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Future talks needed in border waters dispute: coalition

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While Ontario announced last Friday its decision to drop the rule requiring non-resident anglers to stay overnight in the province in order to keep walleye and sauger, some members of the Border Waters Coalition say the next step will be equally important.

“It’s time for our federal people to start meeting and to get a conservation clause put in place for a NAFTA agreement before there’s not a natural resource left in Canada—we’ve just seen a start,” warned coalition member Tom Pearson, who owns Camp Narrows Lodge on Rainy Lake.

“They have to get NAFTA changed. That is your biggest fight or else there’ll be no stopping [the U.S.] and this will be happening all across the country,” he charged.

U.S. and Minnesota officials had complained Ontario’s regulations violated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Pearson said Canadian lawyers previously have made mistakes in not addressing conservation issues.

“How could the Canada trade people screw up and leave us in a lurch and with no clause for conservation?” Pearson wondered Monday morning.

“The last thing we would ever want is to have the U.S. trade reps decide how to allocate Ontario’s natural resources,” he stressed.

Pearson said he’s “not happy” with the decision but added it was a recommendation made by a Border Waters Coalition member during a meeting with the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Mal Tygesson of Eagle River, who also sits on the coalition, agreed it’s important to set up future talks between the two countries. “It would be my opinion for [Canada] to get together with the U.S. government,” he noted.

“We have to keep pushing to make changes,” echoed coalition member Neil Wiens of Thunder Bay. “Are there more things to be done, yes, I think so.

“It may have alleviated the problem for now but I’m still a bit concerned,” he admitted.

Howard Hampton, NDP leader and MPP for Kenora-Rainy River, said he is disappointed Ontario has given in to Minnesota tourist operators, but recognizes Ontario’s ability to conserve and protect its fish stocks was “cut off at the knees” by a trade deal the federal Liberal government signed with the U.S. in 1996.

“The federal Liberal government’s most recent trade and tourism agreement with the U.S. in 1995-96 effectively gives Minnesota tourist resorts free access to Northwestern Ontario’s fish and wildlife resources,” said Hampton.

“Even though many of the Minnesota resorts have abused Northwestern Ontario fish stocks repeatedly in the past and they have absolutely no interest in fishing conservation strategies, the federal trade deal says we have to share the fish stocks with them. It’s a sellout,” he charged.

As first reported in Friday’s Daily Bulletin, Ontario is dropping its overnight requirement—and also eliminating the Border Water Conservation Tag—in return for new daily catch and possession limits for non-resident anglers.

Non-resident anglers will face a daily limit of one walleye or sauger—and a possession limit of four—on Rainy Lake and a portion of the Seine River system.

They will have a daily limit of two walleye or sauger, and a possession limit of four, on Lake of the Woods and the waters of MNR’s Fort Frances District (except for Rainy Lake and a portion of the Seine River system).

They also will see a daily limit of one lake trout—and a possession limit of two—in these same waters (excluding Lake of the Woods, where established daily and possession limits remain unchanged).

In making the announcement Friday, MNR minster John Snobelen said the changes will meet Ontario’s conservation goals for the border waters in Northwestern Ontario, resolve a trade challenge with Minnesota, and maintain and protect the province’s ability to manage its own resources.

“This government will not stand by and watch decisions that affect Ontario’s natural resources be made anywhere but in Ontario,” Snobelen stressed. “We must act to protect our resources.”

Ontario is simply trying to instill conservation measures to reduce the overharvesting of walleye and sauger, Snobelen said, and noted the province is now seeking to open talks with Minnesota on the key issues of conservation and enhanced enforcement of the border waters.

“Through the trade challenge, the U.S. seeks open and unfettered access to fish in Ontario waters,” he argued. “That’s incompatible with our conservation goals, and simply unacceptable.

“We’re changing our regulations to continue to meet our conservation goals, and maintain our ability to manage and conserve the fishery,” he stressed.

“This has always been a matter of conservation, not trade.”

But Hampton said the issue is now Ontario’s ability to enforce these changes.

“Our only method of protecting fish stocks now in Northwestern Ontario is for the Harris government to dramatically increase the number of conservation officers and enforcement methods, especially on Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake and Rainy River,” said Hampton.

“If the enforcement effort is not increased substantially, we will be back to the bad days of the lates 80s, when Minnesota-based anglers were regularly overharvesting walleye in Northwestern Ontario lakes and thumbing their noses at our conservation officers.”

Snobelen said the province is allowing strictly-controlled access for Minnesota anglers while maintaining its commitment to conservation and the long-term health of the world-class fisheries of the border waters in Northwestern Ontario.

“These regulations do not contravene any trade agreement and will ensure the long-term health of the walleye and sauger stocks,” he added.

The new approach is consistent with the MNR’s efforts to reduce pressure on stocks of walleye and sauger on the Lake of the Woods and other border waters.

MNR research has shown walleye and sauger stocks have been exhibiting signs of overharvest.

“Thoughtful management today will ensure that we will continue to have a world-class fishery on the border waters of rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods for generations to come. That is our goal,” said Donna Hanson, a spokesperson for the Conservation Coalition for Ontario’s Resources.

That coalition is comprised of representatives from the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, the Northern Ontario Tourist Outfitters Association, the Kenora District Campowners Association, and the North Western Ontario Tourism Association.

“We developed this change through consultation with key partners, such as the Conservation coalition and other angling and tourism groups in Northwestern Ontario,” Snobelen said.

“We thank them for their advice, support (especially the support of tourism operators), and help in ensuring the health of these fisheries,” he remarked.

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