Issue 1, Volume 1

"The Ontario Green News"

"Don't hate the media, be the media" Jello Biafra


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Ben Bennett: Solid Waste in Ontario

Frank De Jong: A History of the Green Party in Ontario

Glen Estill: Electricity in Ontario

Bill Hulet: Gandhi, Agriculture, Justice

Gayle Valeriote: Poverty in Ontario---Voices from a Neighbourhood

Peter Meisenheimer: The Great Lakes Fishery

Doug Woodard: Energy and the Fossil Fuel Situation

Regular Stuff:



The Green Library: John Ruskin's Unto This Last


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Those Old Great Lakes, They Ain't What They Used to Be: Peter Meisenheimer

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The Laurentian Great Lakes of North America have provided sustenance to human communities since the first aboriginal North Americans reached their shores. The first Europeans pushing into the continental interior from settlements along the St. Lawrence, relied on the Great Lakes as both waterway and larder. As settler communities became established along its shores, fishing quickly became established as a commercial activity and entire communities grew up around the industry.

The commercial fisheries of the Great Lakes are much reduced from their heyday. In many constituencies they are embattled. In fact, Great Lakes commercial fishing is almost entirely a Canadian activity, having been severely restricted and in some cases eliminated from US waters.

The historical reasons for this situation are complex, and are related to some extent to the severe stresses placed on Great Lakes ecosystems in the mid-20th Century. The depleted states of some once-abundant stocks and public perception of the Great Lakes as polluted and dying, combined to make commercial fishing a precarious business. Former staples of the industry were in short supply and those that remained were perceived (in some, but not all cases, with good reason) to be unfit for human consumption.

The primary threat to the industry today is much more clear cut. Commercial fishing is in a battle to retain access to the lakes with powerful interests that see it as a threat to their own activities. The opposition is not stereotypical urban environmentalists Hell bent on saving the last fish, but sport fishing interests with a vastly different view of how the lakes should be managed.

In the simplest form, this dispute comes down to anglers not wanting nets in the waters where they fish. On the larger scale, it is a dispute with a powerful industry that makes a great deal of money catering to anglers. The economic issues are remarkably messy and the environmental disputes rather exotic.

Even a cursory examination of the issues confronts a stark historical reality that colours every aspect of the debate. The Laurentian Great Lakes ecosystem is vastly changed from what it was before European settlement, and the processes of change are ongoing. A couple of centuries ago, the top predators in Lake Ontario, for example, included Atlantic salmon, lake trout (also called lake charr), American eel and an endemic freshwater subspecies of harbour seal. Throughout the Great Lakes fish biomasses were dominated by large individuals of large species including sturgeon, lake trout, lake whitefish, northern pike, muskellunge, walleye, channel catfish (and Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario).

The seals and the Atlantic salmon disappeared in the 19th Century, and the eels and native trout are now the focus of official efforts to counter long-term declines. Several unique species or subspecies of fish have been lost, including a subspecies of walleye endemic to lake Erie, the Michigan grayling and a number of cisco species. The dominant top predators in the system are now non-native salmon species introduced from the west coast of North America and sustained by massive stocking programmes run by government and private hatcheries.

The native fish species that disappeared were, while their populations lasted, available to commercial fishers. However, with the possible exception of sturgeon and some whitefish populations, exploitation played only an ancillary role in the destruction of the lost stocks. Habitat destruction and degradation were major factors. Damming of rivers almost certainly doomed the Atlantic salmon, as access to spawning grounds was cut off. Siltation, removal of gravel and cobble (important spawning substrate) for the construction industry, coastal wetland drainage and a host of other insults decreased the capacity of the lakes to sustain their native fish communities.

In spite of the fact that commercial fishing has had relatively little to do with the plight of the lakes, the strategy selected for restoring fish populations has largely excluded the industry. Access to introduced salmonids is jealously guarded by the angling community, in particular a well-organised and vocal charter boat industry that earns large fees servicing well-heeled sport anglers.

State and provincial agencies introduce millions of non-native salmon and trout into the Great Lakes annually with only vague understanding (at best) of the ecological effects. Commercial fishing industry boats are prohibited from targeting these fish, and anglers around the Great Lakes have successfully argued that commercial activity should be restricted at times and in places that might involve incidental take of salmonids reserved for anglers. The resentment on the commercial side is substantial.

Superimposed on this already contentious mix is a political reconfiguration of resource management that is of obvious importance but uncertain long-term direction. A series of constitutional challenges by First Nations – both within the Great Lakes watershed and elsewhere – has altered the management equation to give aboriginal communities much greater access to, and semi-autonomous control over management of, fish resources of historical importance to their communities.

As might be expected, this has created some tension with non-First Nations commercial fishing interests. The most volatile and unpredictable issues, however, have been between the emerging First Nations fishing industry and the angling community.

The conflict was most acute during the early stages of development of the First Nations fishery. Acts of vandalism on commercial gear occurred regularly, and physical altercations between anglers and members of First Nations communities involved in the industry created potentially explosive situations in some areas. During the mid-1990s there was considerable tension between First Nations fishers and anglers in the Ontario counties of Grey and Bruce that threatened to spin out of control. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) incident concerned a mob of angry anglers (that included a local Tory Member of Provincial Parliament) confronting a woman selling fish at the market in Owen Sound. Racial slurs were augmented by bags of fish offal which were thrown at her market stall.

It is perhaps wishful thinking to suppose that firm conclusions can be drawn about the management of the fishery in the presence of so much mutual suspicion among competing interests. Nonetheless, the Great Lakes are an illuminating case study in the politics of resource management, environmental degradation and ecological rehabilitation. In the last decade, previously unstated assumptions on the part of management agencies have been forced to the surface by these disputes. Examining these assumptions in the context of the history of the Great Lakes fisheries debate can shed light not just on fisheries management in the Great Lakes, but on management processes in general.

One of the most controversial and thought-provoking developments to emerge from the rise of aboriginal commercial fisheries is the confrontation between First Nations and the sport angling community over exotic salmonid stocking. In particular, a monograph on the subject by Stephen Crawford, a biologist working for the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, has formulated a clear critique of the management philosophy that shifted management objectives away from commercial food fisheries and toward sport fisheries dependent on stocking of both native and exotic species. It has generated controversy, not only within the sport angling community but also among management biologists whose decisions continue to drive extensive stocking programmes.

Crawford provides a useful summary of events that led to the current state of affairs. In particular, he has detailed the shift toward management for sport angling opportunities by state and provincial authorities on both sides of the US-Canada border. Part of that history is a conflict between federal agencies in both countries that were generally supportive of commercial fishing and management for rehabilitation of native species, and state and provincial agencies that favoured sport anglers and introductions of exotic species.

One can only speculate on the explanation for the different perspectives of federal and state/provincial agencies, but the dichotomy is recognised by those most responsible for the move toward management for angling opportunities. In 2000, writing in a special edition of Fisheries (organ of the American Fisheries Society) entitled Celebrating 50 Years of the Sport Fish Restoration Program, Howard Tanner traced the beginning of the process to a decision by the state of Michigan to take over management of the fishery from the US Bureau of Commercial Fisheries.

Dr. Tanner was a primary mover in the stocking programmes and he describes the process in glowing terms: " officials decided that management of Michigan's share of the Great lakes for sport fishing was the best allocation of the resource. This decision has been emulated to a substantial degree in the management policies of the seven Great lakes states and the province of Ontario. Because of these early decisions, sportfishing has become the key value for almost 100,000 square miles of productive freshwater."

There is much food for thought in Tanner's words. The reference to sportfishing being "the key value" is undoubtedly an accurate reflection of the thinking that drives much of fisheries management in the Great Lakes, but it is not a unanimous objective. Neither is it clear that this was supposed to be the primary objective of salmonid stocking programmes when they began.

Early salmon introductions were largely justified by their proponents as a way of dealing with enormous numbers of alewife and rainbow smelt, themselves non-native species in the Great Lakes. The smelt were said to be competing with and preying on the eggs of native species. Alewives were prone to massive mortalities that could leave waterfronts inundated by stinking, decomposing masses of the small fish.

In the upper Great Lakes (i.e. those upstream of Lake Ontario), lake trout had been the native predator that might have suppressed numbers of these invading species. Lake trout, however, had been severely reduced in numbers. The culprit, at least in part, was another non-native species that had been given access to the waters above Niagara Falls with construction of the Welland Canal.

Sea lamprey had probably always been present in Lake Ontario, but their introduction into the upper lakes added another serious stress to species that were already feeling the impacts of human activities. Adult sea lamprey feed by attaching to fish with their sucking mouths, abrading a hole in skin and flesh and consuming the blood from the wound. Their introduction into an environment in which none of the species had evolved in the presence of such a parasitic feeder had predictable effects.

Measures undertaken to compensate for its presence ranged from use of highly selective toxins in known lamprey breeding areas to the development of lake trout x speckled trout hybrids for release. The rationale for the hybridisation programme was that the hybrids would grow to maturity faster than pure lake trout and would therefore be less susceptible to lamprey predation as immatures. It did not work, of course, but the initiative serves as a benchmark for just how broadly the policy net was being cast for solutions to the obvious problems with the lake ecosystems.

Given the extent to which the plight of the lakes was attributable to the impact of those exotic species (such as smelt, alewife and sea lamprey) already established, it is difficult to reconcile the ease with which concerns about stocking were swept aside in the 1960s. There was opposition, some of it extremely well reasoned and articulate. The University of Toronto's Henry Regier was one of the most eloquent and adamant opponents. In 1968 he wrote:

" most introductions of exotics have, I suggest, been part of a policy of retreat on the part of resource managers and politicians before man's thoughtless onslaught on the environment or before the sportsman's vibrant enthusiasm, or both And now we appear to have entered another great era of introducing exotics. What has gone before seems to be unintelligible and at any rate irrelevant noise. Beginning now we will research the system so that if our introductions fail we will know why. I don't believe it! Aren't we really only trying anything that comes to mind?"

Such words, however, had little effect. Stocking programmes were well established by the early 1970s. By the 1990s a typical year would see on the order of 15 million chinook salmon and 2 or 3 million coho released throughout the Great Lakes. Those responsible could still offer no definitive answers regarding the capacity of these stocks to sustain themselves without hatchery releases, the competitive impact on recovering native species such as lake trout or much else about their ecological function in their new home. In light of the huge investment in these programmes, extraordinarily little is known about their actual impacts on any but a purely superficial level.

There is no longer much talk about Pacific salmon holding alewife and smelt numbers in check. If the interaction is mentioned at all it is to question whether the numbers of alewife and smelt are adequate to sustain the numbers of salmon being stocked. As Dr. Tanner indicated, it is now transparently about sportfishing.

The impact of exotic species on the Great Lakes is not restricted to hatchery-reared salmon, of course. The arrival of the zebra mussel and its effects on ecosystem function have been front page news. A spate of newly arrived fish and invertebrate species have become established with the assistance of a largely illusory regulatory regime governing foreign shipping entering the Great Lakes by way of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Nobody is certain what the ultimate consequences will be, but fisheries managers have reacted cautiously, cutting commercial quotas – in some cases drastically. The result has been huge uncertainty for communities that have relied on the lakes for many generations. Salmon anglers, meanwhile, have carried on apace.

Continuing to dump millions of fast-growing, exotic predators into a system while arguing the need for caution is obviously incongruous. A management regime that is capable of such self-contradiction truly does seem to be "trying anything that comes to mind," as Henry Regier suggested thirty-five years ago.

A few years ago it seemed that the long-term trend in Great Lakes fisheries management was clear. The commercial fishery appeared to be confronted with a slow decline. The future of fisheries management looked to be about servicing a sport angling industry largely built around put-and-take Pacific salmon fishing. The First Nations court victories have changed that, both by confirming their constitutional right to use the fish resources of the lakes as they see fit, and by First Nations' philosophical objections to the stocking programmes.

The existing management regime is not about to fold. It is supported by powerful organisations such as the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and its fraternal entities in US states. There is an enormous amount of money invested in hatchery infrastructure and bureaucratic empires that sustain the system. Charter boat operators, tackle shops, marinas and associated businesses thrive on the status quo.

There does, however, appear to an opportunity for public discussion of these matters that has not existed for some time. The principles at stake are relevant to the general question of how to protect biodiversity in a world beset with conflicting economic demands by a growing population and expanding economies. If change turns out to be impossible in a set of circumstances that so obviously needs changing, it portends bad things for environmental policy generally.


Suggested reading:

Crawford, Stephen S., Salmonine introductions to the Laurentian Great Lakes: an historical review and evaluation of ecological effects. ("Canadian Special Publications of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 132", National Research Council of Canada, 2001. )


Peter Meisenheimer is a consulting biologist with international experience in the field of fisheries and aquatic ecology. He has worked on aspects of fisheries and aquatic biology throughout the Laurentian Great Lakes.