Casting light on baitfish disease and invasives

By MPP Toby Barrett

Recreational fishing is a $1.7 billion economic driver in Ontario.

As such, the government is committed to supporting recreational fishing in Ontario.

The commercial bait industry has a lengthy history with 1,100 commercial bait lincenses issued each year and a value estimated at $23 million.

Some of Ontario’s popular fisheries – such as walleye, perch and lake trout –rely heavily on live bait. The majority of anglers – 60 to 80 per cent – use live baitfish and leeches at least some of the time. It’s prevalent during ice fishing season, in our local Inner Bay.

An estimated 4.2 million angling trips involving live bait take place each year in Ontario, with 25 per cent occuring over distances greater than 400 kilometres. A large portion of Ontario anglers live and purchase bait in the southern part of the province, where invasive species and diseases are most prevalent. This large-scale movement of bait increases the risk of spreading species and diseases to new parts of the province.

The management of Ontario’s bait resources is challenging, needless to say.

Ontario’s Sustainable Bait Management Strategy, announced last summer, is the result of extensive consultation with industry, stakeholders, the public and Indigenous communities. As Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Natural Resources, two years ago, I held hearings in Kenora, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Kingston, Barrie and London.

The use of live bait can move invasive species and disease, but also result in movement of native species like Yellow Perch and Bass to waters where they do not occur naturally. This can disrupt fish community dynamics in the receiving waterbody, including the loss of native species such as Brook Trout.

The spread of invasive, non-target species and diseases may be facilitated through the movement of bait. For instance, live bait may be harvested from one area of the province, it is often shipped, sold and later used in another region.

Another factor is dumping. When anglers dump the contents of bait buckets in or within 30 metres of a watercourse, it’s illegal and risks spreading non-target species and diseases.

Many anglers harvest their own bait. Surveys have shown that 30 to 50 per cent of Ontario anglers who fish with live baitfish have harvested their own bait at some time.

This province’s final strategy will increase business certainty for the commercial bait industry and increase protection for Ontario’s fisheries.

As part of this new strategy, the government is establishing four Bait Management Zones (BMZ) to limit the movement of live bait across the province.

Anglers wishing to use live bait outside of the BMZ where they reside must purchase their bait from a licensed commercial bait operator in that BMZ, use the bait within two weeks of purchase, and keep the sales receipt as proof that the bait originated from that BMZ.

Also in the strategy, 34 species are eligible as bait. And we are restricting the use of and storage of bait in native Brook Trout lakes.

Finally, we are committed to working with stakeholders on many topics related to commercial bait fish licenses to develop a compliance framework and extend licence terms up to three years.

Our goal – protection for the benefit of all while supporting the province’s thriving sport industry.

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk