With the 2021 edition of the Alberta Guide To Sportfishing Regulations expected in the coming weeks, fallout from the recent public engagement sessions are still making waves for local municipal leaders. On Tuesday afternoon, council was discussing the issue behind closed doors following their regular council meeting.
Leading up to council's in-camera discussion was a series of public meetings hosted online by Alberta Environment and Parks officials. The meetings, which began on January 15, and were billed as engagement sessions and covered topics from zones across the province. But according to some area politicians, despite the information presented, the meetings weren't quite as engaging for stakeholders as they were intended. Instead, council felt stakeholders were being told what would happen instead of being part of the decisions.
"I found them useful — but at the same time you can really tell what their guidance is, and where they are at — and it's all walleye, walleye walleye," said Lac La Biche County Councillor Sterling Johnson who attended several of the virtual meetings, and before discussing the meetings privately with council on Tuesday, said he had been hoping for more information on some of the other species of fish that are concerns in area lakes.
While the current regulations do allow for a 15 limit catch on perch in Lac la Biche Lake, Johnson said, trying to find any perch is not an easy task. But when he asked about problems with those perch populations, he didn't hook a good enough answer. "They kind of ignore anything with perch. We did put a question in (about reduced perch populations in Lac La Biche lake) ... but they basically said that the perch were just hiding in different locations, and that they are all still there."
He said he felt the answers from government officials and biologists have been, "ignore and it will all balance out."
Engagement hoped to bring changes
The engagement session that touched on lakes in the province's northeast was held on January 27. The two-hour session featured a question and answer portion that at one point had 92 questions registered through an online portal. Only a dozen of the questions on the list were answered by a panel of fisheries experts.
Johnson said the meetings just didn't feel like the feelings of the public was getting through.
In the northeast, many anglers are frustrated with harsh restrictions on regional lakes. Up until last year, walleye in Lac La Biche lake were under a catch and release provision that had been in place for almost two decades. The regulation was changed to a single walleye in the 50-55 cm slot size for the 2020 regulations. Northern Pike were changed to catch-and-release status only in last year's regulations due to reported reduction in the species populations. Other once-popular lakes in the region have had similar restrictions in place for several years.
Touchwood Lake has had a zero limit on walleye since 1998. It also currently has a no catch restriction on pike. Beaver Lake has similar pike and walleye restrictions, as does Heart Lake, Kehewin, Muriel Lake, Long Lake, Seibert, and Rock Island Lake.
In the case of Touchwood, biologist at the northeastern Alberta engagement session said the lake's walleye population dropped off by as much as 40 per cent in the most recent study completed in 2019, which came after a slight increase in walleye in a 2014 study.
Questions raised about slot sizes, tags, tournaments, cormorants, Indigenous harvest and fish stocking were responded with answers based on years of research and data collection. Water depths, temperatures, predators and historical precedence were part of the responses given at the virtual sessions. Lakes currently under more restrictive measures are part of the continuing data collection, says area Alberta Environment and Parks Fisheries Biologist Alicia Pruden-Beniuk.
"It's a little bit of pain for, hopefully, long-term gain," she said about the regulations, specifically referring to the zero catch limit on pike and the single 50-55 centimetre slot size walleye restrictions currently at Pinehurst Lake.
That bit of pain is affecting economies of northeastern Alberta communities, says Lac La Biche County mayor Omer Moghrabi.
Prior to meeting with council on Tuesday behind closed doors, the mayor called the series of online meetings "bureaucracy at its best," Moghrabi said the sessions were a one-sided performance.
Despite assurances by panel member Dave Park, the province's director of Fisheries Management Policy, that the sessions were "collaborative," Moghrabi fears the concerns of the local stakeholders won't result in changes to the upcoming regulations.
"This wasn't 'engagement', this was just their information," he said, likening the most recent meetings to ones held in recent years where restrictions remain in place no matter how adamantly the local users fight. "They'll just go back to the minister and say we were consulted."
The mayor says restrictions on area lakes don't just affect anglers, they affect the economic future of rural communities that rely on the tourism.
With just weeks until the new regulations are released, Moghrabi feels there are some drastic options that may need to be attempted. If the provincial data is accepted, then one way to make the restrictions fair for all stakeholders would be to close lakes completely — for all users, including the Indigenous harvest. Another option would be for municipalities to hire their own third-party researchers to conduct its own scientific studies on the lakes of the region. While that kind of a research project would be expensive, at least it would give a home-grown perspective — one way or the other.
"If the information we get goes against what they are saying, it gives us something better to fight with — but if it's similar, then the public has to back off."
With just weeks until the 2021 fishing season begins, Moghrabi said his council and other regional officials will continue to make waves and challenge the issue.
"We will continue this."
Part of that continuing strategy has been a recent meeting with an assistant deputy minister with Alberta Environment and Parks where some recommendations were discussed. Further information is expected to be discussed at the private council discussion. According to the municipality's policies on private meetings, the in-camera session was held without public access as it contains intergovernmental discussions.