Sustainable Development Minister Cathy Cox denied Friday there will be any shortage of fish in Whiteshell and Nopiming lakes this summer or in future years.
She told the house the situation in the lakes and rivers of Whiteshell Provincial Park has been "grossly misrepresented."
Sport fishers and members of their $400-million-a-year industry charged Thursday that an entire fish-stocking season has been lost and will result in shortages of fish in coming years because of a provincial government decision not to staff the Whiteshell fish hatchery adequately this winter.
Cox acknowledged Friday there has been a shortage of staff at the hatchery, but insisted it had nothing to do with 13 lakes not being stocked with millions of walleye fry this summer.
Provincial biologists make the call on when to stock various bodies of water, and they advised that the 13 lakes did not need to be stocked in 2017, Cox told reporters.
Other major lakes such as Falcon, West Hawk, Florence and Lyon are being stocked, she said.
Cox’s statements Friday were the latest in the evolution of the province’s explanation of the fish-stock situation in Whiteshell and Nopiming, an explanation that has been changing rapidly.
The province initially denied the story Thursday.
"There is no shortfall of fish to be stocked," the province said in a statement. "The Whiteshell hatchery will be supplying all the fish that have been requested by them."
After further questioning Thursday, the department conceded there was a shortfall of walleye fry because of staffing issues, but downplayed the impact.
"Manitoba Sustainable Development is not concerned about the overall quality of walleye fishing being impacted by a one-year absence of stocking," it said in an email Thursday. "The walleye-stocking program is only intended to enhance fisheries, it is not a replacement for natural reproduction."
That changed again Friday when NDP environment critic Rob Altemeyer accused Cox of engineering a situation that "caused some real harm to Manitobans."
"The entire fishing season will be lost," Altemeyer said. "Is it her office that directed the staff shortage to happen at the fish hatchery?"
Biologists in her department make the call on which lakes to stock each year to avoid overstocking, she responded.
"The biologists made that determination. I leave it up to the scientists: the biologists.
"We take a science-based approach," Cox told reporters.
The hatchery had a staff shortage, though other provincial employees were dispatched to augment them, she said. Between the Whiteshell and the second provincial hatchery near Lundar, the required walleye stocks were produced, she said.
Cox said her department may not have done enough to keep the industry and sport fishers informed about what was happening.
"We are going to prepare a letter to them," she said.
The $10 stamp on an annual fishing licence contributes $850,000 per year into the Fish and Wildlife Enhancement Fund to pay hatchery salaries and operating costs.
Ian Young, owner of the Faloma Beach Marina, said Thursday the department’s approach to informing people is no way to treat the sport fishing industry.
"It’s really short-sighted on Manitoba’s part. It’s just really foolish," said Young, who is also a fishing guide and runs Falcon Lake’s annual winter fishing derby.
Sport fishing associations disagree with Cox’s assertion the stocking schedule is normal.
Fish stocks aren’t going to crash overnight, but somewhere down the line, when those fish were supposed to mature, there will be a gap, Young said.
"I worry about us missing an age class," he said, noting lakes that are stocked face the most sport fishing pressure.
"That harvest needs to be replaced, and that’s what the hatchery has done for years."
"If the decision was based on science, that was the way to go," Altemeyer said, adding Cox should still apologize to the fishing community for not keeping people in the loop since there was significant public knowledge about staffing levels and stocking plans in early March.
"Her response was to deny there was a problem at the hatchery. She could, and should, have taken the action to clarify," he said.