Is Ontario’s Live Bait Industry Worth the Risk to our Lakes and Rivers?


Freshwater fish Freshwater



About a year ago, I read something on a fisheries blog that piqued my curiosity: Ontario anglers were being fined on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River for fishing with live bait.

About a year ago, I read something on a fisheries blog that piqued my curiosity: Ontario anglers were being fined on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River for fishing with live bait. I was surprised to learn that it wasn't just Quebec that placed restrictions on the use of live bait – most provinces and all territories prohibit or restrict its use. Ontario and Nova Scotia are the exceptions.

Even more strangely, I found out that as well as fish, worms and leeches, Ontario anglers can also use frogs as live bait. In fact, individual anglers (but not commercial bait harvesters) can harvest up to 12 northern leopard frogs to use as bait.

The use of live bait in Ontario is popular with anglers. A 2009 Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) survey found that 53% of active anglers used live bait. The survey showed that most of the anglers obtained live bait from a bait shop and only 3% of anglers harvested bait themselves.

Given the national trend towards banning the use and harvest of live bait, I began investigating the impacts of using live bait on the environment. I found a two-part story: the impacts of removing species from ecosystems for live bait, and the addition of often alien species -- and possibly diseases -- into ecosystems through the use and movement of live bait.
Let’s start with the impacts of removing everything from fish to frogs from natural areas to feed the large appetite for live bait in Ontario.

The live bait Ontarians buy at retail bait shops come from a legal harvest regulated by the OMNRF. However, the province’s regulations are very permissive, allowing most of Ontario’s rivers and lakes to be legally harvested for bait species by commercial harvesters, while anglers can harvest live bait from anywhere in the province including protected areas and parks.

The OMNRF requires commercial harvesters to be trained and certified through a program called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP). However, the efficacy of the HACCP program is questionable for several reasons, including:

  • Lack of enforcement by OMNR;
  • Harvesters hire seasonal workers who are allowed to perform most harvester duties without HACCP training; and
  • Harvesters can lease their Bait Harvest Area to untrained harvesters.

The current HACCP program clearly has more holes than a muskie-torn fishing net. But even if it were properly enforced and more broadly implemented, the program cannot address over-harvesting and the spread of disease through accidental release of diseased bait or fish.

The fact that anglers are allowed to harvest their own bait -- even in parks -- is troubling because it increases the harvest of invasive species, species-at-risk, and native non-bait species simply because anglers are often not experts in identifying different species. For example, the invasive rainbow smelt is hard to distinguish from the emerald shiner (see photo below). The result is that invasive species may become even more widely spread as anglers use these species as bait in previously uncontaminated lakes and rivers.

As live bait is used and moved between lakes and rivers, we see a greatly increased risk of the spread of invasive species as noted above. In Ontario, for example, this may be one route that smallmouth bass have taken to become a dominant species in many areas where they are not native, with significant ecological and social costs.

Invasive or introduced species, of course, increase competition levels for food, add to predation pressure, and/or serve as prey, thereby throwing ecosystem out of whack. Introducing invasive species into one lake can lead to their spread throughout an entire watershed. Here in Ontario, the introduction of bass (smallmouth, largemouth, and rock bass) into new lakes and rivers can mean fewer small fish, thereby decreasing the amount of food available for larger fish such as lake trout and walleye. The effects can be huge: A study in Ontario found that the amount of lake trout caught in lakes where smallmouth bass were introduced was about 70% lower than the amount caught in lakes without smallmouth bass.

Invasive fish can even impact neighbouring terrestrial systems. For example, in Yellowstone National Park in Montana, there was a decline in elk calf numbers caused by increased grizzly bear predation. This increased predation was directly linked to the decline of a native fish called the cutthroat trout. Grizzlies in the park mainly feed on migratory cutthroat, but the decline of this preferred fish forced the hungry bears to hunt elk calves much more than they normally would.

At the root of the cutthroat decline was an invasion of lake trout into their habitat, a favourite fish among anglers. The introduction of this single new species to Yellowstone resulted is disturbing the food web in both the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

There are impacts from moving native fish to lakes even if the species is already present. Each lake or river has its own specific micro-environment (temperature range, concentration of different minerals, etc.) that local fish have adapted to over many generations. Moving even native fish species around may disrupt the local populations’ adaptations to their local conditions by introducing new un-adapted genes into the population.

Finally, live bait can also carry disease. In 2007, Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS) was discovered in the Great Lakes. VHS is a virus that causes internal hemorrhaging throughout the body in several fish species (e.g., walleye, muskellunge, smallmouth bass) and it can be transmitted between fish living in the same water. Often, the host fish doesn't show any visible signs of carrying the disease.
To prevent the further spread of this devastating virus, OMNRF quarantined and disposed of all live bait harvested in the infected areas in Southwestern Ontario. Luckily, in this case, the early detection and quarantine efforts prevented a wider spread of the disease. However, introducing both known and new diseases to Ontario's lakes and rivers is a constant risk that is increased through the use of live bait.
Considering the myriad ecological risks, continued use of live bait may be contributing to a slowly unfolding ecological disaster -- but that is only half the story. The socioeconomic impacts are also very high. Invasive species in the Great Lakes basin are estimated to cost about $5.7 billion annually in economic loss. The now-ubiquitous zebra mussel, introduced from the Black Sea, is capable of heavily colonizing soft and hard substrates and can block the intake structures of power stations and water treatment plants. Zebra mussel colonization cost Ontario taxpayers about $5 billion between 1990 and 2000.

Now consider the economic cost and difficulty of controlling over 150 potentially invasive species in Ontario and the diseases they may carry while moved around almost anywhere in the province by anglers and commercial harvesters!

If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m in favour of banning live bait use and harvest and I admire Quebec's political will (and that of most other provinces and all territories) to take action to protect their native fisheries and economy. It is particularly important to do so now as the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is undergoing a comprehensive review of live bait policies to improve the management of bait (i.e., fish and leeches). People interested in following or commenting on this issue can find the proposal under EBR Registration number 012-1043 on the EBR website.
We are up to the challenge of bait free fishing, and I think most anglers would embrace it if they fully understood the ecological risks of live bait use.

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