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Gone Fishing

Author: Glencore Canada | Date: 10/12/2017

Image above: Rolly Frappier, President of the United Walleye Clubs, engages in one of his passions: education through fish hatcheries and putting tiny hatcheries in schoolrooms. The UWC sees tremendous value in this partnership, as teaching young people about fish and environmental stewardship is one of the organization’s primary goals.

If you went out fishing this year near Sudbury, Ontario and caught a walleye, you wouldn’t have just caught a fish – but a part of a terrific story. That’s because there’s great likelihood that the fish on your hook was there thanks to the United Walleye Clubs (UWC) and its extraordinary efforts to repopulate this species to the area.

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The UWC’s mission is to “enhance, restore and sustain the walleye and other fishery potential in the Great Lakes watershed.” Walleyes, an olive and gold coloured freshwater fish native to Canada and parts of the Northern United States, saw a significant drop in numbers over the last few decades. In 2001, the UWC, a non-profit organization, was formed to do something about it.

Together with the help of partners like Glencore, the group works to harvest eggs, nurse them in a hatchery and then release healthy fish back into Ontario lakes. They also work to educate government, schools, locals, and fishermen about the species and the need to create sustainable environmental programs.

The first step, getting the walleye eggs, turns out to be an exciting one. About three times a year, members of the UWC venture out to Wabagishik Lake near Sudbury, Ontario, to collect male and female specimens. This is not a simple fishing trip. Rather, special shocker boats are used to course electricity in the water to temporarily stun the fish in the area. The fishermen have to act quickly and expertly to scoop the walleye in nets. Because the fish don’t float right up to the surface but rather appear a few feet below the water, a good eye and a fast, steady hand are needed. The amount of electricity used is specially calibrated to not harm the fish, which means their stunned state only lasts seconds. The work is described as hard and exhilarating, but most of all, the fishermen get the added satisfaction of knowing that their efforts are the first step in an important process to repopulate the walleye in the area.

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The teams aim to catch three male fish for every female to get the best chance of creating genetic diversity. Eggs from the females and milt from the males are harvested on the spot by gently massaging the abdomen of the fish, and the released eggs and milt are combined quickly but carefully. The window for opportunity for fertilization lasts only minutes and because of the fragility of the eggs, this process has to be done with the touch of a feather – literally. Seagull feathers have been shown to be the only thing delicate yet sturdy enough to mix the harvested material well enough without damaging any of it.

The mixture is then brought to one of the UWC’s 14 Walleye Hatcheries and Learning Centres in the Greater Sudbury area. There, the eggs are viewed under microscopes to watch for fertilization and growth. The viable eggs are doted on as they grow, with factors like water temperature and bacteria carefully monitored. If all goes well, these eggs eventually develop into small, young fish, called fry and then into larger states, called fingerlings. In the wild, a fertilized egg usually only has a 2 – 5% chance of survival. Thanks to the tireless efforts of UWC members, fertilized eggs in the hatcheries have a 75 – 90% success rate

The UWC has decades of experience which they use through one of their 14 Walleye Hatcheries and Learning Centres in the Greater Sudbury area. Viable eggs, like the one shown in the incubators above, are doted on as they grow, with factors like water temperature and bacteria carefully monitored. If all goes well, these eggs eventually develop into small, young fish, called fry and then into larger states, called fingerlings. Eventually, the young fish are mature enough to be released into the wild. Ponds and lakes in the Greater Sudbury area get stocked with hundreds of thousands of fish every year from the hatcheries. From there, it’s up to the walleye to make it.

Perhaps what is most impressive about the operation is that it is entirely volunteer and donation driven. Many of the volunteers who help out with the project are fishermen. The UWC have given these men and women a unique opportunity to give back and create balance while ensuring many good years of fishing remain ahead.

The next generation of ecologists and environmentalists has also been involved, thanks to the partnerships formed with schools in the area. One such school, the Algonquin Public School, is actually a home to one of the Walleye Hatcheries and Learning Centres. There, teenagers have been involved in the process from the get-go, showing obvious pride as they handle the tiny walleye eggs and see them develop into fry and fingerlings. The UWC sees tremendous value in this partnership, as teaching young people about fish and environmental stewardship is one of the organization’s primary goals.

The UWC sees great opportunity for expansion. The group has had ongoing discussions with Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and has also met with seven First Nation communities with the goal of introducing a Community Hatchery and Learning Centre into some of these communities in the near future. It’s all the more reason why partnerships and support from corporations like Glencore is so vital.