Update on Lake Winnipeg

Lake Winnipeg Walleye at Risk
How much trouble is Lake Winnipeg really in? I don’t know about you but I have been pretty concerned lately on a number of fronts. First it was provincial fisheries officials telling us that the walleye population is in trouble. Then it was recent reports on the explosion of Zebra Mussels.
 A slim walleye caught at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River and Lake Winnipeg
Let me back up a bit though to last weekend while fishing up at Grand Rapids in the Saskatchewan River as it empties into Lake Winnipeg. What concerned me here was not the number of walleye we caught, which was just crazy by the way, but the shape of the fish. Most all the walleye we caught were very slim, almost like they were starving. I don’t know about you, but in the last 30 years of catching walleye from this lake, fat fish would be the norm. So chunky in fact that there heads were small in proportion to the rest of their body. What has happened to the forage base? What have blue green algae blooms done to affect baitfish populations? It seems in talking to various experts involved with the big lake is that for the north end, rainbow smelt populations have collapsed. A major forage base for these fish is not there anymore and the walleye population in that section of the lake is paying the price. Overall commercial catch numbers have also dropped off the map. Norway House commercial catches are down by 300,000 pounds! In the south basin, whitefish have been moving south to compete for available forage. Whitefish are choking commercial nets and given their only half as valuable as walleye, that’s not a good thing.
Zebra mussels on eye-bolt and rope removed from Lake Winnipeg's south basin.In an effort to prevent the Lake Winnipeg/Red River walleye population from getting depressed, provincial fisheries officials have decided to conduct a sustainability review, which is expected to be completed sometime next year. Bill Galbraith, the commercial fisheries manager for Manitoba, is working on the review in order to establish target mortality rates in order to determine what action, if any, needs to be taken. Mortality rates on the big lake (50%) have many groups concerned about the dramatic downturn in the numbers of walleye available both commercially and to the sport angler. This has not only been caused by commercial fishing but a dramatic increase in sport fishing, especially through the ice. Lake Winnipeg has become known as one of the top places in the world to catch trophy walleye ice fishing, and that pressure is starting to have an impact. Many of my friends who spent countless days on the ice have noticed a marked difference in catch rates based on the decline in numbers over the last two years. Part of the issue also stems from the end of the two major year classes of walleye that sustained the numbers for a long time, the 2001 and 2005 classes. Fisheries officials are hoping a strong 2011 year class can help bring the fishery back.

Now throw in Zebra Mussels and things become pretty crazy. There has been a huge explosion in the population as major colonies are turning up along the beaches on both the west and east side of the lake as well as the Red River and into the north basin.
New studies show that Zebra Mussels will not save Lake Winnipeg from blue-green algae blooms. In fact the opposite is true. Apparently new studies indicate that these little creatures are selective in the kind of algae they eat, spitting out the blue-green, creating even more algae blooms of this toxin.