Mr. Chair, thank you for inviting us to your committee.
My name is Jean Lévesque. I am the president of the Association des pêcheurs de Lac St-Pierre. My colleague, Marcel Bouchard, is also a member of our association.
The Association des pêcheurs du Lac St-Pierre was created in response to the decision by the Quebec Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs (forests, wildlife and parks) to impose a five-year moratorium on fishing yellow perch. The anger was so great that after only two weeks, we had more than 1,000 members. For the first time, a democratically elected organization represents and provides a voice to professional, sport and commercial fishers, outfitters, fishing centres, retailers, traders and service providers, municipal officials and regional associations. We currently have almost 1,900 members.
Over the following winter, the Association des pêcheurs du Lac St-Pierre worked with its members on a study of the number of catch and releases per fishing licence for the following species: walleye, yellow perch, pike and eelpout. This information was used exclusively to develop a daily measurement of the impact of ice fishing on the resource, as well as to measure changes in the numbers of certain species in the entire lake. You will find the document in the package we sent you.
Lac St-Pierre is an extraordinary lake. It is large but not very deep and favours abundance of every kind. Fish, ducks, mammals of all sizes and clean water were part of everyday life. The quality of this environment made it an extremely rare treasure that must be conserved.
Total ignorance of the necessary precautions to prevent a deterioration in quality resulting from the discharge of grey, and even black, water from factories and municipalities. Negligence in monitoring discharges from ships using the St. Lawrence, not to mention the refineries in East Montréal. And then the federal Minister of Defence shamelessly decided to use this environmental gem as a dumping ground for shells.
Something like 400,000 projectiles of all sorts were fired into the lake. More than 8,000 of them are potentially dangerous because they were loaded with explosives but not discharged, or they were defective. These were simply noted in a registry. Today’s laws call action like that criminal, and liable to severe penalties and even imprisonment. Officials are proud to announce today that they recently recuperated 80 shells. At that rate, they will complete the recuperation process by the year 4975.
Next came a period of erosion along island shorelines and the banks of tributaries. The causes are known: agricultural drainage is one, as is failure to respect and enforce the basic regulations governing commercial navigation and pleasure crafting. A typical pleasure craft today causes as many waves as a lot of large ships. Those responsible are not reprimanded, much less punished. The main consequence is the obstruction of river mouths, reduced current, and the accumulation of polluted sediment, creating a dream environment for cyanobacteria.
In the 80s, a new “necessity” was born. This was to unblock rivers as early as possible in the spring using the famous Coast Guard hovercrafts. Of course, cottages and homes that had been built in the flood zones were protected. This practice brought disastrous consequences, however. The Lac St-Pierre flood plain, as its name suggests, needs these spring floods to eliminate decomposing vegetation in bays and river entrances. As a result, bays that were once attractive to wildlife are being lost, having rapidly filled up in the last 10 years. Glaring examples include Lavallière bay and St-François bay, which are both in a pitiful state.
The commercial and artisanal fishery practised on Lac St-Pierre in the 40s, 50s and even 60s was easily tolerated by the lake at the time, and had no consequences for fish populations. Then along came the demand for sturgeon, particularly smoked sturgeon, and with it, high prices. The Americans discovered the north just beyond the border, and the wonderful finesse of yellow perch, especially filleted. And so it began: bigger boats, more powerful engines, much larger nets for greater capacity, and fishing on the spawning grounds where catches were easy and abundant.
Suddenly, stocks began to decline. Techniques were improved and catch sizes maintained, and the alarms were ignored. In the 80s, surveys and studies began to be conducted with sports fishermen, while statistics from commercial fishers were provided on a voluntary basis. But the quality of the fishery continued to decline. Commercial fishermen reported that spring fishing for yellow perch in streams, holes and river entrances, where this species traditionally reproduced, was no longer producing results.
It became necessary to fish further offshore to be successful during a period that had previously been so easy.
What are the causes of the destruction of these special places? The main one is well known: the complete transformation of agricultural practices around the lake. Rather than growing fodder or straw cereals, the trend is now corn, rotated with soybeans. The requirement for ethanol, production orders and attractive selling price destroyed our traditional agriculture in favour of industrial agriculture. This required pulling out all the stops: excessive drainage, elimination of ditches, use of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and chemical fertilizer, and so on and so forth. Yield per acre of “modern” land has been improved to at least double what it was 20 years ago. Farmers haven’t done anything they weren’t allowed to do. The blame lies with managers who looked the other way for fear of demands from the powerful well-known union. Too bad for the environment, the fish can go somewhere else.
That's when provincial officials responsible for the environment, wildlife, fisheries, food, and so on, finally wake up. Late as usual, because the tradition in Quebec is to react, but not to act. And so the fishery is more strictly regulated, but the studies show no improvement. Licences are bought back and 80% of the pressure from the commercial fishery reduced with the same results. Fishing is banned during the spawning season, but nothing changed. Despite dramatic opposition, a community wildlife area is imposed on sports fishermen. Finally, miracle workers have been found; they will save the lake, the fish and the fishery. This absurdity is costing us fishermen several thousand dollars a year for absolutely nothing.
Archaic regulations are put in place, such as minimum length. In fact, fishermen were told to keep the largest mature brood stock and to put back the medium and small ones, even if the risk of mortality is very high. Many believe that the opposite should have been proposed. These measures did absolutely nothing to improve the situation. In fact, a wildlife area has no place in an open body of water such as the St. Lawrence River, where there are so many obstacles to local wildlife management and where there is not the capacity, budget, authority or commitment to address the real environmental problem in Lac St-Pierre. The then minister was completely fooled by the promoters of this concept and in fact gave us the impression that he wanted rid of the hot potato that Lac St-Pierre had become in its lamentable state.
So, studies are ordered, luminaries are hired at great expense and further studies are requested on specific topics. Was it so they could be told what they wanted to hear? We will never know, but we do know that this so-called expertise was used to punish the guilty, the fishermen. It’s so simple: no more fishing. Too bad for the local economy and the economic impact of this decision. But there is a but: first of all, the ministry does not even think about its creation, the wildlife area, before taking such decisions, it just goes ahead. And the decisions are admittedly useless. Then it is reported that scientific studies are predicting the collapse of fish stocks.
I mentioned earlier that I have been fishing the lake for over 50 years. I have never fished in places where the devices to measure and capture have been installed over the years. Want to know why? Because those places are just not worth it. Yellow perch are very selective about their living environment. But I have never seen this equipment in favourable locations. Why? It’s a mystery. The scientists are too busy, too full of themselves and far too capable and knowledgeable to consult those who went to the school of nature and who know at least as much as anyone else about the environment they have been spending time in for many years. Do you not believe that such cooperation would have been helpful?
In a document published when the moratorium on fishing for yellow perch was announced, the ministry itself states that there are multiple reasons for the deterioration of the lake’s habitat, including climate change, the low water level, the favourable environment for bacterial growth and the overpopulation of cormorants, which consume a lot of yellow perch. This is proof that they were well informed about the situation.
Why did they not act when there was still time? Nowhere in their statements is there mention of overfishing, or even fishing. Yet the only action was the panicked closing of the commercial fishery, as well as the sports fishery, which contributes even more to the economy.
In response to my question during an informative meeting last spring on the guarantees that this measure offered for improving the situation, the answer was “none, we do not know.” But they penalize anyway; those “responsible” must be punished, even if the ministry admits openly and in writing that they are not responsible.
There was a lot of smoke and mirrors when it came to the subject of cormorants. Ministry employees undertook a slaughter of 600 nesting cormorants, mainly on the islands, and analyses of the stomach contents indicated that 60% was composed of perch aged about two years. During the migration period from mid-August to late September, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 cormorants at Lac Saint-Pierre. We therefore estimate that about 30 tons of two-year-old yellow perch are consumed by cormorants annually.
Given all the other factors that reduce the yellow perch's maximum reproduction, this excessive predation will not permit the recovery of perch stocks. In our opinion, it is critical that there be an even more intensive slaughter than in 2012 to control and reduce this predation. Before spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up reproduction areas, we should first systematically reduce the population of cormorants. It's ridiculous that Quebec is unable to take the bull by the horns when it comes to resolving problems.
Fishing is permitted at either end of the lake without a size restriction. The only restriction is a general limit of 50 yellow perch. Studies have shown, however, that yellow perch from Saint-Nicolas near Quebec City go upriver as far as Lac Saint-Pierre, so we can certainly assume that those downstream do as well.
About four tons of adult yellow perch are caught annually. There is a quota of 10 per day per licence, generating badly needed economic spinoffs of $4 million for the region. The specialists and researchers are unfortunately not able to see the absurdity of this.
In conclusion, we have witnessed a game of ostrich, with authorities burying their heads in the sand as the water pollution rate reached intolerable levels in the lake, as National Defence used the lake as if there were no communities or people around it, as agriculture was completely transformed, as construction was permitted in most of the flood zones around the lake, as the essential spring flooding was prevented, as the population of cormorants—whose numbers double every two years—was maintained, as we inherited substandard wildlife management, monitoring and protection mechanisms, and so on.
Is it too late? It's never too late. Just look at the spectacular results achieved in the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie. We want to have it, though. It isn't absolutely necessary to spend astronomical amounts every year to achieve our purpose, but we have to want it and we have to ensure the cooperation of all stakeholders and users.
Penalizing without guarantee of success will not earn the favour of fishers for their willing cooperation. We have to be convinced that helping the environment can reap political rewards. We have to convince our fellow citizens so they will elect politicians who care about the environment. The same politicians have to use the authority delegated to them to command obedience from their employees, who were not chosen by the taxpayers.