Prof. Tom Nudds
Prof. Tom Nudds

There may be fewer fish in the world’s seas today, but Ontario’s Great Lakes fishery remains comparatively healthy, says integrative biology professor Tom Nudds. Helping to conserve fish stocks and sustain commercial freshwater fisheries in Ontario is the purpose of a new project for Nudds and U of G colleagues within a recently funded national research group.

As part of the new Canadian Capture Fisheries Research Network (capture fisheries exclude aquaculture), U of G will receive $250,000 over five years in federal funding, along with additional funding from industry partners. That money will support new graduate students and post-docs working with Nudds and with Profs. Kevin McCann, Steve Crawford, Rob McLaughlin, Beren Robinson and John Fryxell, all in the Department of Integrative Biology.

The Guelph team will apply research strengths in population dynamics and food web ecology to learn how government agencies and commercial fisheries might better manage fisheries in Canada and particularly in Ontario, says Nudds. “We’ll address questions about sustainability of the fishery on the Great Lakes for the industry.”

Their project is called “Effects of Socio-Ecological Complexity on Dynamics of Harvested Fish Stocks.” Partners for the Guelph project are Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the Lake Erie Fish Packers and Processors Association, and the Ontario Commercial Fisheries’ Association (OCFA).

Guelph is among 11 universities across Canada within the new research network begun this year. Based at the University of New Brunswick, the network received a total of $5 million over five years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, along with industry support.

Says Nudds: “The degree of collaboration being attempted through the network among industry, government and universities is unprecedented and presents challenges for all three to maintain the integrity of the science where it relates closely to policy issues.”

Canada is the sixth largest exporter of fish and seafood products worldwide. In 2008 the industry exported more than 600,000 tonnes of fish and seafood worth about $4 billion.

Ontario’s freshwater catch is between 12,000 and 20,000 tonnes a year; about 80 per cent of it comes from Lake Erie, according to the OCFA. The main species are walleye, yellow perch, whitefish, white bass, white perch, lake trout, rainbow smelt and lake herring. And the landed value varies between $20 million and $40 million a year in an industry that employs about 1,400 people.

The Guelph researchers will use collected fisheries data to refine harvesting models, to learn how populations respond to harvesting, and to model lake ecosystems and food webs.

“This speaks to the strong tradition we’ve had here at the University of Guelph in fisheries and wildlife management,” says Nudds. Along with Crawford and McCann, he’s worked since 2003 with the OCFA on fisheries management and decision analysis.

That work helped, for instance, in population model changes and quota adjustments for allowable walleye catch in Lake Erie. The researchers have helped bring together government agencies, recreational fishing stakeholders and the fishing industry ─ traditionally more adversaries than partners, says the Guelph professor.

It was that existing partnership between U of G and the OCFA that led the new national research network to involve the University and the provincial commercial fishery, says Kevin Reid, OCFA assessment manager in Blenheim, Ont. “Despite the need, few academics are willing to engage the commercial fishing industry, and fewer still will focus their research efforts on industry issues. We hope the fisheries research network will change this situation.”

Nudds says inland fisheries have largely avoided the problems that have led to declining maritime fish stocks, including the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery. As more desirable, larger ocean fish are exhausted, fisheries worldwide are seeking smaller, less valuable species ─ a phenomenon called “fishing down the food chain.”

But in, say, Lake Erie, commercial and sport fishing industries continue to take top predators such as walleye. “That’s something of an enigma,” says Nudds. “We want to learn more about how, despite the ecological change that Lake Erie has undergone, a commercial fishery has been sustained. There might be lessons we can extend to other fisheries.”