Evidence of meeting #36 for Fisheries and Oceans in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was things.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Tim Purdy  Vice-President, Purdy Fisheries Limited
  • Peter Meisenheimer  Executive Director, Ontario Commercial Fisheries' Association

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rodney Weston

I'll call this meeting to order.

I'd like to thank our witnesses, our guests, for appearing before our committee today to help us with our study on invasive species in the Great Lakes system.

Before we begin, I have a few housekeeping items. I believe our clerk has already informed you that we generally allow about 10 minutes for presentations. Following presentations, we move into a question and answer period. I apologize in advance if I cut you off or ask you to wrap up quickly. It is done in the interest of fairness and to ensure that everyone gets a chance to ask questions of you, since our members are all constrained by time. I look forward to the exchange today.

Mr. Purdy, I believe, is going to lead off with a presentation, and then we'll have Mr. Meisenheimer.

Mr. Purdy, perhaps you could introduce your associates who are with you here today. Please proceed at any time.

3:40 p.m.

Tim Purdy Vice-President, Purdy Fisheries Limited

I'm very fortunate. I brought my kids here today: my daughter, Leigha Purdy, and my son, Josiah Purdy, the next generation of our fishery, I hope.

I'm a little nervous. I'm sorry. I'll probably just read this.

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak here this afternoon. My name is Tim Purdy. I'm a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. My main concern here today is to fix things so that this young lady and this young man here beside me, the fifth generation, will have the opportunity to fish if he or she so chooses.

My family started fishing in Sarnia Bay in 1900. With a pair of hoop nets and a dream to feed his family, my great-grandfather started commercial fishing. In the 1920s they moved to Blackwell Side Road and fished with flat-bottom boats using the very labour-intensive pond nets.

In 1950 my grandfather moved the business to its current location on St. Clair River, at the mouth of Lake Huron. Currently we operate two types of fishing that makes us a very unique fishery on the Great Lakes. We fish trap nets for approximately nine months of the year, and we also gill net for about ten months of the year. Having two types of fishery allows us to cater to a very special market. With the live entrapment gear of trap nets we can target specific species of fish and keep the quality very high, and this allows us the advantage of marketing the very best fish. The gill nets are primarily fished during the cold water months. Again, being able to fish almost all winter long gives us an advantage over some of the other fisheries out there.

Over the last 112 years of fishing, our family has had to face many hardships in the industry, and most of them are due to invasive species.

In the early 1950s the sea lamprey moved into the Great Lakes and by 1960 pretty much wiped out the lake herring and lake trout populations. This was the main catch back then of the fishing fleet. The fishermen were forced to fish for other species, and in doing so, had to educate the public on what fish was good to eat. The industry started fishing sturgeon, pickerel, and perch.

In the mid-1950s the alewife showed up, and this started another obstacle for the fishermen. Where they would prove to be a food source for the salmon, they were very detrimental to the pickerel and perch stocks. Just in the last six years, with the alewife almost totally gone in Lake Huron, we've seen our pickerel and perch stocks rebound, and they are very healthy.

In 1970 we had to deal with mercury poison, and that closed a big part of our fishery for a lot of the 1970s. I know this is not an outside species that came into the lake, but I mention it to show you how we've made many changes in our fishery to adapt. By the late seventies, we were able to fish pickerel again, but again it took us some time to educate the public.

In the early 1980s our biggest problem was the sport fishery. The local club was formed and a hatchery was started. We had to once again educate the public that we were here to fish a sustainable resource. It was the perception that we caught everything and killed everything.

We took many sport fishermen, Ministry of National Resources employees, as well as many politicians on our boats and showed them and educated them that we can exist together. Today some of our best allies come from our local Bluewater Anglers club. We have a mutual respect for our local club members and we have learned we can both co-exist. In many cases, when a fight comes, we're on the same side when something's wrong and it's going to hurt our fishery.

By the late 1980s and the early nineties the zebra mussel was on the scene. I for one didn't think it was going to have a big impact on our fishery, and was I wrong. In over 100 years of fishing I don't think that one species or organism has had a bigger effect on our industry than the zebra mussel. They have cleaned up the lake by filtering the lake.

The whitefish, which is our biggest catch on Lake Huron, used to eat plankton. With the zebra mussel coming on the scene and filtering the water, the plankton the whitefish ate disappeared. The fish stock went through a big change and the species had to adapt to a new food source. They now eat zebra mussels. It's the most available food source for them. Basically, they're on the bottom of the lake from one end of the lake to the other.

The zebra mussels have also affected the water clarity in the lake. Thirty years ago, on a good day, you could see bottom in 10 feet of water. This spring, you could see bottom in over 75 feet of water. This is nice if you are a sport diver, but it's not nice if you are trying to operate a commercial fishery for whitefish and pickerel. Pickerel like the cloudy water. Over the last 20 years, we have had to make big changes to our pickerel fishery.

In 2005, viral hemorrhagic septicemia, also known as VHS, was found in Lake St. Clair and in Lake Huron in 2006.

I talked earlier about our uniqueness as a fishery. At one time we had a very large live fishery. In the spring, once the fishery in Lake Erie opened up for pickerel in May, we would start to sell live fish to keep our fish off the dead market. In 2007, due to this disease, VHS, we lost all our live fishery. A lot of those fish were sold into the States to rod and gun clubs, as well as pay to fish ponds. We were the only fishery on the Great Lakes that was set up to sell live pickerel, live catfish, and the truly unique live sturgeon.

I have shared a few of the circumstances that have affected my family over the last century. In telling you all these problems, l'm afraid the biggest and baddest is yet to come. I feel that we had a chance 10 years ago to stop the next predator that will come into our lake system. Unfortunately, it was up against a very powerful lobby group in the shipping industry.

If that river in Chicago was filled in and the Asian carp were stopped where they were 10 years ago, we would have high hopes for the future for sport and commercial fishing on the Great Lakes. I know l'm speaking rather blunt, but it's hard not to be totally frustrated when people know there is a problem coming and they decide to have a study. Then we must have another study to make sure the answers from the first study were right. Ten years later, we hear stories about the electric barrier, and do we really know how effective it is? The people doing these studies are working on options, but are they really worried if their freighter can't access the Mississippi River from the north?

l'm sitting before you here today as a very frustrated man who operates a family commercial fishery, and I have serious concerns about whether my daughter or my son will have a future in fishing. The time to act has past, so any more delays, from my viewpoint, are very hard to handle.

In closing, I would like to take this opportunity to personally invite every one of you to come to Sarnia. I would like to show you around our fishery, and perhaps get you on a fish boat, where you can see a live commercial fishery. Come sit at our dockside eatery, share a secret family recipe, eat some pickerel, and enjoy some Lake Huron whitefish. We can discuss how to keep our waterways safe from these monsters that are coming. Please come and see this beautiful sustainable fishery. If we can keep those Asian carp and snakehead out, it will be a fishery that will be around for many more generations to come.

Thank you.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rodney Weston

Thank you, Mr. Purdy.

Mr. Meisenheimer.

3:45 p.m.

Peter Meisenheimer Executive Director, Ontario Commercial Fisheries' Association

Thank you very much.

I'm going to take a slightly different tack here. For one, I apologize for not having prepared notes. I am actually interrupting a family vacation right at the moment. I was able to persuade my wife that I could come here, but not that I could actually take the time to write a brief.

The clerk tells me that I should speak more slowly.

The fishery in Ontario isn't well known. We're a bit of a well-kept secret. We are a very old industry, nonetheless. In fact, we pre-date European settlement by quite a bit. If you read the accounts of Jesuit priests who were travelling up the St. Lawrence and through Lake Ontario with the very earliest explorers, one of the things they made note of, with some astonishment, was the extremely well-developed commercial fishery that was in place. The Onondaga have an eel clan as part of their community structure. This is a reflection of the importance of the commercial fishery in their culture and their economy. They traded for goods as far away as hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of kilometres to the south and west.

The first documented case of commercial fishing in the colonial period on the Great Lakes was in the 1790s on Burlington Bay on Lake Ontario. It was a very small-scale enterprise, but by the 1830s the commercial fishery was present on all of the Great Lakes, to one degree or another, and by the 1850s it was very well established, if limited in scale by the lack of transportation infrastructure. It was not possible to ship large volumes of fish great distances, so it was primarily focused on local markets. Nonetheless, by the time of Confederation, we were established as a recognizable industry everywhere on the Great Lakes.

Currently we are a small part of the economic scene in Ontario, and we are small by the standards of some of the coastal fisheries. In a typical year we have a landed value of between $30 million and $40 million. The high-water mark was in the late 1990s, at least in recent history, when we came in at just under $50 million, and the low-water mark would have been around 2004, when we were in the low twenties.

Nonetheless, our industry has managed to parlay that into a very important value-added industry in some places. In the Lake Erie Basin, in particular, there are very well-developed secondary and tertiary processing industries that produce products for export to the United States, Japan, Europe, China, and, in fact, in one instance, to Ethiopia, which I find astonishing but it is nonetheless true.

The local economies of some of the communities there have also prospered by marketing the fact of commercial fishing, the historical and cultural fact of commercial fishing, as a draw. Much as people go to Peggy's Cove because it is a fishing community of historical and scenic note, and they buy a fishing-related souvenir and take in the ambiance and perhaps eat a lobster, they go to Port Dover, for example, on Long Point Bay in Lake Erie to eat perch and pickerel, and previously to eat other things that are no longer there. Nonetheless, it has a long history as a tourism destination, precisely because it's a fishing village. It has a commercial fishing museum. It has a monument to commercial fishermen. It has several white-cloth establishments that specialize in serving up the local fare, and they serve many thousands of plates to day trippers from the greater Toronto area who come year round. It's an important part of their economy.

Wheatley, Ontario, has signs as you enter and at its harbour proclaiming it to be the world's greatest freshwater commercial fishing port, which is historically the foundation of that community. It is still a point of pride that it is one of the busiest commercial freshwater ports anywhere.

Nonetheless, we have some experience, in spite of our smallness, with exotics, which sets us apart from some of the other fisheries around the country. Tim has alluded to some of our experience.

Sea lamprey are the poster child. I will take this opportunity to make the point that they are, as no doubt you've been told by others, the single actively managed exotic in the Great Lakes, the only species at the moment that is the focus of a program to control them. I will here make a plea to you to do more of that.

By most objective assessments we have underfunded that effort by millions of dollars annually for quite some time. My best estimate, based on some of the work I do with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, is that the current program needs about another $3 million from the Canadian side per year to do the job it sets out to do. It is, if nothing else, a really important signal that the issue of exotic species is taken seriously if we can find that money and fund that work and carry it forward, as a prelude perhaps to dealing with some of the other challenges that are emerging on our doorstep as we talk about this.

Alewife, as Tim mentioned, is a bit of an ironic case. It's been a huge problem. It not only eats the eggs and larvae of native species, but it also contains an enzyme called thiaminase, which destroys vitamin B complex vitamins in native fish that have no resistance to it. Lake trout, for example, that eat alewife are unable to reproduce. Their eggs are not viable. Those lake trout that manage to avoid eating the alewife and are able to spawn see their eggs and larvae eaten by the alewife. So it's a double hit.

The ironic part of this is that the alewife are now being knocked out by another invader. Quagga and zebra mussels compete with alewife directly. They're both filter feeders. As the quagga mussel has become established in the deep water and filters the water of Lake Huron, alewife have disappeared. They're virtually absent now. Lake trout are starting to come back. Lake herring are starting to come back.

There are other species that people think of as belonging in the Great Lakes that are nonetheless invaders. Smelt is thought by most people to be part of the Great Lakes ecosystem. It was deliberately introduced into the Lake Michigan watershed by sporting interests, and it spread down the tributary system into Lake Michigan. By the mid-part of the 20th century, it was present in the entire Great Lakes. It is also of note that in addition to being an important food species for a number of important predator species, it is also a predator on eggs and larvae of native fish. It also contains thiaminase. It is also part of the commercial fishery. There's a quota of 15 million pounds per annum for this fish on Lake Erie. Alas, in common with many of the invasives, it's not terribly valuable. It's currently purchased at 23¢ a pound at the dock. With fuel prices being what they are, it's not a very attractive undertaking for people who have small to medium quotas. It's only very heavily concentrated quota holders who are pursuing that. At its busiest in recent years, not quite half of the allocation has been caught. Most of it now goes unprocessed to China.

We've talked about mussels. Tim touched on viral hemorrhagic septicemia. It's a virus that was carried by shipping into the Great Lakes and caused, and continues to cause, considerable disruption. There are more that may come.

The one that everybody is talking about is Asian carp. I have the pleasure of serving as the vice-chair of the Canadian Committee of Advisors to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, where exotic species is the dominant theme on an ongoing basis. I can tell you that every meeting of the advisors and of the commission at large is dominated by discussion of these things.

Lake Erie is clearly the most suitable habitat for these things, if they get into the Great Lakes. Lake Erie is also home to 85% of the landed value of the commercial fishery in Ontario. Yellow perch and walleye at the dock are worth over $2 a pound. The last I spoke to commercial operations in the Mississippi that fish for these things, they were getting 14¢ a pound. If these things come, and they have the effect we believe they will have, that will effectively be the end of economic viability for our fishery. It at least has that potential and needs to be taken very seriously as a result.

We're very pleased with what has been going on officially in Ontario on this threat. Those of you who are familiar with commercial fishing know that fishermen and the fish cops frequently, if not generally, don't see eye to eye. It's rare that you'll hear someone from the commercial fishing industry saying good things about them. But they've been great in Ontario on the Asian carp piece. They have been proactive. They have been activists.

The MNR people identified that it was necessary to go to Canada Border Services and speak to the agents at the borders. They have worked with the Ministry of Transportation in Ontario to bring their roadside inspectors up to speed on what to look for in shipping these things. They are, to my mind, the reason we have had a number of interceptions at the border, some very high-profile charges laid, and some very substantial fines levied.

The sad part of this story, and this is the second piece of advice or request I will bring to the table here today, concerns the failure of our friends south of the border to apply their own laws. The Lacey Act in the United States of America is very clear that interstate transport of these things while alive is illegal and punishable by significant penalties. Every single one of these things that arrived at Sarnia or Windsor alive was brought there in violation of United States law. And not a single charge has ever been laid under the Lacey Act for these things.

There is a significant failure within the United States to apply their own laws to protect the Great Lakes from these things getting here. I believe the Government of Canada should have something very clear to say about that in defence of our fishery.

I can leave it there. If you have any questions, I'd be happy to take them.

4 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rodney Weston

Thank you very much, Mr. Meisenheimer.

We're going to move into questions at this point with Ms. Davidson.

May 2nd, 2012 / 4 p.m.

Conservative

Patricia Davidson Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Thanks very much, Mr. Chair.

And thank you to our witnesses this afternoon. It's certainly a pleasure to have you all here.

Josiah and Leigha, welcome to you as well. We certainly appreciate the fact that you're here supporting your dad and taking an interest in the family business. It's been a long-standing business in my riding, and it's extremely important to the economy of our area. So we appreciate the fact that you're here.

Peter, as I said earlier, I got your name from my colleague, Dave Van Kesteren, who certainly is well aware of the business you're in. He is the MP in the Wheatley area. He is certainly well aware of the largest freshwater fishing port.

When we listen to what's been happening, Tim, over the last number of years, the 50 or 60 years this has been going on, and we hear about the challenges you've been having, I think it's an eye-opener for all of us. Those of us who live on the Great Lakes hear these stories, but we don't always hear the specifics, and we don't always know the exact extent to which people and businesses are affected. So it's good that you're here telling us about this.

You went through the different types of fish—the lake herring and the lake trout, then the sturgeon, pickerel, and perch, and then to the whitefish being gone. Are the whitefish still gone? Are they coming back at all?

4 p.m.

Vice-President, Purdy Fisheries Limited

Tim Purdy

The whitefish in Lake Huron are very strong right now.

The lake herring disappeared, and they're slowly coming back. They came back strong enough in northern Lake Huron that they were reintroduced to the quota system. We were put back on a quota for the herring. When they show up strong enough to be put back on the quota system, that's a good indicator that they're rebounding.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Patricia Davidson Sarnia—Lambton, ON

It was pretty amazing, when you were telling us about the clarity of the water. You talked about 75-foot depths and being able to see the bottom.

I like to fish too. I know what kind of habitat the pickerel like. Certainly I've done a fair amount of salmon fishing on Lake Huron as well.

We had Jake Van Rooyen here last week, I believe it was. He told us about the smaller fish that were being caught. But I noticed, when I was home on the weekend, that they caught the biggest salmon they've caught in 10 years. I don't know if that trend is continuing this week in the derby. Are we foreseeing a rebound in that event?

4 p.m.

Vice-President, Purdy Fisheries Limited

Tim Purdy

I heard yesterday, on the way up, that they've also caught two very large walleye, the largest they've caught in a number of years also.

Personally, I think as long as the alewife are gone, the salmon fishery are going to stay small fish. What we've noticed with the lake trout is that with the alewife gone, the lake trout have changed their diets. Now they're eating minnows, smelt, small whitefish. We see them eating a lot of silver bass, a lot of small perch.

So the lake trout have changed their diets totally, and I think that is probably what will happen with the salmon. At one point the alewife was their predominant food source. I think over time, once they change their diets and they get used to it, they'll come back. I think they'll get big again.

I know when the whitefish changed their diets from the plankton that they used to eat—it's called diporeia—and switched to zebra mussels, we noticed a lot of small fish for about six to eight years. All we could catch were the small ones.

We were complaining to the Ministry of Natural Resources about this. We were concerned about this. Our size limit for trap-net whitefish was 17 inches. Back in the nineties, a 17- or 18-inch whitefish would be about a four-year-old fish. Four or five years ago, it was a seven- or eight-year-old fish. When they switched their diets, they grew a lot slower.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Patricia Davidson Sarnia—Lambton, ON

So we've seen a change in the pattern of what you can catch and how they grow, and we've seen a change in the different invasive species that have been there over the past 50, 60 years.

What do you think the impact of the Asian carp would be? Is there a chance that they would be able to handle that in some way, shape, or form over a matter of years? Or is this something that would be totally devastating?

4:05 p.m.

Vice-President, Purdy Fisheries Limited

Tim Purdy

I don't think anybody really knows that, Pat, but I think if you look where the Asian carp have been and how they've moved through water systems, once they go through there's nothing left behind them. I think what happens is that once they get into the Great Lakes and they start to reproduce, everything they like is there. Peter can probably answer a little bit better about the different types of food sources they like, but everything they like is there abundantly.

I personally think they will explode in the Great Lakes. You might have certain pockets of fisheries that will survive in certain areas, but I think you'd just be lucky if you had one, you know....

I honestly think that once they get into the Great Lakes and they start to reproduce, we're in big trouble, and I think it will go very quickly.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Patricia Davidson Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Can you add to that, Peter, and maybe talk about Lake Erie, which you said would be a prime spot for them?

4:05 p.m.

Executive Director, Ontario Commercial Fisheries' Association

Peter Meisenheimer

Sure. The reality of these fish is I think amply illustrated by what's happened in the Mississippi drainage. As I understand it, nine of ten fish found in stretches where they are found are Asian carp, and the native species that used to be there are gone. They don't exist anymore.

Their limiting factors are three, essentially. One is the availability of a food source. They're filter feeders. They require planktonic food. They effectively feed the same way that a great blue whale does. They swim around with their mouths wide open and they eat things. They eat anything that gets in their mouths. They eat vegetable matter, so small algae, they eat plankton, they eat larval fish, they eat floating eggs—they eat all of it.

In that respect they may find themselves in competition with the zebra and quagga mussels in some of the Great Lakes. But in places like Saginaw Bay, which is one of the major producers of walleye and perch—and historically, when there were a lot of herring, herring as well in Lake Huron. But the western basin of Lake Erie, which is the nursery, the factory of fish in Lake Erie, would be perfect for them in that regard. There is lots of all of that, in particular in Lake Erie. But you can think of similar habitats all over the Great Lakes where they would do well.

The second limiting factor is temperature. These things, if they get into Canadian waters, could exist all the way to 60 degrees north. They're an Asian species that have adapted to temperate and subtropical conditions. There is an assumption on the part of a lot of people that they require warm water. They do not.

In the third instance, they need rivers of indeterminate length but sufficient continuous flow over a sufficient distance to keep their eggs suspended. So depending on the temperature, that can be 80 kilometres to 120 kilometres, which is what I'm told, although the evidence from Asia suggests that they exist in systems where they don't have that, so clearly that's not a hard and fast rule. We don't know what they'd actually require.

One of the reasons Lake Erie is one of the really serious areas of concern is that all of that exists in the western basin of Lake Erie, without a doubt. The Maumee River, and potentially the St. Clair River and Detroit River systems, all have sufficient length, they have sufficient productivity, the temperatures are optimal, and they will do well there and they will knock out our fishery if they get in.

4:10 p.m.

Conservative

Patricia Davidson Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Thank you very much.

I think my time is up.

4:10 p.m.

Executive Director, Ontario Commercial Fisheries' Association

Peter Meisenheimer

May I address the issue around salmon as well, just briefly?