March, 1993

Public Lakes for Rent

Would you pay to fish a public lake? It's an important question because a Thunder Bay company is working on a project that might ultimately require all anglers to pay for access to four Crown lakes it stocked with trout. This could set a precedent of government handing other entrepreneurs access rights to public lakes. In fact, the Thunder Bay District Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has given the controversial and precedent-setting fishery project its support and guidance.

The company behind the project, DAMSA, is the brainchild of Yale-educated chemist Jon Parks. In the late 1980s, he identified some small, inaccessible Thunder Bay area lakes that might be able to support brook trout. After receiving a go-ahead from the MNR, Parks surveyed 17 lakes in Adrian, Horne and Conmee Townships. Then, in hopes of creating trophy fisheries in them, DAMSA president Lori Parks, Jon Park's wife, approached the MNR with the names of four lakes most likely to support brook trout. In keeping with the experimental aspects of the project, DAMSA proposed stocking the lakes with triploids (sterile fish altered in a hatchery) and sex-reversal trout (created by feeding with either estrogen or androgen to them). The lakes DAMSA proposed using would then become "Total Control Access Lakes". This would mean the public could not fish in them, only DAMSA's paying customers.

"MNR input regarding this proposal comes from the view that these are Crown lakes, but at present we have no interest in expanding their fisheries", said Bob Hamilton, the ministry overseer of DAMSA's project. "The lakes in question have no native sport fish, and therefore are of little or no interest to anglers. Some of the lakes have winter oxygen problems, as well, and none are what we consider accessible."

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) has reservations about DAMSA's plans, in particular the idea of private enterprise controlling access to public lakes, says Dave Gibson, a federation fisheries biologist. It's position is:

That the public must have some access to the lakes.

That the lakes must continue to be available for other traditional and current uses, such as duck hunting, canoeing, baitfish harvest, and snowmobiling.

That domesticated trout not be allowed to escape and that triploid trout stocked be guaranteed as sterile.

For its part, DAMSA claims to have had little communication with the OFAH and to have been unaware that the organization even had a position on the project, although it was sent to the MNR.

Jim McLaughlin, president of the North Shore Steelheaders Association, feels the project is ahead of its time. "Crown land has been used by private logging companies for years, and we know what they have done," he said. "At least DAMSA is going to be adding fishing opportunity to what were dead lakes. We have no problem with them stocking Crown lakes, as long as the fish are sterile and cannot escape."

Last fall, the MNR granted DAMSA permission to stock four lakes with triploid rainbow and brook trout. Few people, including many MNR and OFAH staff, were aware that the project's second stage had been given the green light. On October 1, DAMSA stocked four Crown lakes with triploid brook trout from a Kakabeka-area hatchery. The MNR plans to institute a closed-season variation on the lakes, giving them temporary sanctuary status. Parks says that another three or four years of study are required to see how the trout respond. If they do well and grow to the sizes expected, DAMSA's plan should go to stage three - developing the lakes as a private tourism area, complete with accommodations.

"There should be no problem marketing this kind of trophy catch-and-release trout fishing in this area," said Lori parks. "Some local anglers already seek this kind of angling in the states (U.S.). Our market research has also shown that there are an estimated 460,000 anglers in the mid-west states who are into this kind of fishing.

Although DAMSA is confident its project will be a go, the MNR, perhaps sensing trouble brewing, is playing it safe. Ted Armstrong, its Regional Wildlife Resource Advisor at Thunder Bay, says the project is subject to a staged approval system, and final approval, despite the stocking of trout, is still a few years away.

"The fish are there for evaluation purposes, and their success will be important in deciding whether roads and lodges will go through," said Armstrong. "But (the MNR) doesn't yet know for sure if the DAMSA project will be approved.

DAMSA might find the final hurdle of creating roads and lodges with private access the most difficult one to jump.

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