| Mar 20, 2008

Feature Article - March 20, 2008

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Feature Article - March 20, 2008 New panfish rules were publicized, MNR saysBy Jeff Green

Resort owners and their U.S. based customers need not have been caught by surprise when a possession limit of 50 bluegill and sunfish was included in the revised Ontario fishing regulations, according to MNR biologist Erin MacDonald.

“The new regulations were included in the proposed regulations that were brought forward through a public consultation process,” said MacDonald, who works out of MNR's Bancroft office.

Public consultations were conducted through web postings, newspaper, magazine and poster advertising, and public meetings, as well as mailouts inviting fishing industry operators to public meetings. “We did our best to give people an opportunity to participate,” said MacDonald.

The new regulations were the subject of controversy for resort owners and the bait industry in eastern Ontario during the consultation period, but most of the attention was paid to the new fishing zones themselves and to new limits around Walleye, the marquee species for U.S. tourists.

Since the regulations came into force, other concerns have surfaced.

The decision to establish a possession limit of 50 for sunfish species, including 6 species of sunfish of which bluegill and pumpkinseed are the most common, was made on the basis of a background report that the MNR calls a “species toolkit”. The catch and possession limits do NOT apply to rock bass. The changes were included in the draft regulations that were presented in public meetings and consultations in 2005 and 2006.

One of the prime incentives for establishing possession limits, noted in the sunfish toolkit, is a desire to bring a higher profile to the fish.

“Although sunfish have not traditionally been overexploited in Ontario, province-wide catch limits are recommended to place a value on the resource, prevent commercialization and provide a consistent approach to the issue of sustainable fisheries and resource limitations,” says the toolkit.

Restrictive possession limits are in place in many U.S. states, including Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New York. In some cases, the U.S. regulations include catch and release only.

The sunfish toolkit also points to angler concerns about over fishing. “Increasing harvest of sunfish in many areas of southern Ontario has raised concerns about the need for catch and possession limits. In the 2000 survey of recreational fishing in Ontario (MNR 2003), many anglers indicated that they believed there should be limits on harvesting sunfish. There have also been petitions for catch limits by concerned anglers.”

The toolkit recommendations are based on scientific studies of sunfish populations; however there have been few studies specific to Ontario inland lakes.

Of the 20 fishing zones in Ontario, the sunfish possession rules are in place in all but one. That exception is Zone 17, a small zone that has Peterborough at its geographic centre, and includes all of the Kawartha Lakes.

Zone 17 is excluded from most of the new regulations in the recently released fishing regulations because it is one zone where a Pilot Fisheries Management Zone Advisory Council is in place. According to Erin MacDonald, “In a lot of cases it was decided not to make changes in that zone at this point because the advisory council was being set up to discuss future changes within the zone.”

Fisheries Management Advisory Councils will be set up throughout the province over the next few years, and MacDonald said that within the next 18 months a committee will be set up in zone 18. Zone 18 encompasses most of south-eastern Ontario, extending between Trenton and Cornwall in the south, and Arnprior and the Hastings County border to the north.

Roger Fayle is a fishing camp operator on Rice Lake, in Zone 17, and he represents the Rice Lake federation on the fishing management committee. In an interview with the News he said that panfish, in particular bluegill, are a crucial species for his and other operations on Rice Lake. It is popular with U.S. based fishers who book vacations during the shoulder seasons of May-June, and September. He said that it is common for hundreds of fish to be taken, and his customers to filet and freeze them to take home.

“A bluegill limit would be devastating to us,” he said, “and the argument that putting a possession limit on them would raise their popularity is preposterous. We are beginning our work on panfish at the management committee this month and I am hoping there will be no possession limit placed on them.”

Fayle said that fishing pressure on bluegill on Rice Lake is not a major concern, partly because U.S. tourism has been down 50% over the past two years because of the rising Canadian dollar and confusion over new U.S. passport laws.

In order to maintain a healthy population a voluntary program to return larger fish to the water has been implemented. A poster with the slogan, “If it is bigger than your palm, throw it back” are posted throughout the area.

“Apparently as the larger fish are removed, the fish would get smaller and smaller,” Fayle said, “and the voluntary campaign seems to be working. The population is healthy.”

The fishing regulation process in zone 17 is cold comfort for the fishing industry in zone 18 however.

Bob Leonard, who is one of the founding members of the Eastern Ontario Outdoorsman Association, which sprung up over complaints about the new regulations, will be holding a public meeting in Sharbot Lake to discuss a host of concerns about the fishing industry in the region, including panfish possession limits.

The meeting will take place on Friday night, March 28 at 7:00 in the Oso Hall. Speakers will include a tourist resort owner, Earl Kerr (bait harvester), Ron Pethick from Conservationists of Frontenac Addington who will talk about stocking restrictions, and others.

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