Muskie or Mayhem on the Ottawa River?

The year 2019 will go down as one of the least promising starts to a Muskie season eastern Canada’s legendary Ottawa River has ever witnessed. The combination of 100-year spring floods, and then  the four consecutive fish kills that took place just upstream on one of the Ottawa’s tributaries during the month of July, had anglers more than just a bit worried about the River’s revered Muskie population.

No doubt, measuring fish health is extremely difficult given that it involves the capture, observation and sampling of many hundreds of fish. But, this is exactly what recreational anglers do, and if fish and their habitat were in serious decline, there would have been a huge outcry. The fact that recreational anglers haven’t sounded the warning bell is a good sign, and the numerous positive early fall Muskie-capture reports backs this up.

Sadly, it’s become normal for people to think we humans have irrevocably messed things up. So much bad news inundates us daily – floods, raw sewage releases, fish kills, nuclear waste, warming temperatures, invasive species, micro plastics, extreme weather — the list of issues that need to be monitored and fixed is growing daily. But just maybe, people should go look for themselves.

It’s up to all of us anglers to convince others to put their screens down, pick up a fishing rod, and have a feel. People are always amazed just how much life is thriving below the surface out-of-sight. Fishing is one of the few ways people are able to “see-it-to-believe-it”, and then, like all anglers, they become a steward of the resource.

Blue Fish Canada is working hard to inform and inspire anglers to serve as stewards to ensure the largely unseen voiceless creatures that reside in Canada’s many lakes, rivers and three oceans are able to get on with the business of eating and spawning. So the next time you hear in the media that we busted yet another aquatic or marine ecosystem, grab a fishing rod and get down to your favorite fishing hole to see for yourself. Those who do the science, enforcement and regulations depend on anglers for real-time citizen observations to know when actions are required to sort things out.

Lawrence Gunther is North America’s only blind professional angler, outdoor writer, podcaster and film maker, and the founder and president of Blue Fish Canada. Catch his Blue Fish Radio podcast each week.

Muskie fishing and the Art of Angling

(First published in Muskie Canada’s Release Journal summer 2019)

As muskie anglers we are constantly being bombarded with tips and techniques for catching more and bigger fish. The tackle and boating sectors are never far behind with their own innovations covering everything from the latest lures and colours, to a never-ending stream of mind-blowing advances in electronics. No doubt, it’s all leading to a reduction in the actual number of casts it takes to catch one of these epic fish.

Surely then, we anglers also need to stay informed about the latest scientifically supported, often citizen-science inspired catch-and-release muskie strategies. After all, the muskie fishery depends on our ability to release fish in ways that ensure their ability to swim away healthy. It’s our ability to do this without damaging the fisheries we love that defines the true art of sustainable angling.

Are you confident you’re applying the latest scientifically supported fishing practices that will ensure that you pass on a strong legacy to your children and grandchildren?

No doubt, conservation measures such as habitat reconstruction, scientific study, advocating for safeguards and protection, reporting incidents of abuse or destruction, and even applying moral pressure on fellow anglers to act responsibly, are all greater now than ever before. However, as a good friend pointed out the other day, our children will someday judge the way we engage in muskie fishing in ways similar to how we ourselves look back on those muskie anglers who came before us. So, if no one is perfect, and with so many great tools and opportunities at hand, what does it mean today to be gifted in the art of angling?

Increasingly, the angling public looks up to us to share the ethic of stewardship for the species and the habitat muskies occupy. This represent the very best of what can be defined as citizen science, and our methods are proven valid by fish biologists and other scientist’s. Good news, there exists a national organization focused on gathering up this knowledge and research with a view towards sharing it with others. Blue Fish Canada was a guest exhibitor at the amazing 2019 Musky Odyssey.

The mission of the registered charity Blue Fish Canada is to ensure the future of fish and the sport of fishing. This includes details on both catch-and-release best practices specific to Canada’s many regions and fish species, and scientific guidance on the sustainable harvest of fish for our personal consumption. Blue Fish Canada strives to blend and deliver this knowledge in ways that allows anglers to hold their heads high when discussing their passion; regardless what beliefs or opinions others might hold.

Blue Fish Canada champions other programs as well, including: establishing urban shoreline public fishing nodes for kids and people of all ages to connect with their local fisheries; distributing free personal shoreline clean-up kits; facilitating the involvement of angling clubs with conservation groups and scientists on vital restoration and research initiatives; speaking out on behalf of recreational anglers at water quality and fish health forums; and, by partnering in the collection and safe disposal and/or recycling of used fishing line, soft plastics and lead jigs and weights. But, mostly we share news and information about fishing sustainably to promote the art of angling through programs such as “The Blue Fish Radio” podcast.

Our ability to exercise our passion for fishing is dependent on the health of our fisheries. How we connect with fish and their habitat has a lot to do with the overall health of the ecosystem. It’s more than the thrill of the capture, and with respect to musky, has nothing to do with providing sustenance for our families. The art of angling means knowing how to engage in fishing in ways that will leave no lasting impact on a body of water or the animals that live therein.

Fishing, by its very nature, requires that we never stop learning. Observe, study, learn from the mistakes and successes of others, and most of all share with those you are mentoring how to best pursue the sport of fishing. To this end, we at Blue Fish Canada invite you to review “Ten Catch-and-Release Muskie Fishing Tips” that Muskies Canada Inc. has generously agreed to post on their website. These tips are meant as guidelines and not absolute must-do’s. They have also been fact-checked by leading Canadian fish biologists.

For more about Blue Fish Canada and our programs, or to sign up for our periodic newsletter, visit us at: www.BlueFishCanada.ca

To receive and listen to our weekly podcast, “The Blue Fish Radio Show”, a 25-minute audio production featuring people of special interest dedicated to the future of fish and fishing, visit: www.BlueFishRadio.com

Lawrence Gunther is the founder and President of Blue Fish Canada, and North America’s only blind professional angler, outdoor writer, podcaster, blogger and film maker. For more about Lawrence visit: www.LawrenceGunther.com

Why Anglers should Pay Attention to proposed marine Protected Areas

(First Published in Outdoor Canada Magazine March 2018)

As recreational anglers, we have a shared responsibility to help safeguard our natural resources from over-exploitation and needless destruction. On a national level, Canada has joined 20 other countries in a bid to establish designated protected areas, committing to protect 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and inland water and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, all by 2020. So what does this mean for us recreational anglers?

Its one thing to designate an area as protected and quite another to decide what that means. Internationally, the definition is still being sorted out. Here, the concept of marine protected areas was brought into force through Bill C-55 (An Act to amend the Oceans Act and the Canada Petroleum Resources Act), introduced by the minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). The legislation gave the minister power to decide to designate a protected area, then have up to five years to conduct the science to determine if the protective measures were actually necessary.

That could mean licensed activities such as recreational fishing will continue in designated protected areas. But it could also mean they don’t. And that’s the problem. Fish and game belong to all of us—that’s the basic tenet of North America’s wildlife conservation model, the most successful such management system in the world. And when you begin to stray from that tenet, you get into dangerous territory.

THE CALIFORNIA EXAMPLE

A dangerous precedent of this kind has already been set in the U.S. In 2012, California set aside vast fertile areas of its Pacific coastal waters with a promise to conduct studies within five years to determine whether recreational fishing embargo’s were necessary. Unfortunately for California’s anglers, the scientific research was never conducted and the fishing embargo’s were extended in 2016 for a further 10 years.

According to fisheries scientist Larry McKinney, a renowned expert on marine protected areas in the U.S., sportfishing in Canada stands to suffer a similar fate should we follow California’s lead and “apply precautionary principals on assumptions rather than facts.” Says McKinney: “I would hate to see Canada go down that same path.”

Ottawa is on track to designate ten per cent of Canada’s marine ecosystems as Marine Protected Areas, and another 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and inland waters, to be protected by 2020.

In most cases, thankfully, recreational angling is still allowed in the MPAs created so far. So, why does the DFO want the power to implement additional arbitrary protections, including the ability to put the brakes on licensed activities such as recreational fishing?

THE CANADIAN CONCERN

Phil Morlock, chair of the Canadian Sportfishing Industry Association’s government affairs committee, says this is nothing more than “U.S.-funded big-green environmental groups working behind the scenes to achieve their protectionist goals by having vast networks of marine and aquatic areas designated as no-take zones, when no actual threat by recreational anglers exists.”

Personally, I have yet to meet an angler who deliberately goes out on the water to destroy fish habitat or intentionally over-harvest a fish stock. I’m not saying it never happens, but the majority of us take pride in what we do, and that includes making sure we’re doing it right. Provide anglers with scientific evidence that our activities are causing irreversible harm and we’re the first to change our ways, and help make sure that others do the same. We do it all the time by respecting fishing seasons and harvest limits. We more than care—it’s the angling community that often contributes to the science behind the amendments to recreational fishing regulations.

I’m not saying exercising precautions is a bad thing, but there should be strong evidence before you impact the way of life for seven million anglers, as well as our communities, tourism and the approximately $8 billion that recreational fishing pumps into the Canadian economy every year. I’m sorry, Ottawa, but please don’t make decisions about us without involving us.

Outdoor Defenders

(First published in Outdoor Canada Magazine March 2017)

GLOBALLY, WILDLIFE IS IN TROUBLE. BUT NOT HERE, THANKS TO YOU

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s *Living Planet Report 2016*, the world’s collective population of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish has dropped by 58 per cent since 1970. The situation is at its worst in Latin America, with an overall decline of 83 per cent, followed by low-income countries at 58 per cent and middle-income countries at 18. Bucking this trend are high-income countries such as Canada, which the WWF says have actually increased their overall biodiversity. But on the whole, the report paints a fairly dismal picture for wildlife around the planet, and it points the finger at fishing and hunting as contributing to the problem.

What the report doesn’t make clear, though, is that hitting the water or heading afield for recreation, as we do here, is a lot different from fishing and hunting in those regions of the world where the likes of war, drought, climate change and economic collapse have made it impossible for people to otherwise feed their families. That’s an important distinction—and the reason why our fish and game populations are fairing much better.

Canada is among those countries the WWF reports as showing a 10 per cent increase in wildlife numbers over the past 40 years. Given that the percentage of Canada’s anglers and hunters has remained relatively constant over the same period, factors other than fishing and hunting must have been to blame for some of our wildlife populations bottoming out back in the 1970s. You don’t need to dig deep to discover that unbridled pollution, rampant habitat destruction, prolific human encroachment and the introduction of numerous invasive species all played a part.

It’s not that challenges don’t remain. Regulators, scientists and politicians have only begun to turn the tide to ensure commercial fishing along Canada’s coastlines is carried out in a sustainable manner. And of course, there are still pockets of our population that turn to fishing and hunting as a means to make a living and feed their families. Indeed, these intensive, unregulated localized harvests of wildlife may be responsible for certain regional declines in fish and game.

On balance, though, we’ve learned our lessons about commercially overharvesting wildlife such as beavers, buffalo, pigeons and Atlantic cod, and we’re working hard to ensure such collapses are never repeated. In this effort to maintain sustainable wildlife populations, Canada’s anglers and hunters play a key role. We in the outdoor community know this, of course, but our efforts bear repeating—and sharing with those who don’t fish and hunt.

Through the measured removal of apex predators from the food chain, hunters help mitigate the usually extreme boom-and-bust cycles that typically occur in nature when predator populations grow beyond what can be sustained by available prey.

Our volunteer and fundraising endeavours have contributed significantly to habitat restoration, conservation and fish and game repopulation. Plus, our fishing and hunting licensing fees help fund wildlife management initiatives.

Our ethical approach to how we engage in our sport is making it increasingly difficult for those few bad apples who feel the need to engage in poaching. Remember, if you observe fishing or hunting violations in any province or territory, please contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).

Anglers and hunters are playing an increasingly active and valuable role in scientific research associated with tagging, creel surveys and securing biological samples for laboratory studies.

We report on environmental problems such as fish kills, abnormal animal behaviours, oil spills and pollution, allowing for timely investigation and remediation to be carried out.

Through education and enforcement, the practices of catch-and-release and selective harvesting have become the norm.

In short, contrary to what many members of the public might believe, the collective efforts of anglers and hunters serve to rebuild, conserve and sustain Canada’s wildlife populations, and the latest WWF report proves just that. It’s up to all of us in the outdoors community to ensure our fellow Canadians know that.

Canada has 2nd Largest Wilderness in the World

A new study from the Wildlife Conservation Society reports Canada is home to the second largest wilderness area on the planet.

Algonquin Land Claim: What it All Means

(First published in Fish Hunt Ride magazine in January 2018)

After 25-years of negotiations, there’s now a draft agreement between the Ontario and federal governments with the Algonquins of Ontario to address their 1772 petition to the Crown. The agreement establishes a framework for future treaty negotiations that will see the Algonquin’s in eastern Ontario give up their right to pursue past claims in exchange for $300 million in cash and property totaling 1,175 square kilometres.

Nnegotiating the actual treaty will take another five years at minimum. An Environmental Assessment of the proposed land transfer also needs doing.

The agreement calls for the transfer of 200 parcels of crown land to the Algonquins, about 4 percent of the total crown land in eastern Ontario. Territorial claims stretch southeast to include Bancroft and Sharbot Lake, and east and north to L’Orignal. Ontario counties affected include: Addington, Frontenac, Hastings, Lanark, Lennox and Renfrew, as well as the district of Nipissing and the city of Ottawa.

Land to be transferred totals 47,550 hectares or 117,500 acres. To put this in perspective, its acreage similar in size to privately owned larger ranches found throughout Alberta and British Columbia. However, the 200 distinct parcels of crown land are situated nearby long-established non-indigenous communities. Further, its land that in no way can be considered either northern or remote.

Over 1.4-million people live in and around the territory subject to the agreement, many of whom hunt, fish, mine or forest the affected lands, or enjoy connecting with nature in Algonquin Park — 90 percent of which is covered by the agreement. Without doubt, cottages, hunt camps and land-use permits will be impacted.

The agreement conflicts with well-established land-use rights of non-indigenous individuals and communities that date back, in many cases, well over a century. To this end, the Ontario government is committing to ensure, “no one who owns private property will be affected”, “access to Algonquin Park will remain open to all” and, “arrangements will be negotiated for existing recreation or hunt camps to continue on lands that will be transferred”. However, non-indigenous people remain concerned that a treaty will significantly curtail their current level of access rights and, more importantly, bring to an end their own relationship to land that has evolved and deepened over multiple generations of usage.

A number of Algonquin communities are also opposed to the agreement, but for other reasons – they’re being left out. Nine of the ten federally recognized Algonquin communities situated on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, and three other Ontario First Nation communities made up of people of partial Algonquin descent, are excluded.

Additionally, when treaty negotiations commenced in the early 1990’s, indigenous people were narrowly defined under Canada’s Constitution. Since then, the definition of who qualifies under the proposed treaty as Algonquin has been expanded to include nine additional satellite groups made up of mostly “non-status indians” claiming Algonquin ancestry. However, a report from the Quebec-based Algonquin Nation Secretariat claims over one-third of the agreements intended beneficiaries have insufficient Indigenous ancestry.

Who will ultimately benefit from the treaty is also of concern to Algonquin people. During his interview on Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation Chief Kirby Whiteduck stated, “Pikwakanagan is going to be drawing attention to the criteria because Pikwakanagan members are expressing concerns and questions about it”.

Vagary over who will benefit and to what degree concerns hunters and anglers. Fish and game populations inhabiting much of these easily accessed rivers, lakes and parcels of crown land already experience significant harvesting pressure. According to Jason Cox, a local area hunting and fishing guide, “come fall, prime hunting territory can look like a pumpkin patch”, in reference to the many orange-vested hunters.

Fear over a spike in fish and game harvesting is also generating anxiety. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters believes that, “no one should assume their rights to hunt or fish are unlimited”, “certain limits may be appropriate and necessary” and, “the right to hunt and fish or to use any resources, either as a form of expression or as an aboriginal or treaty right, must be bound by the principles and practices of conservation and safety”. In response, the Ontario government is offering assurances that, “harvesting rights of Algonquin people will be subject to provincial and federal laws”, “fisheries management plans will be developed for the Algonquin settlement area including Algonquin Park” and, “Algonquin lands will be subject to the same land use planning and development approvals and authorities as other private lands”. This all sounds good on paper, but concerns over whether science-based resource management will be applied, and who if anyone will take responsibility for enforcement, continue to keep anxiety levels running high.

Presently, the harvest of game and fish by licensed resident and non-resident hunters and anglers in Ontario is tightly controlled by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which applies science to determine yearly harvest limits. Unfortunately, “carded” first nations hunters and fishers are not subject to many of these same licensing and harvest rules. It’s fueling miss-giving’s anglers and hunters have over a treaty that could lead to unregulated and unsustainable indigenous hunting and fishing, and worse, open up potentially unsustainable commercial fishing operations similar to the indigenous commercial gillnet fishery on Lake Nipissing. However, it may be that by establishing a treaty, rules based on a blend of western science and indigenous knowledge will ensure sustainable commercial, ceremonial and sustenance harvesting practices — let’s hope.

With respect to Algonquin and other parks in the region, Algonquin people will for the first time have a hand in applying their indigenous knowledge to shape park plans and policies. However, responsibility for on-going park management will continue to rest with the Ontario government. Further, while no Algonquin Park land will be transferred, two non-operating parks and parts of five non-operating parks, will. In exchange, for every acre of park land transferred, 6 acres of new park land will be created (i.e. the proposed new 30,000 acre provincial park near Crotch Lake).

No doubt, negotiations are dragging on and growing increasingly complex. However, it’s up to all of us to take interest in the process to ensure important principles are not ejected for reasons of political expediency. Keep it simple, yes, but the final treaty has to be fair for all concerned. No good deal is founded on winners and losers.

Back to Basics with the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario

It’s probably safe to say that most all people recognize the value of Canada’s natural environment.

WWF Living Planet Report

The WWF’s latest biannual Living Planet Report raises the alarm about the state of the world’s biological diversity.

UN Report on Climate Change

A report issued in October 2018 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that governments need to act soon to avoid far-reaching catastrophic effects.

When is Enough Enough?

(First published in Fish Hunt Ride Magazine –Fall 2017)

Many of us recall plenty of news reports about commercial fishers being forced to take a 180 degree turn on how they harvest wild fish stocks. From being incented to fish more,  harder and longer, to a shakedown in the industry that witnessed governments purchasing back licenses, the closure of fish processing plants, and the moth-balling of super-sized factory ships designed to vacuumed the seas of their once plentiful and still free-for-the-taking, fish stocks. Now, thanks to science-based management, we are starting to see the recovery of wild fish stocks; well, at least in North America anyway.

So what does commercial fishing have to do with an angler applying his / her love for the sport? Is it even fair to compare commercial fishing operations that still all-to-often pursue schools of fish until their images on ship sonars are wiped clean, with what we do with a rod and line? Besides, most of us now practice catch-and-release fishing, so you’re probably thinking, what’s the problem with this guy anyway. Ever heard the term, death by a thousand cuts?

Sport fishing is one of the toughest outdoor pursuits to manage to ensure sustainability. Hunting solved this with the issuance of tags based on statistical research that allowed for herd sizes and predator numbers to be managed, instead of nature applying her hand by routinely collapsing numbers of terrestrial animals through periodic starvation resulting from the animals themselves surpassing critical mass. Fish can also over populate themselves to the point of starvation, but without statistics on numbers of fish harvested by recreational fishers, it’s impossible to know just how many fish are being removed from any one eco system in a season. And let’s face it; with our knowledge and technology, we can do a pretty good job of finding and catching pretty near every last large fish in a lake. So when is enough enough.

Lawrence holding a Crappie

Catch-and-release fishing is one approach to limiting harvest pressures. Slot limits and daily limits also promote such fishing practices, but is it enough? Science and first-hand reports now suggest we also need to begin including other sustainable practices when we engage in catch-and-release or harvest fishing. This could include avoiding stressing apex predators during extreme warm water conditions when mortality rates can easily exceed 50% of returned fish. It also means limiting the depths we pursue those species of fish that aren’t able to regulate their swim bladder pressure during the capture process, causing fish to experience hyper buoyancy and leaving them vulnerable or worse.

We could also learn more about how to select the correct size tackle to properly control hooked fish without fish first having to be completely exhausted before the capture process can be concluded. Tackle selection should also include using terminal tackle that minimizes physical harm to fish while at the same time reduces break-offs. This could include the use of circle hooks, barbless hooks, single hooks over trebles, and rigs that are less likely to be swallowed deep. And let’s not forget all the fish handling best practices when and if fish are taken out of the water such as avoiding inadvertently removing essential fish slime, minimizing time out of the water, proper fish holding techniques that ensure internal organs are supported, and quickly removing or cutting hooks.

Even if we are totally versed in all the latest “best practices, we still need to exercise restraint on knowing when is it that we have caught and released enough fish in any one day. We’re all guilty of releasing fish that had limited chances of recovering, so why not keep the ones that are even remotely questionable in terms of a full recovery?  and when you have harvested enough, maybe it’s time to rack the rods for the day and just chill.

Lawrence holding a Pike caught ice fishing

With ice fishing season soon to get started, we need to re-think how we harvest. Remember, anywhere we can drive to and back in a day is most likely a spot that countless others will also fish. It’s one thing to hike or fly into some remote lake that rarely if ever plays host to anglers, and to then catch our limit each and every day. It’s quite another to apply these same harvest limits to water that hardly ever gets through a day without being fished.

Just because we often ice fish in a very sedentary way, in that we seldom move our shelters or huts, that doesn’t mean we are only harvesting those that make up the small portion of fish that reside directly below our hole. Really, if that were the case wouldn’t we see shelters spread out evenly across the ice, and not all clustered in one prime fishing catching location?

Until recreational fishing management practices catch up and begin applying more modern science-based stock management practices, it’s up to all of us to know when enough is enough. Frankly, I’m getting a bit tired of hearing anglers complain about their favourite fishing holes running out of fish, and then blaming some other perceived evil doer that spoiled it for everyone else. We are all going to ruin our fish resources if we don’t start fishing more sustainably.

I know it’s not what government regulators are telling us, and it’s not what we watch on TV or read on line. Really though, does anyone really think the party can last for ever? Wake up and smell the coffee, and start fishing smart so our kids will have the chance to catch fish too.

And before anyone labels me an anti-fishing promoter, try this on for size. Please feel free to catch and keep a few eater-size fish for dinner. After all, it’s organic, natural, local and free-range — how cool is that!