Sturgeon fishing rules need updating

Outfitters in eastern Manitoba have been working with the province to seek clarity on angling for sturgeon on the Winnipeg River.

The Manitoba portion of the river upstream of Pine Falls is technically subject to a conservation closure that prevents anyone from angling specifically for sturgeon. That has been the case for more than 20 years. We, just like the larger angling community, are extremely supportive of sustainable angling practices and support the proper management and study of our tremendously valuable sturgeon populations. That being said, the current science seems to suggest the Winnipeg River population has recovered as a result of the decades-old closure, and that catch-and-release angling for sturgeon is sustainable. Part of our ongoing support for science-based fisheries management is the rightful ability to question whether science is being overly conservative and/or reacting too slowly to trends.

For a more thorough explanation of the science as we understand it, please click here.

It’s worth noting that the Nelson River is also (apparently!) subject to a similar sturgeon closure, but other Manitoba rivers such as the Red and Assiniboine allow angling for sturgeon.

While the regulation remains on the books, the reality is that the angling community, even with its sincere concern for sustainability, seems to no longer buy into the Winnipeg River sturgeon closure. It is frankly one of the most openly disobeyed rules in Manitoba. It is time for the government process to catch up to this.

We are all for due process and we understand the steps involved in consulting with various stakeholders (which we whole-heartedly encourage) and what it takes to formally change the law, but in the mean time the science suggests a catch-and-release fishery should have minimal effect on the population. Therefore preventing anglers from targeting these fish no longer seems necessary. It also ignores the fact that everyone seems to be out there doing it anyway.

For years there was a “grey area” where anglers continued to fish for sturgeon, while enforcement officers seemed to rightly look the other way. But this year a new notice appeared in the angling regulations guide reiterating in bold writing that the river is closed to sturgeon fishing. Outfitters also received letters with their license renewal this year warning that they were not to offer sturgeon trips. Our members are obviously concerned about these two developments, but we have been encouraged by subsequent, positive conversations with the province about this issue and remain hopeful that a sensible solution can be found.

Our outfitters do not want to put their clients at risk of getting charged, so if the province is going to take a soft approach to enforcement (which we encourage), we would like that extended to outfitters and their clients as well. We refuse to be the only ones following an openly disobeyed regulation that few are convinced is even necessary. We would support a full reversal of the closure as soon as the federal and provincial governments can agree on a protocol, but in the mean time outfitters would like assurance that any amnesty extended to anglers as that process is worked out also includes allowance for guided trips.

The reality is the clients who head out with outfitters could just as easily go on their own and have the exact same impact on the resource, except without the help of a professional guide who knows how to drive a boat and properly handle and release a fish. There is also economic impact being lost with this approach, as our outfitters have had cancellations this spring as a direct result of the notice in the angling guide, which has cost them real money.

We agree that the sustainability of the resource is first and foremost. We agree that stakeholders should be consulted, particularly anglers, outfitters, people who live along the Winnipeg River, and Indigenous harvesters whose cultural ties to sturgeon have deep roots in Manitoba.

But government process that sometimes moves at a glacial pace should not be allowed to prevent this activity, while we wait to confirm what the rest of the angling world already knows.