A California-based group says the commercial fisheries on Manitoba's three largest lakes are the worst-managed in the world.
Seafood Watch of Monterey, Calif., is asking consumers not to buy fish taken from lakes Winnipeg, Manitoba and Winnipegosis – the source of 81 per cent of the fish caught in the province.
In a statement, the group says an assessment of the lakes, conducted with its Vancouver partner SeaChoice, shows many fish stocks have collapsed or are severely depleted.
Manitoba's commercial fishers argue that fish stocks in the lakes are healthy, and that the assessment is based on paper reports and not actual lake conditions.
About 85 per cent of the fish caught in the province every year are exported to U.S. and European markets.
Manitoba's freshwater fishery is the second-biggest in North America by volume, after the Great Lakes.
Seafood Watch said Manitoba's fisheries suffer from a poor understanding of stock sizes and catch rates, no catch limits for some species, lousy data, poorly regulated bycatch, no harvest-control rules and an "unenforceable multi-species quota system" that lumps in walleye – locally known as pickerel – with sauger and whitefish.
"We were quite shocked at how poorly this fishery performed against other fisheries," said Scott Wallace, a David Suzuki Foundation research scientist and SeaChoice member. "What we found with this fishery is it was like the good old days – a throwback to a time when people didn't consider fisheries management at all."
Commercial fisher Kris Isfeld, a spokesman for hundreds of Lake Winnipeg fishers, said the past 10 to 15 years are among the most productive he's ever seen for the fishery.
"The Lake Winnipeg fishery is one of the most successful, sustainable fisheries in the world. It has never collapsed," Isfeld said. "Because there's been no government interference, the fishery is thriving. What they want us to do is change the way we've been running the fishery for 100 years. They want us to fit into a European [system] that's modelled after fisheries that have collapsed."
Not everyone involved in Manitoba's commercial fishing industry is opposed to certification.
Last year, Manitoba's Waterhen Lake became the first freshwater body in North America to attain eco-certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, an international body.
Karen Olson of retailer Gimli Fish said Lake Winnipeg could also benefit from ecological certification, but the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. – the federal agency that exports Manitoba fish – has rejected the idea because of the estimated cost of upwards of $250,000.
No one at the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. was available for comment.
University of Winnipeg ecologist Scott Forbes said Manitoba doesn't have the capacity to certify the lake, pointing to cuts to fisheries science by the Selinger government.
"These guys are as bad as the Harper Conservatives in terms of the attack on science," said Forbes.
Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Tom Nevakshonoff said in a statement that there will be "a comprehensive review of the sustainability of Manitoba fisheries" that will balance the needs of commercial fishers with the goal of ensuring they retain access to global markets.
He said a report will be issued in 2016.