OTTAWA — As Manitoba breaks out of the federal monopoly on freshwater fish sales today, new numbers reveal the amount of pickerel caught in Lake Winnipeg has dropped by one-third in five years.

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OTTAWA — As Manitoba breaks out of the federal monopoly on freshwater fish sales today, new numbers reveal the amount of pickerel caught in Lake Winnipeg has dropped by one-third in five years.

The data bolster fears voiced by advocates that a hands-off approach to management by the federal and provincial governments has encouraged fishers to rely on pickerel (also known as walleye) and possibly create another fishery collapse in Lake Winnipeg.

"It’s a highly productive lake, but like any resource, it can be overexploited," Dauphin-area Tory MP Robert Sopuck said Thursday.

Ottawa established the Winnipeg-based Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. in 1969 to help fishers in Western Canada and the North sell their catches from isolated communities to businesses across Canada and abroad.

But in recent years, the Crown corporation has been plagued by dysfunction. Its last president, Donald Salkeld — who was hired to clean up management problems — was fired within 14 months.

In May, the auditor general produced a report saying the corporation had bought equipment it didn’t need, hired staff without a normal interview process, skipped health and safety training, and bungled basic business plans. It was the agency’s third damning audit in 12 years, with little change over that period.

More recently, conservationists have warned about the corporation’s apparent overreliance on pickerel. Manitoba’s multispecies quota system allots 6.52 million kilograms per year for fishers, but doesn’t limit species type.

Large, female pickerel are needed to sustain the species, but they’re also the highest-value catch. They’ve become so rare that fishers are increasingly opting for whitefish — worth half as much — to fill their quota, and the corporation has nothing in place to cut down on pickerel catches.

"In my view, the (corporation) was incenting the fishermen to catch the large (pickerel)," said Sopuck, his party’s conservation critic. "They’re creaming off the top, the most valuable individuals in that population… that’s what’s causing that decline."

The corporation provides catch records and production reports to the province, listing the amount of fish caught by commercial fishers. Manitoba’s Sustainable Development department assembled those numbers and provided them to the Free Press Thursday.

They show the kilograms of Lake Winnipeg pickerel bought by the corporation in the 2011-12 year is one-third higher than five years later. (The data exclude small-scale sales and recreational fishing, which fall outside the corporation’s monopoly.)

Interim president, Stan Lazar, says the corporation’s legislated mandate only includes purchasing, collecting and marketing fish. The feds monitor fish amounts along the coasts, while provinces are in charge of freshwater lakes.

"I don’t want this to come out the wrong way, but as a Crown corporation, we are not responsible for the health of the stocks," said Lazar, though he admitted he’s concerned about the issue. "If you don’t have the fish, you don’t have the industry."

The province acknowledged its role in conserving fish stocks, saying in a statement it does annual stock assessments on Lake Winnipeg pickerel.

Sopuck, a former fisheries biologist, said enforcement agencies can reduce quota, designate certain areas off-limit or change the fishing-season dates. He’s heard the province may consider restricting the size of mesh nets, because larger ones trap bigger pickerel.

Meanwhile, the data also reveal a drastic rise in commercially caught carp in Lake Winnipeg, from just 273 in 2010-11 to 97,303 six years later. That’s helped slow the species’ growth, which has wreaked havoc on Manitoba’s vegetation and biodiversity.

Dec. 1 is the first day Manitoba will no longer be part of the corporation monopoly, after the provincial Conservative government passed a bill in July to pull out, despite accounting for 80 per cent of the corporation’s fish.

Already, the corporation has secured contracts lasting three years or more with 80 per cent of the Manitoba fishers, who catch a similar proportion of fish.

The agency is used to pullouts: Saskatchewan walked away in 2012, while Alberta suspended all commercial fishing in 2014. Only the Northwest Territories remains in the monopoly agreement.

It remains unclear whether Manitoba’s pullout will affect remote communities, or jobs at the Winnipeg plant.

The provincial NDP has warned the privatization will lead to economic hardship for the north, because the costly freight shipments will drive up the cost of fish at the advantage of those in the province’s south.

Sopuck claimed northern fishers were among the strongest voices to call for an end to the monopoly, with some near The Pas complaining about low prices and lax marketing for species such as mullet.

Lazar said "many" of the Manitoba fishers who have signed contracts with the corporation are remote, northern fisheries, but "I’m not going to share that information, of which areas have signed."

He said the corporation will continue "in the short term" to provide Indigenous and remote fishers with containers, ice, reports for employment insurance and assistance finding loans for equipment. On Lake Winnipeg, the barge that collects fish drops off fuel and supplies throughout the summer to remote communities.

Lazar couldn’t say whether he expects cuts to the corporation’s 250 full-time staff and 150 part-timers.

"We’re just starting our business-planning cycle," he said. "We’re going through that exercise imminently."

Transcona MP Daniel Blaikie, who represents the area where the plant is located, said he wants a strategy to keep those jobs from moving, especially overseas. The New Democrat blames both federal and provincial conservative governments, as well as the Trudeau government.

"Frankly, they don’t care about single-desk selling, or for public infrastructure," he said, suggesting the uptick in contracts shows fishers want the monopoly. "These governments come and say ‘We’re super business-savvy,’ and haven’t been able to straighten it out."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca