The Damsa Chronicles 6: Socio-Economic Benefits (2)...

The Damsa Chronicles 6: Socio-Economic Benefits From a Proposed Public-Private Partnership for Enhanced Brook Trout Fisheries in a Multi-Use Forest (2): A Plea for Other Opportunities

As stated in the introductory article, few topics can raise the interest, concern and passion of the public as the use - and misuse - of public resources. Of the public resources under consideration, fisheries continue to be perhaps the most high profile. And brook trout fisheries in particular ignite the passions, more so than almost all other fisheries. For much of southern Ontario, for example, the brook trout lakes were the major draw to Algonquin Park where much of the Ontario masses seek outdoor experiences. The province adds to natural brook trout populations by stocking over 650 lakes a year. A quick perusal of Canadian fishing magazines reveals that articles on brook trout fishing are amongst the most popular topics.

Previous articles have described the underpinnings, stock creation, development and testing of some exceptional brook trout fisheries in small lakes near Thunder Bay; however, these fisheries no longer exist. Trout were removed in 2003. The lakes used for the fisheries development and testing were returned to the Crown in the state in which they were first found.

Yet, there are several lines of evidence to suggest that the government is incapable of or unwilling to create similar exceptional brook trout fisheries in the foreseeable future and even more pointedly why the government is incapable of protecting such fisheries - even if they created them despite a very keen desire of such fisheries by the public. Why? As Pogo stated so eloquently and as outlined below, "We have met the enemy and it is us".

What is a public or private fishery in Ontario?

Vulnerability of trophy trout to angling in a small (8 ha) Shield lake

First we need to clarify what are private fisheries and public fisheries as the characteristics of each readily reveal the interests of the stakeholders. With the exception of landowners who have created fisheries on their own dug ponds which have no connection or outflow to natural waters (known as artificial waters), the vast majority of fisheries in Ontario are public fisheries - even for those that have lakes and ponds surrounded by their own land. Landowners can stock lakes on their own property with fish once they have obtained a "License to Stock Fish in Ontario Waters". The license is issued by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources for certain species, once the Crown biologist is satisfied the issue of such a license will not harm other Crown fisheries or interests. Fish stocked under this license are the property of the Crown and subject to provincial fishery regulations. Thus if the public can access fisheries on private property, they are entitled to fish them. This means that ponds or lakes that are capable of receiving aircraft are open to the public - even though the landowner must pay for all stocking costs in many cases, because, according to Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Policy, waters are not to be stocked with fish grown in Crown hatcheries unless there is general access for the public. General public access to waters surrounded by private land is not typically permitted. Given the popularity of ultralight aircraft with anglers, however, and the very short distances needed to lift off - typically much less than 100 metres, it is indeed a small water body that cannot be accessed by some of the public for angling purposes: consequently fisheries - even those surrounded by private land - are subject to "The Tragedy of the Commons" whereby the quality of Crown fisheries decline with time as there is increasing angling pressure on a "fixed" resource.

A private fishery is defined where the fish belong to the proponent, not the Crown and such fisheries are very rare in Ontario. Such fisheries are created under an aquaculture license which is intended to govern the sale of fish.

The differences in these public and private fisheries are profound. Public fisheries are protected by Conservation Officers acting on behalf of the Crown, while private fisheries are protected by the owner.

So why are these differences so profound? Basically it boils down to personal and collective responsibility and accountability. These differences are not just related to the value of the fish per se but to a much larger extend to all resources and stewardship practices.

Everyone Steals From The Government

For the Damsa project, placing the study lakes under sanctuary status was intended to protect the fisheries during the scientific studies. While the general concepts of the Damsa project had been released to the public from the beginning, the specific location of the lakes was not, in order not to attract unwanted attention from those who disregard Fish and Game Laws, who see trophy brook trout as highly desirable, and who might see the Damsa Technology as additional value.

Thus it would not be particularly surprising to find poachers at the lakes but who were unaware of the specifics of the fishery under sanctuary status. It was inevitable that some poaching would occur, given the history of poaching in other brook trout sanctuaries in Canada and the USA. One winter day while conducting some winterkill studies at the lakes, I encountered some "gentlemen" who, in my opinion, were not there to admire the scenery. The upshot of the ensuing discussions about the sanctuary status of the lakes and the need to protect fisheries was agreement from the "gentlemen" that it was illegal to fish sanctuary lakes, and they certainly would not - but if someone did take fish from these lakes - what did it matter to me? They were government fish - and everybody steals from the government.

And there it was in a nutshell. It was cause for reflection. I would like to tell you that with respect to obeying Ontario Game Laws, my history is whiter than driven snow, but I cannot. Being embarrassed, even ashamed, and contrite now does nothing for the opportunities I took away from someone else then. While my ethics now are not as situational as then, it took a mid life crisis and some reflection to fully appreciate that stealing from the government was in reality stealing from myself (slow learner). Moreover, I do not know of a single angler who is whiter than driven snow and hasn't rationalized the breaking of some "stupid" regulations either directly or indirectly subverting the intent of the legislation.

Such self interest is frequently modified through education (formal, such as understanding the meagre populations that are found in most lakes - or informally through life experience, appreciation and maturity). For most of us, I suspect, the taking of life is replaced by the appreciation of life as we age. It is the angling experience we crave more than the killing of the fish. When the "gentlemen" found out the extent of private involvement in these sanctuary fisheries and the purpose of the fisheries and the small size of the fisheries, their attitudes invariably changed and I never encountered any of them in the study area again. Clearly, in their minds, stealing from the government and stealing from someone you know are two different things entirely.

The vulnerability of fisheries to theft in whatever form is proportional to the value of the fish, the chances of catching the fish, and the probability of getting away with the act itself. Trophy brook trout are very highly valued by many and it is one of the most sought after fishes in North America. It is for this reason that brook trout sanctuary lakes are poached both in Canada and the USA.

Exceptional trophy brook trout lakes raise the stakes even higher. The success rate for anglers in well managed trophy waters at their maximum carrying capacity is very high. At the close of the project we extracted 60% of the trophy brook trout from an 8 ha (20 acre) lake in 10 hours with a single fly rod in the spring over a five week period of intermittent angling (Figure 1). Yes, this was fishing the way it used to be in the good old days. Unfortunately I strongly suspect that stealing such fish from the Crown today would not be difficult, particularly with the communications tools available to thwart the approach of conservation officials and the limited time an officer can spend on any individual lake.

Poaching trophy trout is more problematic when the size and yields of typical brook trout fisheries in lakes is taken into account. Typical brook trout lakes are small and have very low sustainable yields, in the range of 0.5 to 5 kg/ha/year. For a typical - say 8 ha (20 acre) lake, the annual yield amounts to 4 to 40 kg (9 to 90 lbs). It is not unusual to see one quarter to one half of this yield removed in a single day or so by just a few anglers in many cases. And after the annual yield is taken, the standing stocks diminish.

Although the brook trout lakes are very vulnerable to substantial stock removal in a very short time, the effects of long term chronic "low level" poaching or small elevations in trout mortality is insidious. A removal of as little as 15% of the brook trout on an ongoing basis removes all benefits of a catch and release fishery, according to modellers Larry Gigliotti and William Taylor who examined in detail the effect of illegal harvest on recreational fisheries in the USA.

Given the brook trout's vulnerability to angling, and their small populations, the only way exceptional trophy fisheries will be available to the public in Crown waters is through dramatically increased enforcement activity. And we all know that dramatically increased enforcement is not going to happen - not from the government. We simply cannot afford to have the government protect us from ourselves.

Why isn't the government creating the kinds of brook trout fisheries Damsa developed?

Well they are trying to create better brook trout fisheries; actually they are trying very hard. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources policies are, however, primarily directed at the restoration and rehabilitation of indigenous fisheries, not the development of new fisheries using improved technology.

There is less attention to creating new fisheries for the public but some are being developed. For example the Thunder Bay District has expanded its list of lakes deemed suitable for stocking brook trout, although the actual fisheries value of most of these lakes remain to be established. In many cases these lakes do not meet the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Guidelines for Stocking Fish in Inland Waters of Ontario, guidelines with the goal to "…ensure the most efficient use of hatchery products for management purposes and to minimize the impacts of stocking on existing biota". Stocking lakes that do meet the Crown guidelines will invariably produce good fisheries. Stocking those that do not are far less certain and at times may fail. Time and angler success will tell. The brook trout stocking program for Thunder Bay is very successful and has received much attention and many reviews in the past. Therefore it is not particularly surprising to find a shortage of new lakes that meet OMNR guidelines for brook trout stocking purposes. The greater majority of these lakes are already in the stocking program.

The best fisheries created by Damsa, however, came from waters that normally winterkill, as these waters are inherently more productive than the other stocked lakes. The costs to alleviate winterkill for waters are more than the government is willing to pay. I am unaware of any government sponsored projects or plans to alleviate winterkill in Ontario waters. Thus it is unlikely these fisheries will be created in the foreseeable future.

The government can attempt to improve fisheries through regulation changes and in many cases, the desired change is helpful - at least in the short term. The regulation changes in the Lake Nipigon, and Lake Superior Coasters, Ontario's trophy flagship waters, can well be a case in point. The Nipigon system is Ontario's premier big brook trout waters and there is not only the fish but also the mystique and reverence for the trout environs here.

Concern over the Lake Nipigon brook trout fishery has resulted in more restrictive regulation changes in the last twenty five years with the limit going from 15 in 1980 to one over 22 inches (about 4.5 pounds or 2 kg) in 2005. This latest regulation change has in a very large measure turned the brook trout fishery into catch and release.

Based on the latest angler catch records for Lake Nipigon (2004, R. Salmon pers com), it will currently take the typical angler roughly 75 hours or more of angling on Lake Nipigon to catch a fish larger than 22 inches, the size permissible for retaining one fish. The typical angler has released about 60% or more of his/her catch. I would like to think that with the very high quality of graphite replicas available today, anyone fishing that amount of time for a large brook trout would release it.

Based on computer simulations by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the latest changes to the brook trout regulation should increase the adult fish population by 250% with the average size brook trout angled increasing from 39 to 42 cm (T. Marshal pers. com.). Making the fishery completely catch and release will only have marginal improvements on the population, increasing it by 300% (in comparison to 250%) of today's population, according to the same population model. Thus we are in the final stages of maximizing angler opportunities to the Lake Nipigon fishery through regulatory processes without reducing angler's opportunities to participate at some level with the sport. And the regulatory improvements should certainly aid the beloved Nipigon brookie - in the short term.

Improvements in the fishery through more restrictive regulations, however, will unlikely be long term. Its very success guarantees its demise. As angling improves and more people are attracted through word of mouth, web site postings, provincial tourism agencies, outdoor magazine articles and private fishing businesses, the fishing pressure increases. Additionally, more anglers have bigger and better boats, as well as better fish locating equipment as well as improved understanding of brook trout habitat and behaviour. Overall the fishery declines. For the Lake Nipigon fishery, for example the catch per unit effort has remained roughly the same the same over a 10 year period (1993-2003) - about one fish in ten hours - even though angling activity increased three fold (LNFAU, Rick Salmon ). It appears that improvements in fish populations as a result of rehabilitative and conservation measures have been offset by increased numbers of anglers such that angling success has stayed pretty much the same. In summary, improved access, angler knowledge and communications will continue to put additional strain on the Nipigon fishery.

Improvements in coaster brook trout fisheries will inevitably raise their appeal to poachers given their vulnerability in fall concentration in Lake Superior coaster streams. There is already evidence of high non compliance for brook trout regulations in Lake Superior ( Poaching trout when concentrated in the fall in coastal streams can be of concern. In a telemetry study of adult bull trout (similar enough to a brook trout that they apparently readily hybridize in nature) researchers at the University of Alberta observed that poaching rates may have approached 17% between September and October 2003 for a section of the Elbow River near Calgary. Poaching of this magnitude in Lake Superior watersheds would be serious indeed. As well, one may expect from improvement in coaster runs that there will undoubtedly be an increase in the number of fishermen catching them while ostensibly fishing for other species (virtue untested is not virtue) And while low, there is mortality in catching of these fish.

Finally, the recent changes to the brook trout regulations have angered a segment of the angling population that likes to eat brook trout, as now the opportunity to catch and eat brook trout in coaster streams has been all but eliminated. Some of these anglers will ignore this law (another "stupid" regulation) and try to find ways to circumvent the law directly or indirectly.

I would like to think that the fishery will improve substantially - and it should - but unfortunately only for the short term. Inevitably there will be further restrictions to assist these brook trout stocks.

There is only one way to ensure the health of brook trout fisheries and that is to limit their mortality rates - either directly from limiting fish from being caught and harvested - or indirectly by limiting catch and release fisheries. In many places in Quebec, fishing stops completely when the annual production for a given lake is removed. In multi species waters such as the Lake Nipigon and Superior systems, such measures are likely untenable.

But unless there is a private interest in the fishery, chances of sustained success are low and fly in the face of history. It is not by accident that fisheries such as those found at La Reserve Beauchene, rated as one of the top brook trout tourism operations in Canada, is run on private interests.

In short, I would suggest that government regulations and management cannot save us from ourselves; only we, on an individual basis, can do so. Incentives to do so could be provided.

What improvements to fisheries resource management could be expected in these public-private partnerships?

To begin, it should be made clear that privately created fisheries must minimally conform to the to the Crown's statements of environmental values for Crown fisheries. To that end privately created fisheries must meet all the regulatory requirements for fish health, stocking rates, genetics, etc., that are taken into account when the government approves other fish stocking proposals through the Environmental Assessment process. This obligation will ensure that fisheries created by the private sector are sustainable and that the future viability of any stocked waters is not compromised should the private partner withdraw from the process.

It should also be made clear that these new fisheries proposals are to be considered for waters that the government wish to manage within the time frame for the business proposal. In this situation there would not be any withdrawal of angling opportunities for the angling public - only an enhancement.

1. More Fisheries, More Angling Opportunities

At first blush the most obvious benefit is the creation of new angling opportunities for anglers. This does not necessarily mean for fee paying patrons only. If one were to be a bit creative - and the business plan supported the concept - one could provide additional free angling opportunities for the public at large by creating new free fisheries for the public in the lakes that are devoid of sport fish - pending successful completion of the Environmental Approval process for stocking brook trout, of course. Our initial discussions with brook trout anglers in the Thunder Bay area drew a very enthusiastic response to the idea of more stocked brook trout lakes for public use and enjoyment.

2. Improved Angling Opportunities

Damsa has developed the technology and protocols to create trophy brook trout fisheries second to none in the province and comparable to the best trophy brook trout fisheries in the world. In one short term experiment of three years, for example, brook trout in one lake averaged almost two and half pounds (1.1 kg) with catch rates over a five week period of seven fish per hour. These fish are substantially bigger than those typically caught by anglers in Lake Nipigon and were caught at dramatically higher rates than those caught in Lake Nipigon. These results were presented and discussed at the American Fisheries Society, Ontario Chapter Annual Meeting, in Orillia, Ontario March 2005 (see Vulnerability of Trophy Brook Trout to Angling in a Small Shield Lake). Yes this truly was like fishing in the good old days. At near maximum trophy development, these fisheries average 5 pounds (2.3 kg). These fisheries would provide exceptional angling opportunities and experiences that are not currently available to Ontario anglers.

3. Better Genetic Protection of Stocked Waters.

The use of reproductive technology dramatically reduces risks to the genetic integrity of stocked waters. Currently in Ontario there are several strains and interstrains of wild and domestic stocks used in stocking programs which have undoubtedly affected the genes of a very large number of indigenous brook trout fisheries. Given the heightened sensitivity to the protection of aquatic communities, it may be only a matter of time before Ontario adopts a more conservative approach. The technology is readily available for other salmonids, and protocols for other species are regularly being published in fisheries/aquaculture journals.

4. Potential For More Efficient Utilization of Brook Trout Stocked.

Any protocols which reduce mortality rates - either from birds, animals, or previously stocked trout, can reduce the number needed for stocking purposes. Such protocols can include stocking sexually manipulated stocks.

5. Potential to Reduce Risk of Mercury Poisoning to Wildlife Where Such Risks Currently Exist.

There are several lines of evidence to suggest that wildlife in Ontario are at risk to mercury poisoning, and that elevated mercury levels in aquatic biota directly contribute to these risks. Stocking programs may contribute to these risks and there are fisheries management protocols that can lower them. Such protocols could include adjusting the size at which fish are stocked, stocking density, stocking sexual status, and/or other biological/biogeochemical alterations which ultimately lower mercury levels in targeted prey. There are a number of other fishery management strategies that may be employed to reduce the risk of mercury poisoning to targeted wildlife at risk that involve potentially altering food webs, diluting the mercury pool through increased biomass and altering the biogeochemistry of the waters to reduce net methylmercury production. Such strategies would certainly help reduce wildlife exposure to mercury.

6. Potential to Reduce Demand on Other Waters - Lake Nipigon.

Trophy Brook in Lake Nipigon, the Nipigon River and Lake Superior streams are under pressure - simply to exist at low populations. The latest estimates of standing stocks of trophy brook trout (sexually mature) for the two largest spawning locations in Lake Nipigon are estimated at about 900 kg (600 fish at 1.5 kg each) (OMNR data). Standing stocks for the nine waters in the Damsa study area at full trophy capacity are estimated at a similar value 900 kg (65 ha at 15 kg/ha) based on detailed results on two of the lakes of 15 and 32 kg/ha and the mean value of 16.3 kg/ha for nine other small Shield lakes in North-eastern Ontario. It is perhaps surprising - if not astonishing - to realize that a small number of well managed lakes - such as proposed in the Damsa project could offer the same sporting opportunities as is found in a significant portion of Lake Nipigon today. Development of such additional fisheries as proposed here could lessen the angling demands on Lake Nipigon waters and ease the recovery of these brook trout.

7. Improved Fishery Habitat

Most waters that Damsa studied needed habitat modifications to provide year round habitat for trophy trout. Most of them required assistance to overcome winterkill which is alleviated by the introduction of oxygen during critical periods. Such introductions result in an improvement in water quality by societal standards and are thus a real benefit from the development of such fisheries.

8. More Attention to the Protection of the Fisheries

Fisheries stewardship under federal, provincial, and municipal regulations has a consistent and persistent track record under the "Tragedy of the Commons" that results in ongoing deterioration of angling opportunities. This includes not only lower fish limits and shorter seasons but also the (illegal) introduction of unwanted species, either accidentally or by design, which can fundamentally and most times irreversibly affect sport fisheries adversely. This record may be improved by private interests who institute more safeguards - such as no live bait, or no bait, and vigorously pursue educational opportunities with anglers.

It's more than the fish - much, much more.

New public-private partnerships for enhanced sport fisheries such as those described here offer not only improved opportunities for generating revenues in weak northern Ontario economies but also for improving stewardship not only for the fisheries but indirectly to all Crown resources impacted by the fisheries program per se. The higher values placed on the resource (trophy brook trout) would also be relevant to the environments containing the fishery. Thus there would be incentives to keep water quality high, for example, and lake shore line environment clear and free of debris and garbage, a situation that is too infrequently found in accessible public environments.

It should also be pointed out here that there is implicit recognition of the biophysical and ecological value of lakes currently without sport fish - there are an estimated tens of thousands of them in Ontario. Stocking some of these with brook trout may not be considered undesirable in view of the advantages proposed.


As pointed out in the introductory article, the Damsa project was developed under the Crown Land as a Development Tool (CLADT) program, a program designed to improve the economy by utilizing Crown resources. This project never made it through the last step, whereby the public is consulted (Environmental Assessment) and Crown resources are allocated to the company for commercial purposes. The company was eventually allowed to make revenue from fisheries science conducted on the lakes but this process was eventually eliminated when the government made new requirements for more information - after 12 years of study - and the company declined to continue, withdrew fish from the study water and began to apply their technology elsewhere. As far as I am aware, no submission to the CLADT program ever got through the last step - they all failed. The potential, however, remains.

The Damsa fisheries cessation may be a loss to Ontario anglers. While the Crown will be stocking some of these waters with brook trout, as part of their District stocking program, the angling opportunities will be a shadow of their former glory. These fisheries will provide angling opportunities aptly described by Gord Ellis in Anglers Guide to Stocked Lakes, Thunder Bay District: "a large number of stocked lakes in the Thunder Bay District can provide a chance to catch a few pan-fries, ...while giving up the occasional four pounder and... a handful of these lakes can produce the holy grail of brook trout fishing - a brook trout of eight pounds or better." The fisheries technology and resources management proposed by Damsa would do much much much more than that. Every one of the nine lakes once stocked by Damsa has the potential to grow trout in excess of eight pounds and a number of them did. This potential will not be reached with government stocking/management protocols.

Where additional angling opportunities are desired by the public, and the private sector is willing to create them, with no net loss of resources to other users, it may be time to support some new public-private partnerships. This may be particularly relevant in situations where the government is unwilling or unable to provide the same angling opportunities. Under such partnerships, the private sector would enhance fisheries opportunities and be responsible for the resource creation and protection, while the government would retain the regulatory role to ensure the resource management is compatible with the "greater good".

At the very least, one could expect opportunities for improved resource stewardship. At its best, there would be improved stewardship of the resource, some spectacular angling opportunities previously unavailable to the public, and a reduced demand on other trophy public fisheries such as Lake Nipigon and Lake Superior Coasters. Would private enterprise then be viewed as dirty words in Ontario fisheries? Without the fisheries as proposed here, the quality of fisheries in Ontario will continue to decline - simply due to the "Tragedy of the Commons." This is not an opinion based on limited scientific evidence but rather the culmination of centuries of observation on public resources. It is why the fishing is never as good as it was in the "good old days."

Unless there are changes to how these resources are managed, this trend will inevitably continue. The concepts proposed here could change this trend for certain fisheries. They may be worth entertaining, at least on a trial basis.

The technology in itself has not only applicability here in Ontario but globally as well. The advances in reproductive biotechnology have been applied primarily in the aquaculture industry but there is widespread and growing interest in other parts of Canada and the USA. And the UK is well ahead of North America with extensive stockings of triploid trout. Most of Damsa's clients currently are found in the USA, but this is changing. The ability to successfully develop and apply new and sometimes controversial fisheries technology here in Ontario stands the company well when dealing with less regulated jurisdictions. Indeed when asked about company achievements I invariably reply that perhaps the greatest achievement was carrying out these scientific studies in Ontario, one of the most highly regulated business environments there is with regard to natural resource development and management. The province has an Environmental Assessment process second to none when it comes to the protection of the public as well as fish and wildlife and their environs. Succeeding here provides much reassurance to those localities lacking similar Environmental Assessment resources, that such fisheries would indeed be safe.

On a closing note I would like to point out that Damsa, in addition to identifying/recommending improvements to fishery conservation in small lakes as outlined here has contributed to local angling opportunities. Three of the nine lakes that Damsa used for fisheries development have been added to the Thunder Bay District stocking plan. Of the new waters planned for stocking brook trout Damsa found and tested 47.5 ha or 32% (by area) of these waters.

Tight lines.

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