A new approach to live baitfish management

By Toby Barrett, MPP

With the opening of bass season around the corner, hundreds of anglers will descend on the waters of Haldimand-Norfolk with bait offerings to entice fish to bite.  With over 250,000 lakes and 1.2 million recreational anglers in Ontario, it’s no surprise the live bait industry is big business – at the ready, to supply minnows, leeches and worms.

Some of Ontario’s most popular fisheries like walleye, perch, and lake trout depend on live bait. Ontario’s bait industry supports 1.2 million anglers who generate $2.2 billion in economic activity. However, the use of live bait can pose ecological problems. 

As Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, I was tasked this winter with seeking input to help implement a bait management strategy that is environmentally sustainable while being amenable to industry stakeholders such as bait harvesters, bait dealers, and sportspeople.  I tabled six roundtable consultations with those stakeholders in Kenora, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, London, Barrie, and Kingston.

But first, having defined bait stakeholders, I should also define live bait.  Bait consists of baitfish, for example, minnows, shiners, dace and chub, as well as leeches. The majority of anglers use live bait at least some of the time.   Its use, movement, and harvest can escalate ecological risks to Ontario’s fisheries, provincial parks, conservation areas, and biodiversity by spreading invasive species, and fish disease, particularly Viral Hemorraghic Septicemia (VHS). VHS was discovered in the Great Lakes in 2005 and Lake Simcoe in 2011. 

During the roundtable consultations, I heard from bait harvesters from across the province, including Haldimand-Norfolk.  These hardworking people provided insight into the challenges they face and how the proposals of the last government impact them.  Some of them have been in the business for several years and have watched it change, often not for the better.

The stakeholders raised a multitude of issues, concerns, and recommendations. They discussed, among other items, the need for a bait association to communicate as an effective block, bait receipts for wholesalers and retailers, electronic reporting, bait restrictions, bait management zones, angler education, licenses, promotion of bait shops, and enforcement.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters also attended and put forward many solid recommendations for our consideration. 

Among the common threads at each roundtable was the previous government’s Strategic Policy for Bait Management in Ontario.  It was universally panned by industry stakeholders for offering inadequate, or unworkable “solutions.” And it would also impact anglers.  One of its suggestions, which many harvesters were against, would have required anglers to keep their paper receipt for bait while fishing—deemed impractical by nearly all attendees.

That being said, I’ll add that anglers do have a responsibility to ensure they don’t unknowingly transfer disease or invasive species.  The Baitfish Primer, available in both hard copy and a mobile app, is a good resource to help alleviate any confusion between legal species and invasives.

A key takeaway from the listening sessions was that no one wants to preserve the environment and protect their livelihoods more than harvesters and bait dealers.  Moving forward, any changes must respect that fact as it creates an environment that is sustainable for both stakeholders and nature. The complexity of the current management regime needs to be reduced and more business certainty provided.

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk