New provincial proposals for baitfish harvest and transport win conditional support

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ONTARIO – The province is proposing a series of changes for Ontario anglers using live or dead baitfish or leeches that could have a significant impact on the sport fishery.

The changes largely involve the use, movement and harvest of bait and are aimed squarely at minimizing the spread of diseases like viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS).

Freshwater fish suffering from VHS were first detected in the Great Lakes in Lake Ontario in 2005. Such fish may exhibit any or all of the following symptoms: bulging eyes, pale gills, signs of bleeding around the eyes, bases of the fins, sides and head, dark colouration, distended (fluid-filled) belly, gasping at the surface, corkscrew swimming behaviour and an alarmingly high death rate.

Under the new regulations, movement of fish will be restricted to four bait management zones (BMZ), two of which encompass Northern Ontario. Anglers will not be permitted to harvest bait outside their BMZ, determined by their primary residence. If an angler purchases bait while fishing in a BMZ that does not contain their primary residence, they will be required to carry the receipt for two weeks after that purchase. 

After the two weeks has expired, the angler will be required to dispose of the bait in a legal manner.

Regardless of the BMZ, use and storage of bait will be prohibited in native brook trout lakes.

The regulations also include provisions to modernize and standardize commercial operations through a training and best management practices guide.

The changes have a qualified thumbs up from the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), but the OFAH still has some reservations.

“This is certainly an improvement over the first attempt at a bait policy for Ontario,” said Adam Weir, OFAH fishery biologist in that organization’s publication ‘Ontario Out of Doors.’ “We’ve successfully pushed back on some overly restrictive ideas, but we still think this latest proposal will have limited benefit in the fight against invasive species, while having a huge impact on anglers. It still needs a lot of work.”

Mr. Weir notes the OFAHwould like to see “greater enforcement, heftier fines and penalties for illegal activities and more investment in education, outreach and awareness initiatives.”

The OFAH proposes that the limiting of personal harvesting to the BMZ of personal residence needs to be reconsidered.

As for local bait sellers, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years, the changes are not expected to have much of an impact on their operations.

“I get a lot of information on changes coming from the government every year,” laughed Don McCulloch, proprietor of Breakaway Sports in Little Current, the only place to buy minnows in town. “I don’t expect these changes to have any impact on me at all. I think it is more the guys who harvest the minnows and people buying bait who it will effect.”

Mr. McCulloch won’t be selling minnows for a little while yet this year, however. “I won’t be getting any in until likely later in December,” he said, “once things freeze up and the ice is in so guys can get out on the ice to fish I will have them in stock.”

The new regulations do have wide-spread, if conditional support, in the sports fishing industry. Neil Debassige of the Fuel the Fire television program and an industry player gave a careful nod to the plan.

“When you look at the devastation that can be caused by an invasive species or disease, we have to do all that is within our power to protect the native species,” he said, “provided that the regulations are based on sound data. If the ministry has done its due diligence and there is sound data to show that transporting baitfish is a cause, then we have to get behind and support it.”