Pandemic, Low Prices Blamed for 95% Decline in Saskatchewan Commercial Lake Trout Harvest

The amount of lake trout harvested by Saskatchewan’s commercial fishers dropped 95 percent in 2020-21 from the previous year, according to data from the province’s Ministry of Environment — and the pandemic is in part to blame.

“A lot of trout goes into restaurant markets,” said ministry spokesperson Mark Duffy. With restaurants hit hard by the pandemic, “the demand wasn’t there. And so the fishers didn’t fish.”

The drop is also partly due to how concentrated the harvest for lake trout is, he said.

Duffy said 80 to 90 percent of the province’s commercially harvested lake trout are caught in one lake — Reindeer Lake in northeastern Saskatchewan, the province’s second-largest lake.

“So many changes within that particular fishery are going to really impact the total harvest of lake trout for the province,” he said.

Duffy, a fisheries management specialist and the team lead of Saskatchewan Environment’s fisheries unit, said other species that are harvested are spread out in most of the province’s 225 other lakes that are commercially fished, which is why they are not as susceptible to sudden spikes or declines.

Declines in other fish species

The decline happened after the province’s lake trout harvest more than doubled from 2018-19 to 2019-20, according to the data supplied to CBC News.

The three fish species that typically get the most attention from commercial fishers in the province also experienced harvest declines in 2020-21, but nowhere near the extent of the drop in the lake trout harvest.

Saskatchewan’s commercial fishers caught 20 percent less lake whitefish, six percent less walleye (pickerel) and 15 percent less northern pike (jackfish).

Meanwhile, there were larger mullet and cisco (tullibee) harvests in 2020-21. The amount of cisco caught was up 241 percent over 2019-20 levels — although it still made up only three percent of Saskatchewan’s total commercial fish harvest.

Duffy said fishers on Reindeer Lake got off to a late start in 2018-19 because of changes to where they were going to market their fish. The province’s commercial fishers hauled in 80,367 kilograms of lake trout that year.

The lake trout harvest jumped to 185,129 kilograms the following year — which Duffy called more of a normal year.

But in 2020-21, as the pandemic hit and restaurant demand dwindled, the bottom fell out, with only 9,411 kilograms of lake trout caught.

Duffy said the markets rebounded a little quicker for some of the other species, such as lake whitefish, walleye and northern pike.

“So the price was there for the fishers to go out and still actively fish for those species,” he said.

The federal government’s fish harvester benefit, intended to supplement incomes affected by shutdowns in the market for both freshwater and saltwater commercial fisheries, also had an impact, Duffy said.

“A lot of the fishers didn’t fish because of the programs that were in place to replace the lost markets.”

The provincial ministry issued about 1,200 licences for Saskatchewan’s roughly 500 commercial fishers to fish individual lakes in both 2018-19 and 2019-20 — but the number dropped to just over 900 licences in 2020-21, Duffy said.

Pandemic halts necessary ice harvest

One commercial fisher in Southend, a community on the southern shores of Reindeer Lake, said fishers on the lake now try to avoid lake trout in favour of whitefish because they can get two-and-a-half times more money for that species.

However, the pandemic has also hampered the local fishing industry, said Tommy Bird, a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation.

On Reindeer Lake, there are three villages involved in the commercial fishery — Southend and Kinoosao in Saskatchewan, and Brochet on the Manitoba side.

They normally have about 30 people working together in colder months to harvest ice from the lake to pack the fish caught in the summer and fall, which is typically when they harvest lake trout, Bird said.

In a good year, the villages harvest 3,000 blocks of ice, he said.

But when the pandemic hit in 2020, they couldn’t do that, so they didn’t have the ice for the summer fishery.

“COVID is still active. People are concerned. If we’ve got three villages that come together, how do I avoid it? You cannot avoid it,” he said.

“You’re all in the same line. You’re working side-by-side because that’s how ice harvesting has been done.”

In a normal year, there are easily 240 people involved in the fishing itself, including 40 fishers and their helpers, Bird said.

That doesn’t include the 15 to 20 people involved in packing, the extra workers hired at a local Co-op store and the cooks at the fishing camps, he said.

In a good year, commercial fishing on Reindeer Lake is worth $1.6 million to the local economy, including employment insurance benefits, said Bird.

But he predicts this past year’s harvest of lake trout on Reindeer Lake will look even worse than last year, and it has a lot to do with the pandemic.

“It’s going to be awful,” he said. “Those numbers are going to be way down because a number of fishermen didn’t go out, the ice situation, the COVID situation.”

There was no fall fishing for lake trout, he said.

“If we had the ice, if people were not really concerned about COVID, they would have done more summer fishing and the number of lake trout harvested would come up.”

The federal government assistance for fishers has also played a role in the low harvests, Bird said, but he added that fishers prefer to be on the lake. It’s their way of life and an opportunity for young people at fishing camps to learn the trade.

“People have said it’s not the same. You want to get out there. All of the family is at the fish camp. That’s the meaning of why we do the summer fishery.”

That’s changed because of the current circumstances, he said.

“So hopefully it’ll come back … if we can get away from COVID. That’s the big thing.”


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