Threats to Lake Winnipeg On the Increase

We don’t often hear about Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, but it’s now in the news far too often, and for the wrong reasons. Lake Winnipeg covers a whopping 24,514 square kilometres. It’s the third largest lake located entirely within Canada, and Canada’s sixth-largest lake overall. It’s home to the Second largest freshwater commercial fishery in North America. So why is Lake Winnipeg increasingly in the news?

(Transcript of Lawrence Gunther’s bi-weekly 12-minute segment on Live from Studio 5 broadcast over AMI TV and Audio across Canada)

Q. Welcome back Lawrence, is Lake Winnipeg really in serious trouble, and why?

A. When you think of Canada’s freshwater lakes, home to 20% of the world’s freshwater supply, you think of the colour blue. Lake Winnipeg’s water now has a brown tint and an ever-growing algae problem, among other issues.
A. The lake is now home to invasive species such as Zebra mussels, and it’s experiencing a steady and significant decline in what was once a world class fish population.
A. Beaches are often closed due to E-coli, and communities, both First Nations and others, are growing increasingly worried about the safety of the water.
A. There’s more-and-more blooms of Blue Green Algae each year, and the many different forms of neurotoxins that go along with that, is an issue that can’t be solved by boiling the water.
A. The ecosystem itself is in decline, starting with a collapse in the Cisco population all the way up to over harvesting by commercial and first nation’s fishers.

Q. It really sounds like this lake is in the midst of a death spiral, what’s behind all these issues?

A. It would be simpler if I could point at climate change, but there’s always way more to the story.
A. Yes, warming waters are destabilizing the ecosystem by contributing to the growth of Blue Green Algae, along with increasingly excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the lake. A recent study found high levels of neurotoxin linked to diseases such as ALS and Alzheimer’s in 25% of the samples.
A. Further tilting Lake Winnipeg’s aquatic ecosystem are the invasive Zebra mussels that filter feed on important nutrients without which small micro-organisms such as phytoplankton and zooplankton depend on for food. Small fish such as Cisco’s depend on these organisms, and larger fish count on Cisco’s as their primary food source. With Zebra mussels impacting the foundation of the food chain, the entire ecosystem is now showing signs of collapse.

Q. Have these problems begun to impact the people who live along its shores?

A. Communities that for years depended on the harvest of White Fish, Sauger and Walleye are working harder and longer each year to fill their quotas. The highly prized large female Walleyes have almost been fished out, and now fishers are turning to smaller juvenile Walleye to make up the difference.
A. International tourism in the region depends mainly on recreational anglers coming from the U.S. to try their hand at catching world class trophy Walleye, but now that the commercial fishery has removed most all of these from the lake, tourism in the area and the related jobs will suffer.

Q. What’s being done about it?

A. The federal government recently announced financial funding to protect and restore the lakes ecosystem.
A. 23 new projects will receive $3.8 million in funding over the next four years as a part of the Lake Winnipeg Basin Program.
A. The Manitoba government also announced smaller gill net sizes for their commercial fishery. The idea is to prevent the capture of the remaining large females, and to instead facilitate the harvest of smaller Walleye so fishers can fill their annual quotas.
A. Unfortunately, the recommendations of an expert panel made up of leading fish biologists – to cut the commercial harvest in half and make the quota species specific – was ignored by the Manitoba government.
A. The quota remains at 6.5 million kilograms of any combination of walleye, sauger and/or whitefish. This quota only applies to licensed commercial fishers – First Nations fishers have the right to catch what they want when they want – even though they all use the same commercial fishing gear and most all the fish caught by both fisheries is sent to market.
A. A leading University of Winnipeg Fish Biologist compares Manitoba’s walleye management program as being “akin to that of a Third World country”.
A. The sustainable seafood program SeaChoice calls Lake Winnipeg’s commercial fishery, “one of, if not THE worst managed on earth”.
A. Fish caught by hook and line are worth exponentially more to the economy than the few dollars a kilo those same fish fetch after they’re caught in a net.

Q. This truly sounds like a complex issue that stands little chance of being resolved to anyone’s satisfaction – never mind the lake itself.

A. Understanding the variables is the first step to finding a solution. If we simply pointed at climate change as the problem, there would be a good chance nothing would be done since everyone knows fixing climate change is going to take a global solution like the one negotiated in Paris. Identifying the more local issues impacting the lake means local people can start to make changes that will most certainly help in the short term, but people need to be convinced first through sound science that the changes being proposed are the right ones.