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Fish creel collecting tonnes of data

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One of the largest industries in Northwestern Ontario’s tourism sector is the guided fishing camp sector and when it comes to density of camps and anglers, one of the busiest spots is the Pipestone, Burditt and Despair chain of lakes.

That’s why the Ministry of Natural Resources has been conducting a fish creel, or survey, on this chain all summer long. In fact, the creel also covers data collected this past spring as well as data to be collected in the fall.

“To determine sustainability [of the fishery] is the end goal [of the creel],” said John Van den Broeck a fish and wildlife biologist for the MNR.

“You’d better believe we’ll be on the edge of our seats waiting for it,” said Pat Howard of Ross’s Camp on Burditt (Clearwater) Lake. “I’m hoping the information gets used rather quickly to protect the fishery.”

Howard was instrumental in organizing the lodges on the chain, along with Peter Williams of Trails End Lodge, to support the creel through the North Western Ontario Tourism Association (NWOTA) and get it going.

She also helped to arrange free lodging for the MNR crews conducting the on-the-water survey.

“Everybody said yes, I never had to phone twice,” Howard remarked. “That shows you how badly everybody wants this.”

Due to the cost—both in dollars and manpower—to run a creel, it is not something the MNR does on a frequent basis on any given lake.

The creel being conducted this summer was prompted by both the MNR and the fishing lodges on the chain due to some concerns over quantity of anglers and their fishing habits on the lakes.

Howard is one of many camp owners concerned about the fishery on this set of lakes in relation to the viability of their businesses.

“The boats out there is unbelievable,” described Howard, who’s concerned some anglers are harvesting fish illegally.

“I’m not saying there’s not MNR enforcement. . . .” she said. “It just seems to be on the wrong lake on the wrong weeks.”

According to Van den Broeck, even if there is illegal harvesting of fish, the number of fish taken is too minuscule to cause great concern except in the case of those taken within the slot size—the breeding stock of the fish.

The creel was settled on as a way to determine if there is an over consumption of fish as well as determine other variables such as species of fish targeted.

Van den Broeck noted the last creel done on this chain of lakes occurred in 1987—and didn’t include Despair, Footprint, or Jackfish in the southern end.

“In recent years, there’s been interest from the tourism sector to find out what’s going on in those lakes,” he said.

He said a workshop was held to discuss the fish characteristics of the lakes from data obtained in the last creel, Fall Walleye Indexed Netting (FWIN) net counts, and aerial survey counts during the summer and winter.

“At the workshop, we could only present the characteristics of the fishery,” Van den Broeck explained. “All parties showed a need to continue the study.”

More FWIN data was collected and in 2002, a more “focused” workshop was held to look at modelling—taking the baseline of the fishery and changing variables to “manipulate things.”

“We looked at strategies that might be implemented on the system in the way of regulation change,” he noted, adding that in this way, they could see what would happen to the fishery—and the amount of “fish flesh the lakes can support”—if fishing effort or catch size were changed.

To allow the modelling to work, a variety of assumptions were made regarding targeted effort and the catch rate (fish per hour) among other things that jeopardized the modelling.

“We knew that there was information we could get to make it [the modelling] run better,” Van den Broeck said.

At the same time, the MNR continued to request funding for a creel and in 2002, they received funding for one on Pipestone and Burditt.

“It became clear we needed to expand to include the southern chain, as well,” he said, referring to the Lake Despair end.

The creel was expanded without receiving extra funds.

“We’re using the same money for two creels,” Van den Broeck said. “In my opinion, it’s been [thus far] an efficient use of time, money, and staff. It’s been a very challenging creel because it’s logistically complex.”

That’s because the creel has included both aerial surveys and on-the-water interviewing of anglers.

Both survey types will be used to study the number and characteristics of anglers on the lakes in question, as well as the fish in the lakes, by taking on-the-water samples of fish caught.

Anglers are asked the length of time they’ve been fishing, how many fish and of what species they’ve caught, and how they’re accessing the lake (as a local resident/day-tripper, camper/tourist, cabin owner, or as a client of a fishing lodge).

A secondary interview also is conducted on the water to collect “complete trip information” of fishing habits the day before the interview. This interview provides a count of fish caught and their species and hours fished.

Both sets of survey data also will be separated into three seasons: spring, summer, and fall. And that data will be separated into work days (Monday to Friday) and non-work days (Saturday and Sunday as well as all holidays)—creating two sets of data for each season.

Then each set of data will have time sensitive results from morning (8 a.m.-noon), afternoon (noon-4 p.m.), and evening fishing (4-8 p.m.), as well as night fishing (8-9:30 p.m.) during the summer.

There will be a minimum of three samples from each variable.

Finally, the in-depth data described will be collected for all three water basins—creating a massive and detailed set of data.

“We have a lot of checks in the system, so we’re able to examine our assumptions better,” Van den Broeck said of the statistical viability of the survey.

By sampling the fish (by taking weight, length, and age samples for each species), more information about the characteristics of the fish and fishery can be obtained, making the assumptions even more accurate—providing they collect a “critical mass” of samples.

Van den Broeck explained samples from one largemouth bass won’t tell them much about the fishery, but from 50 lake trout will tell them about the health, age, and growth rate of the fish.

“The creel will help us better understand and describe the people who use the fishery and characterize better the fish that they catch,” he remarked.

In the end, the results of the survey—expected to be completely analyzed by next spring and presented publicly shortly afterwards—will determine whether the current regulations on this chain of lakes is sufficient to maintain the sustainability of the fishery, on a yield curve, or if changes need to be made and what those changes might be.

Van den Broeck said all three lakes are unique in the sense that Pipestone is a clear deep lake, Burditt is deep but isn’t as clear, and Despair is shallower and has poor visibility—making the fish communities different in each lake.

This causes difficulties when trying to apply the results from the survey to the entire chain.

“The question is, how do you manage these relatively distinct lakes and fish communities with a common regulation that applies to the whole watershed?” said Van den Broeck.

“We want the regulations scrutinized,” said Howard. “We wanted data to see if it supported the regulations as they stand or they need changes so the fishery is sustainable.

“We saw what happened with the spring bear hunt without the science behind it,” she added. “Let’s get the science behind it and go forward.

“We need to do something,” she stressed. “Why wait until we have a problem. If this creel proves we’re fine then . . . but I believe we need regulation changes.”

However, Van den Broeck showed the Times some preliminary results from the spring data which showed some interesting things.

Of the 400 anglers who were interviewed during the spring over the entire chain, 68 percent said they were from a commercial camp, 23.5 percent were cabin owners, seven percent were day-trippers, and 1.5 percent were campers.

Van den Broeck said these numbers were very early and aren’t written in stone yet, but they paint an interesting picture.

“The spring numbers show it’s what commercial camps are doing that drive the harvest of fish,” he said. And considering 80 percent of anglers are U.S. residents, their limits are halved and so the harvest also is effectively halved.

The spring numbers also showed the camps are releasing less walleye (40 percent) than other fish (80 percent) they catch.

Campers are the most consumptive, releasing just 11 percent of the walleye they catch and 70 percent of the rest of the fish, however, Van den Broeck explained they aren’t catching very many walleye in the scheme of things.

The results showed cabin owners on the lakes released 84 percent of the total fish they caught and 64 percent of the walleye they caught.

These results are contrary to what camp owners on the chain believe is happening, so it will be interesting to see the full results next spring and how they are accepted.

“I’d like to see the survey interview guides,” said Howard, adding the guides can add what they’ve see over the years regarding the harvest of fish. “The guides can compare objective data with real experience.”

No matter what the results, Howard indicated the lodges will recommend another creel be conducted again in the future to ensure accuracy.

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