A Manitoba lake is the first freshwater body in North America -- and only the second in the world -- to have its fisheries certified sustainable.
The northern pike and walleye fisheries on Waterhen Lake, an Interlake body of water 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, have been certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international organization that employs biologists to ascertain whether wild-caught fish in any given location deserve an ecological stamp of approval.
The vast majority of the world's fisheries declared sustainable by the MSC are in the oceans. Sustainable status assures retailers and consumers seafood caught in certified fisheries are not being overfished.
The certification process for Waterhen Lake took five years to complete and required the co-operation of 22 commercial fishers, most of them indigenous, said Bill Galbraith, who manages Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship's commercial fishing program.
"The Waterhen fishers should be commended, because those fishermen took a leadership role, and they took a big leap of faith to work with us and achieve this," Galbraith said Thursday in an interview, adding nearby Skownan First Nation also supported Waterhen's certification.
"Consumers around the world are increasingly aware their buying habits can directly lead to overfishing and the collapse of fish stocks. This certification demonstrates the (Waterhen) fishery is being managed and operated sustainably."
In order to get certified, the Waterhen Lake fishers had to demonstrate their pike and walleye fishing methods did not deplete the stocks of their target species or harm other aspects of the lake's environment.
Waterhen fishers, who use gill nets to fish and operate during the winter only, are allowed to take 33,600 kilograms of walleye, also known as pickerel, every year. They also take an average of 50,000 kilograms of non-quota fish every year, with most of that haul being northern pike and whitefish, a provincial fisheries report says.
The certification only lasts five years. In order to maintain the sustainable badge, provincial authorities and the fishers have to demonstrate the stocks remain healthy and show steps are being taken to reverse any declines, Galbraith said.
Six of the 22 Waterhen fishers are also keeping logbooks to track the amount of bycatch, the non-target species fishers cannot sell and typically leave on the ice, either to rot or be consumed by crows and ravens.
Galbraith said the Waterhen bycatch rate is lower than it is for fisheries on larger Manitoba lakes such as Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba. The logbooks and borehole monitoring by conservation officers will be used to verify this claim. "We believe on Waterhen it was never high, and we're collecting data to be able to substantiate that statement. If it's refuted, we'll take action to eliminate it or reduce it," Galbraith said.
The province will pursue certification for other Manitoba lakes if the fishers on those bodies of water request such a move, Galbraith said. Certification for larger fisheries will be more difficult, he added.
In the meantime, the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation is developing a means of keeping Waterhen Lake pike and walleye separate from the same species caught in other lakes throughout the transport, processing and labelling process. This will allow wholesalers and retailers to sell certified-sustainable fish from Waterhen Lake.
The only other freshwater fishery certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council is on a lake in Sweden. The council officially granted Waterhen Lake a sustainable certificate in June.
Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, however, elected not to announce the achievement. The province did not publicize the eco-certification because communications officials were busy in June with the Assiniboine River flood, said Naline Rampersad, spokeswoman for Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh.
Waterhen Lake, approximately 10 kilometres across and 40 kilometres long, serves as a link in Manitoba's "great lakes" chain; Lake Winnipegosis drains southeast through Waterhen Lake and the Waterhen River into Lake Manitoba.