But there is a thriving industry on the Great Lakes. In fact, according to the Ontario Commercial Fisheries’ Association (OCFA), “Ontario is home to the largest freshwater fishery in North America.”
Carried out in areas such as Lakes Erie, Huron, Superior and Ontario, as well as in the St. Lawrence River, fisheries focus on species like yellow perch, walleye, pickerel, lake white fish and smelt.
Ninety per cent of that province’s commercial catch is exported to the United States and Europe.
The OFCA says the industry plays a major role in the economic and social welfare of many communities that depend upon the commercial fishing industry for their viability.
But much as with Newfoundland and Labrador fisheries, the province of Ontario’s skilled fishers are aging.
“The captains are becoming older and starting to retire,” said Jane Graham, executive director of the OCFA. “We wanted to have people trained to step into the role.”
In searching for ways to replenish the industry’s captains, the OCFA sought the help of Memorial University’s Marine Institute.
Graham had attended the Canadian Marine Advisory Council meeting in Ottawa last year, and learned that the Marine Institute has online resources in place to help harvesters obtain a Fishing Master Class IV licence — which allows the licence holder to captain a fishing vessel of between 60 and 100 gross tonnes.
She immediately realized that approach could help bridge a much needed gap and started developing a plan with the Newfoundland institution’s Roger Bath, an instructor and the chair of harvesting.
Graham found 14 fishermen interested in taking the course, and the online component got underway in October 2016, which was followed by a month of in-class training in January 2017.
As of this writing, Graham said the 14 fishermen were working towards writing the Transport Canada exam that would grant them certification.
While one round of training won’t solve the Ontario’s shortage of Great Lakes captains, she called it a step in the right direction.
“It will certainly help in having a plan in place for the future,” she said.
And, it could result in a stronger connection between the Great Lakes and Newfoundland.
“We’ll have to get feedback from everybody and the Marine Institute to see what we can do for the future,” Graham said.
Fishing Master IV
The online version of Fishing Master Class IV program started as a pilot project back in 2010 to meet the same needs as those of the OCFA.
The initiative was developed by the Marine Institute, in partnership with the Canadian Council of Professional Sea Harvesters and the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, as a way of improving training in the industry and filling the gap in killed harvesters.
At the time, Roger Bath said, the Alberta oil industry was in full swing and skilled harvesters with tickets to operate fishing vessels were heading west.
“So, we thought if we could improve access to education, that we might relieve some of these problems.”
More certified people should help with the safety record over time.
Before the training program went online, the only way to become certified was by attending an established community course, which required 12 or more people to be signed up or else enrolling at the St. John’s campus.
But it was difficult to finding the numbers needed in small communities and a regional course could get expensive and inconvenient in terms of travel. The same could be said about having to move into St. John’s for 12 weeks.
“So, we thought if we could improve access to education that we might relieve some of these problems,” said Bath.
The program was launched with a dozen students, and with minor tweaking the online model has proven to be successful.
“We’ve improved it in the sense that after a year or two of delivering it, we saw that we could give the students better flexibility by making it continuous enrolment, which is a model we adopted in 2012,” said Bath.
By offering the course online, the Marine Institute has been able to tap into a wide variety of new clients, and has had fishermen participants from Nova Scotia and B.C., as well as Ontario.
“We started the pilot project with 12 students,” said Bath. “From that time we’ve increased year over year to having 40 or 50 students doing up to four courses each, which is upwards of 200 course registrations just this winter.”
You could say the program’s potential is almost as vast as the ocean.
• Lake Erie has the largest commercial fishery in the Great Lakes, mostly from Canadian waters. Walleye and yellow perch are the most harvested species.
• Lake Ontario has the smallest commercial fishery. Species include yellow perch, lake whitefish, bullhead, and American eel.
• Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior each maintain commercial fisheries for lake whitefish, lake trout, and chub. Other targeted species include: lake herring, smelt (Lake Superior); channel catfish, carp, Pacific salmon, yellow perch and walleye (Lake Huron); and smelt, yellow perch (Lake Michigan)
SOURCE: Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project