the concepts put forth here. None-the-less, Gord did cover this project from its near inception, did angle a few of the lakes on a few occasions and has a credibility with the public that this company - and at times - the provincial government (with no disrespect) may lack. His photos and articles are quoted here but for Gord's view of the project you can read his articles on the website and/or contact him directly.

It is the intent of this series of articles to not only give an overview of a rare private sector initiative into fisheries development in some Ontario waters but moreover to hopefully stimulate some discussion on possible ways to improve resource management through more private sector involvement. Ontario truly has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to water resources. And, I would suggest that fisheries conservation as practised here might be improved. There are a very large number of small lakes and ponds in Ontario that do not contain sport fish, and the government has no plans to develop the vast majority of them as sport fisheries.

This project is intended to give an example of the fisheries potential that awaits in a very large number of small lakes in Ontario that are currently receiving and will continue to receive very little or virtually no use by the public for the foreseeable future.

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Aquatic conservation through watershed management utilizing innovative technologies