Research scaled to support walleye population

Trent University researcher casts net to help protect Ontario’s most popular sport fish.

When your business relies on a natural habitat, your number one priority is protecting it. For John Grace and his family — owners and operators of the world-class Old Post Lodge on Northwestern Ontario’s Lake St. Joseph — conservation has been an important part of the corporate vision from day one.

“We have always maintained a very high-quality fishery and we know very well that if we don’t take steps to protect it, we will lose it,” says John, whose Old Post Lodge is situated on the beautiful historic site of a 200-year-old Hudson’s Bay Trading Post. “As a result, Old Post Lodge has always supported science-based conservation practices that sustain healthy fisheries.”

Now, thanks to an innovative study launched by a former employee and current master’s student at Trent University in Peterborough, the Old Post Lodge is working to protect one of its most popular fish species — the walleye. An iconic native fish species that is gradually declining in North America, “the fish are not only fun to catch, but they taste good too,” John says.

“The walleye species is the number one sport fish in the northern U.S. and Canada,” he says, noting that the livelihood of fishing lodges — which are big business in Northern Ontario — depends on maintaining a healthy walleye population. “If we weren’t stocking the walleye and continually managing the populations in areas where there’s more human interaction, we would definitely lose them.”

So when fishing guide and Mitacs research intern Ayden Ricker-Held approached him with an innovative idea to help conserve the popular fish, John was quick to jump on board.

The idea is to better understand the natural offshore feeding habits and movement of the walleye in Lake St. Joseph, which are thriving, so that environmentalists can replicate the habitat elsewhere where the fish are declining.

Ayden was able to implement the project with the support of Mitacs through a research internship at Trent University. Old Post Lodge paid $7,500, and that amount was matched by Mitacs, giving Ayden the leg up he needed to launch his project under the supervision of Environmental Sciences Professor David Beresford and in partnership with the Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.

Studying walleye on the move

The project is considered groundbreaking because it is the first to determine that the walleye are actually migrating to shallow waters after spawning to feed on insects, a phenomenon that was first brought to Ayden’s attention while working as a guide at Old Post Lodge.

“What I was hearing from others at the lodge is that the walleye are almost exclusively feeding on mayflies at certain times of the years,” he says. “I tried to look into it and there was no existing literature that mentioned insects as an integral part of the walleye diet.”

After months of monitoring fish movements and examining the stomach contents of walleye already harvested for consumption, Ayden is preparing to publish his research report next year. The information will be used as a foundation to make other walleye ecosystems healthier and more resilient.

“Stocking and other management efforts to conserve the walleye are extremely costly, and in the end, they are not actually solving the underlying problem,” says Ayden. “A better approach is to understand what the ideal habitat looks like and take steps to build better fisheries, naturally.”

Successful triangulation of business, government and research

According to Professor Beresford, the Mitacs internship has helped Ayden integrate his research and career aspirations, and The Old Post Lodge has been an excellent partner.

“Being part of a partnership between government, academia, and private business working toward walleye conservation has been a great example of how resource management can bring these different groups together in common cause,” says Dr. Beresford.

He also believes The Old Post has benefited by having a researcher on site to explain to guests and customers about walleye conservation.

“Many of the anglers who stay at the Old Post Lodge come from the USA. Learning first-hand about this cooperative venture between business and government has been a great education for the patrons,” says Dr. Beresford. “I had a chance to stay as a guest at the Old Post Lodge to see how the research and work dovetailed. The proprietors of the Old Post Lodge bring a real-world approach to our conservation goals.”

Ayden is Dr. Beresford’s first experience supervising a Mitacs intern — and he won’t be the last.

“I think this is an outstanding program, making real contribution to industry and the common good.”

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada for their support of the Accelerate research. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from the Government of British Columbia, Alberta Innovates, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Saskatchewan, and Research Manitoba.