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Getting it Right in Ontario's Far North- The Need for a Regional Strategic Environmental Assessment in the Ring of Fire (Wawangajing)

Author(s): Cheryl Chetkiewicz and Anastasia Lintner
Journal: Working paper by WCS Canada and Ecojustice
Year: 2014

Protecting and Connecting Headwater Havens

Author(s): John Weaver
Journal: Wildlife Conservation Society Canada Conservation Report
Year: 2013

A Fork in the Road, Future Development in Ontario's Far North

Author(s): Cheryl Chetkiewicz and Matt Carlson
Journal: Wildlife Conservation Society Canada Collaborative Report
Year: 2013

Climate Change and Freshwater Fish in Ontario's Far North

Author(s): Cheryl Chetkiewicz, Jenni McDermid, Molly Cross, Erica Rowland
Journal: NA
Year: 2013

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Latest Feature

Ontario's Live Bait Fisheries: 

Commercial Harvest and the Angle on What's at Stake

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: 

  • Commercial bait harvest is licensed through “Bait Harvest Areas” (BHAs) (Figure 1) that vary in size, with boundaries that have little ecological basis. Some BHA boundaries overlap with other management zones such as parks, which creates conflict.
  • Almost all of Ontario is open to the commercial harvest of live bait, with few restrictions in either protected areas (such as provincial parks), or where aquatic species at risk occur. 
  • Many commercial bait operators use storage devices to hold live bait and can do so in any waterbody regardless of where it was harvested, including sensitive and protected areas. Stored bait may escape, which increases the potential for spreading invasive species and disease. 
  • Despite measures to ensure that bait only includes target species, non-target species including species-at-risk and invasive species continue to be caught by bait harvesters. 

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:

  • Ban all live bait in Ontario in order to prevent the spread of invasive species and disease. 
  • If live bait is not banned, then ecological risks should be minimized through the following measures:
    • Ban the movement of bait across watersheds 
    • Require bait testing and develop a fish health monitoring program 
    • Ban live bait harvest, storage, and use in species-at-risk habitats and protected areas
  • Bait industry management should be simplified and strengthened  through the following measures: 
    • Re-align BHA boundaries to aquatic management boundaries.
    • Use commercial bait licence fees to offset administration costs.
    • Require that those involved with the live bait industry receive training to reduce the likelihood of selling invasive species and enabling disease transmission.
    • Implement a provincial demerit point system for infractions.

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).

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