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Live bait fishing uses live animals such as small fish, frogs, and leeches to attract larger game fish, and is popular with recreational anglers because it is an effective way to catch fish. Most anglers in Ontario use live bait, and the industry is valued at $20 million.
Despite these benefits, the live bait industry also has downsides. In 2013, 60 million baitfish and leeches were harvested from wild ecosystems in Ontario. The removal of such a substantial portion of biomass can alter food webs, and harvest operations can cause physical damage to habitat. Live bait is also moved across Ontario with few restrictions relative to most other jurisdictions in Canada, even though live bait is a known pathway for invasive species and disease. Ontario has the highest number of invasive species in Canada, and millions of dollars are spent every year on aquatic invasive species control.
Commercial harvest practices for bait are imperfect, and suffer from a number of key problems:
In 2013, Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) began a review of bait use, and is developing new guidelines for bait fisheries. WCS Canada, along with 13 organizations and stakeholders, were invited to join the Bait Review Advisory Group (BRAG), with the mandate to propose policy and regulations for live bait in Ontario. In June, MNRF released proposed policy options for the commercial harvest and use of live bait.
WCS Canada has reviewed the options and provided some key recommendations to MNRF:
While the current proposals on bait harvest and use are step in the right direction, WCS Canada maintains that it is imperative to consider more proactive planning for freshwater systems in Ontario's Far North. At present, there are few invasive species and limited access and industrial disturbance in this globally significant region. With the expansion of access due to resource development (e.g., Ring of Fire), remote tourism operations, and climate change, the introduction of invasive species, as well as native species that are not naturally occurring in Far North watersheds, is of high concern.
What can you do?
Figure 1. Commercial harvest in Ontario is managed through the licensing of operators in Bait Harvest Areas (BHAs) (© WCS Canada / Meg Southee).