WINNIPEG BEACH -- Everyone knows fishing is best in spring, especially commercial fishers.
"Every hour that passes is hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars," said Kris Isfeld, a commercial fisherman out of Winnipeg Beach harbour. "That's when we make half our income."
So when the province announced last week it was closing four Lake Winnipeg harbours, including Winnipeg Beach and Gimli, preventing about 130 fishing skiffs from getting out on the water this spring, the commercial fishing community was stunned. The province's plan would close the harbours for a month using silt curtains, then pour 400 tonnes of liquid potash into the harbours to try to kill zebra mussels, an invasive species.
"It was a complete shock to everyone. And for commercial fishers, the timing couldn't have been worse," said Jim Campbell, a former provincial fisheries biologist and now a commercial fisherman on Lake Winnipeg.
It's not that the fishing industry isn't concerned about zebra mussels. The first zebra mussels were discovered in Lake Winnipeg last fall. They have been in the Great Lakes for two decades and are in lakes in 34 states in the U.S.
But commercial fishers are baffled about why they weren't even consulted before the province unveiled its closure plan just a month before commercial fishing season.
"It was dictated to us," said Isfeld, a local rep on the Lake Winnipeg Fishery Co-Management Board that advises government. "The province started the process in October and didn't talk to us until the middle of April. They already had their plan in place, then came and talked to the No. 1 stakeholder."
Closing the four harbours -- Winnipeg Beach, Gimli, Balsam Bay and Arnes -- would cost commercial fishers about $1 million per week, Isfeld said.
The province is already starting to backtrack. Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh met with stakeholders here and in Gimli late last week and committed to finding a way for them to keep fishing. The question is how.
A working group of 22 stakeholders has been hastily struck to find a solution. One idea is for a sort of teeter-totter so boats could travel over the silt curtain. Boats could glide up one side and their weight would cause the ramp to teeter and let them down the other side. Fishing boats would not risk transporting zebra mussels outside the harbour because the mussels haven't started to spawn, which is when they start to swim and attach themselves to boats.
"On our skiffs, we pass over fishing nets all the time. We know how to pass over barriers," Isfeld said.
When the province announced its plan last week, it told commercial fishers they could just park their boats at other harbours. But there aren't nearly enough slips to accommodate the boats. Even for those who can relocate, it means travelling an extra two hours to and from their boat by road and an extra couple hours by water to get to their nets. That's at a time of year when fishermen are already working 12-hour days.
Fishermen such as Louie Batenchuk have secured a slip farther north, but it might cost him in the $6,000 range just to move his boat, which is large and would require raising hydro wires.
Zebra mussels, native to southern Russia, were found last fall on the hull of a private boat and a dock at Winnipeg Beach and on some fishing boats in Gimli. If allowed to flourish, the mussels would contribute to green algae blooms, cause a mess on beaches and at least temporarily harm fish stocks. They can also clog water-treatment-plant intake pipes.
Many are skeptical the province's eradication plan will work. Based on how Lake Winnipeg currents run, they suspect the mussels have already ventured outside the harbours. Divers for Manitoba Conservation are to go out today to look for zebra mussels outside the harbours. If the mussels are outside, there may be little point in treatment.
"It failed in Europe, it failed in the States and it failed in Ontario," said Gimli harbourmaster Gordon Gowie, referring to efforts to stop the zebra mussels. Liquid-potash treatment has only been tested so far in a large retention pond. "(Lake Winnipeg) is slightly bigger than a retention pond."
Potash also kills native mussels, said Jocelyn Burzuik, a consultant with the Gimli Harbour Authority. If it fails, the province might try the bacteria treatment Zequanox, which is being used in the U.S. It has a kill rate of 92 per cent, but that only manages the zebra-mussel problem and doesn't eliminate it.