An entire fish-stocking season is being lost in Whiteshell and Nopiming provincial parks because of insufficient staffing at the provincially run Whiteshell Fish Hatchery.
The province confirmed sport-fishing lakes won't be stocked with walleye fry this year because the hatchery didn't produce its usual seven- to 11-million fry, which is what fish are called immediately after they hatch.
That's particularly galling to sport fishermen who pay the hatchery's costs. 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, says that's no way to treat the sport-fishing industry, which is worth $400 million annually to the province.
"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.
Lakes not being stocked this year include Star, South Cross, Red Rock, North Cross, Jessica, Caddy, Brereton, Betula and Barren lakes in the Whiteshell, and Shoe, Flanders, Booster and Black lakes in Nopiming.
The Whiteshell Hatchery, built in 1942, supplies about 20 per cent of the walleye fry to stock Manitoba lakes, the province said. The hatchery at Swan Creek near Lundar provides the majority of walleye fry. Its work wasn't interrupted this year.
The province initially denied the story.
"There is no shortfall of fish to be stocked," it said in a statement. "The Whiteshell Hatchery will be supplying all the fish that have been requested by them."
After further questioning, 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. "The walleye-stocking program is only intended to enhance fisheries, it is not a replacement for natural reproduction."
Sport-fishing associations disagree. 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, said Young.
"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."
The Whiteshell Fish Hatchery opened in 1942 initially to grow trout fry and has been in walleye fry production since 1984. The last time it didn't produce walleye fry was in 2006 because of a mould problem in the building.
The hatchery is an inexpensive way to invest in Manitoba, Young said. Staffing problems at the hatchery harms an industry where millions of dollars are spent by residents and tourists on licences, bait, fishing rods, tackle, boats, lodgings, restaurants, fuel and clothing.
Blame is being directed at the bureaucracy for not having proper staffing in place at the Whiteshell hatchery. The Whiteshell Fish Hatchery is designed to be run by six employees, but staffing fell to just two people over the winter because of a combination of departures, health reasons and maternity leave.
That meant the hatchery could not carry out its annual fish-stocking program, which was supposed to start the first week of April with the annual spawning program on Falcon Creek.
Contributing to the problems, there is no longer a fisheries director. The position was cut in the merger that created the Wildlife and Fisheries Branch, headed by the existing wildlife director.
"It's not a funding issue. There has never been a hiring freeze at the hatchery. What's causing it is layers and layers of process and bureaucracy to fill vacant positions," said Jeff Connolly, president of the Swan Valley Sport Fishing Enhancement Inc.
The province had sufficient warning to respond to the staff shortfall, Connolly said.
"This (staffing issue) didn't explode all of a sudden. Everyone connected with the hatchery has known about this."
The staff shortage also sets the hatchery up for a catastrophe such as a water-pump failure with no one in the building, said Connolly. As well, fish have to be fed and eggs have to be cleaned regularly so disease doesn't spread through the egg trays. The hatchery should be staffed seven days a week, sport-fishing experts said.
Funding of the Whiteshell and Swan Creek hatcheries was taken over by sport fishers in 2013 by way of the $10 stamp. Money not spent from the dedicated fund is carried over to the next fiscal year.
The Whiteshell Hatchery generates walleye for eastern Manitoba and about 400,000 trout fry for stocking mainly in the northwestern part of the province. The trout-stocking program is not being interrupted; however, there are concerns in the fishing community understaffing has led to smaller fry with lower survival rates.