Citizen-led baitfish stocking program proposed for Manitoulin

A crowd concerned about the long term viability of the salmon population gathered in Mindemoya last week. photo by Alicia McCutcheon

MINDEMOYA—Following a successful Manitoulin Expositor Salmon Classic, but with relatively small fish caught and weighed in Manitoulin’s territorial waters, derby organizer Dave Patterson held a public information session to discuss a citizen-led initiative to help the salmon population thrive once again.

The meeting, held at the Mindemoya Community Centre last Thursday night, brought out approximately 20 interested parties with their thoughts on what can be done to help the salmon stock.

Mr. Patterson explained that the Salmon Classic brought an estimated $600,000 to $700,000 to the local economy, and salmon fishing through the entire season brings in $3-4 million.

“I’ve spent over 100 hours in the last month talking to biologists, the Ministry of Natural resources and Forestry officials, conservation officers and more,” Mr. Patterson said, sharing a “good news” stat.

He told the group that sea lampreys are at their lowest levels in 30 years, thanks to lampricide programs, but countered that with the fact that Lake Huron’s main basin baitfish have seen a decline of 50 percent from 2015 to 2014—the second lowest number since 1976.

Studies from the United States Geological Service, which also studies the Canadian side of Lake Huron, have shown that the North Channel holds the most baitfish of all of the lake, primarily cisco and smelt, but the smelt biomass is still on the decrease, as is the bloater biomass.

“We’ve had three consecutive years of decline of baitfish—it’s serious,” Mr. Patterson said.

He noted that he’s walked the Manitou River during the salmon spawn on more than one occasion this year and while he sees salmon, they’re small—a likely sign that they’re adapting to live on what food sources they’ve got available to them.

His original thought, Mr. Patterson said, was to look at a salmon stocking program for the south shore of Manitoulin (right now the Gore Bay Fish and Game Club stocks salmon, but on the North Channel side). “Stocking more salmon puts more pressure on the decreasing baitfish,” he said. “That’s just no good” for the Lake Huron side of the Island, he added, proposing a citizen-led group to lobby the province to see Ontario’s first baitfish stocking program. Mr. Patterson noted that there is currently just such a program in the works for Lake Michigan.

“We would stock cisco and bloater—a native species that salmon will eat,” Mr. Patterson said. “We build up the baitfish, and then we stock the salmon.”

“Why not do both, like they do on Lake Ontario?” one gentleman asked.

“Because Lake Ontario is near collapse too,” Mr. Patterson responded. “Nobody is stocking baitfish now—we would be the first.”

Another person suggested that the baitfish would be eaten by lake trout faster than salmon can get to them, and that salmon are collapsing the whitefish population.

“We need to start convincing the ministry that this is what they need to do (stock baitfish),” another person added.

Mr. Patterson asked the group how they wished to proceed from there. “Do you want to do something about this?” he asked.

“What do we got to lose?” another responded.

“You had better ask the MNRF first,” Jack Hicks added.

Rupert Grigull pointed to the successful walleye fishery thanks to the Sheguiandah walleye hatchery and the work of Bill Strain and the Little Current Fish and Game Club and 30 years of hard work.

Mr. Hicks also suggested the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters be approached to get them on-side. “They’re our own lobby group with the province,” he said.

The meeting ended with the exchanging of contact numbers and emails with future updates to come.

To get involved, or to share your thoughts on a baitfish stocking program, please contact Mr. Patterson at 705-968-0237 or email dave@manitoulin.ca.