Freshwater Fisheries in Canada: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Resources and Their Management

Chapter 8: The Inland Fisheries of Ontario: Status and Management

Nigel Lester, Helen Ball, Warren Dunlop, Kim Armstrong, Jeff Amos, and Steve Sandstrom


Excluding the Great Lakes, the Province of Ontario spans an area of approximately 1 million km2, nearly 10% of which is covered by water. The province’s inland fish communities offer a diverse range of year-round fishing opportunities supporting recreational, commercial, and Indigenous1 fisheries. These activities contribute more than Can$1.3 billion annually to Ontario’s economy, a contribution that is three times higher than the contribution from Ontario’s Great Lakes fisheries (OMNRF 2020a).

Given this vast, wet landscape, it is not surprising that the “early pioneers of Ontario believed implicitly in the apparent inexhaustible abundance of resources” (Lambert and Pross 1967) and the management of inland resources was minimal for many years. The Royal Commission in 1911 (Evans 1912) assumed that protecting lakes from commercial fishing was enough to ensure abundance of fish stocks; it recommended that lakes smaller than 10 mi2 (~26 km2) be reserved for sportfishing. By 1930, depletion effects of sportfishing were being noted. The Special Committee on the Game-Fish Situation reported that “the fish are not now and never have been capable of sustaining good fishing even for a small number of sportsmen for any great length of time” (Macdiarmid et al. 1930). Despite these concerns, sport fish harvesting policy remained very liberal for some time. The limited capacity to sustain angling pressure was not fully recognized until the 1970s, following the rapid expansion of recreational fishing after World War II. This realization led to new management directions calling for increased protection of the resource in place of the open-access, common-property approach of the past (Canada and Ontario 1976; Loftus 1976; Loftus et al 1978; OMNR 1992).

Management of Ontario’s inland fisheries has changed rapidly in recent years as the province has confronted the challenge of managing such a vast landscape under an increasing complexity of stress. Overall, the resource is huge, but it consists of so many small, isolated populations that the cost of managing lakes individually is prohibitive. Furthermore, one questions whether lake by lake management is appropriate given that the lakes are fished by a mobile population of anglers; management actions taken on one lake may affect how fishing effort is distributed among lakes. Recognition of these (and other) issues has fostered a landscape level approach (Lester et al. 2003; OMNRF 2015) in setting goals, assessing stress, taking management action, and monitoring its outcomes. In this chapter, we show how this approach is being used to track changes in the state of Ontario’s inland fish and fisheries and to support management decisions. First, we discuss the geographic setting, showing how heterogeneity across this landscape has created diversity among lakes and rivers, affecting species composition and potential fish production. Then we discuss the current management framework and demonstrate how existing monitoring programs offer a broadscale view of resource status in different areas of the province. Finally, we document current issues and comment on management responses.