Cablegate: The Lake Erie Commercial Fishing Industry

DE RUEHON #0058/01 0601517
P 291517Z FEB 08




E.O.12958: N/A
SUBJECT: The Lake Erie Commercial Fishing Industry

Sensitive But Unclassified - Protect Accordingly.

1. (U) SUMMARY: Managing fish stocks in Lake Erie, which supports a
multi-million dollar commercial fishing industry that supports
thousands of jobs - has become a point of contention on both sides
of the nearby U.S.-Canada border. Dwindling fish stocks have
prompted Ontario and the U.S. states bordering Lake Erie to decrease
their fishing quotas and restrict fishing in other ways. In
response, commercial fishermen on both sides of the border are
asking their respective court systems to force provincial and state
governments to restructure the way quotas are set. Both Ontario and
U.S.-based commercial fisherman assert that the U.S. sport fishing
industry, which generates significantly more revenue for state
agencies, has been unfairly gaining quota at the expense of
commercial fishing. The Lake Erie Committee (LEC), the
intergovernmental body that sets fishing quotas in Ontario and the
U.S., is required to base catch quotas on scientific evidence
generated by field researchers. Commercial fishermen argue that the
LEC has for years based its fishing quota decisions not on science,
but on political and economic biases. Ontario's Ministry of Natural
Resources (OMNR) is reviewing the request of Ontario commercial
fishermen that Ontario unilaterally restructure how it manages
quotas. END SUMMARY.

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Lake Erie Committee Sets Annual Fishing Quotas
--------------------------------------------- -

2. (U) State and provincial fishery managers from Michigan, New
York, Ohio, Ontario, and Pennsylvania comprise the Lake Erie
Committee (LEC), one of five committees (one for each Great Lake)
that manage fish stocks in the Great Lakes under the direction of
the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, a Canadian and U.S. agency
established in 1955 by the Canadian/U.S. Great Lakes Convention on
Fisheries. Each year the LEC sets the total allowable catch (TAC)
for walleye and yellow perch, the two quota species shared by
Canadian and American fishermen. The TAC, representing the number
of fish that can be caught by sport and commercial fishers without
putting the stocks at risk, is allocated to each jurisdiction by an
area-based sharing formula. Ontario then defines the fishing quotas
for its own fisherman within the limits defined by the LEC's annual
TAC. The LEC's decisions have historically been based on fish stock
data provided by field researchers.

Ontario Fishermen Appeal the Quotas

3. (U) Ontario has 212 licensed commercial fishermen, based mostly
out of Wheatley and Kingsville. Ontario fishermen catch fish worth
about C$30 million a year at the docks. Once these fish are
processed in plants, the value of Ontario's annual catch jumps to
more than C$200 million, and employs 1,500 to 2,000 people. Gill
nets, which are banned in all of Lake Erie's U.S. states, are legal
and used widely in Ontario. Commercial netting of walleye or other
species of fish is not banned in Ontario waters.

4. (U) Since 2001, Ontario commercial fisherman have been openly
disputing the province's delegation of responsibility for setting
quotas to the LEC. Ontario fishermen argue that annual TAC
allocations of yellow perch and walleye are based on U.S. economic
and political biases, rather than scientific evidence. They assert
that the LEC structure (one member per jurisdiction bordering the
lake) and consensual decision-making process are inherently unfair
to Ontario, which owns about half of Lake Erie.

5. (U) During 2001-2004, TAC allocations were cut to their lowest
levels since Ontario first implemented specific fish quotas for Lake
Erie. Walleye TAC for 2001, 2002, and 2003 was set at a level 56%
lower than for 2000 and the final 2004 quotas for Ontario were about
27% lower than the 2003 allocations.

6. (U) In 2003 the LEC announced its intention to cut 2004 quotas in
the case of walleye by 40-60%, well before the 2003 fish stock data
was available. Ontario fishermen saw this as a clear admission that
the annual data analysis process was a mere formality used to
justify political decisions that had no scientific basis. Yellow
perch and walleye were hatched in record numbers in 2003, but U.S.
state fish regulatory agencies refused to admit the relevance of the
2003 data to the 2004 decision making process, further fuelling
resentment among Ontario commercial fishermen. The Ontario Ministry
of Natural Resources insisted that the LEC revisit the 2003 TAC
decision. The U.S. agencies, led by the Ohio Department of Natural
Resources, forced Ontario into a mediation process adjudicated by
the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. The mediation process
ultimately failed to produce a resolution, although cuts to the
walleye TAC ended up being somewhat lower in 2004 than had been
called for in 2003.

7. (U) After the mediation failed, Ontario's commercial fishermen

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formally appealed the 2004 Lake Erie walleye quotas to Ontario's
Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act Hearing Officer. In his report
to the Minister of Natural Resources, the Hearing Officer wrote,
" opinion is that the current walleye quotas for Lake Erie are
unsupported by the data available at the hearing, and are therefore
not reasonable for the conservation of fish." Then-Ontario Minister
of Natural Resources (MNR), David Ramsey, cited obligations to the
LEC process in his justification for not unilaterally increasing
Ontario's TAC. Ontario commercial fisherman subsequently argued
that the province has inappropriately handed over its responsibility
to manage fish stocks to the LEC. The LEC determines the annual TAC
for all of Lake Erie, and, although MNR retains the absolute
authority to set Ontario's fish quotas, only once, in 1984, has the
Minister exercised that right outside of the LEC process.

8. (U) In March 2007, the LEC lowered the Lake Erie walleye TAC to
5.36 million fish, a dramatic decrease from the 9.886 million fish
allowed in 2006, reflecting poor hatches and recruitment in 2002,
2004, and 2006. The LEC also reduced the 2007 TAC for yellow perch
to 11.389 million pounds, down from 16.48 million pounds in 2006.
The LEC will not announce the 2008 TAC limits until March, but
commercial fishermen on both sides of the border expect the quotas
to be further reduced this year.

Ohio Having Trouble Enforcing Fish Quotas

9. (U) The Ohio State Division of Wildlife, has publicly stated that
it cannot effectively manage its fisheries because Division
scientists believe they cannot trust the fish catch data that
commercial fishermen report to them.
18 Ohio commercial fishermen and 7 businesses have been convicted of
over-fishing about 120 tons of regulated fish in the Ohio waters of
Lake Erie during the past few years. In June 2005, in Cuyahoga
County, Ohio, a two-year undercover investigation of commercial trap
net fishermen ended with Cuyahoga County prosecutors indicting 14
people and five businesses for money laundering, theft, and
receiving stolen property, including 40-80 tons of unreported yellow

10. (U) In a separate case, on January 24, 2006, in Sandusky, Ohio,
the captain of a boat belonging to a Port Clinton commercial fishing
company was fined US$12,100 for his part in a racketeering ring that
illegally netted thousands of pounds of yellow perch from Lake Erie,
according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR)
Division of Wildlife. In another case, announced on March 14, 2006,
in Columbus, Ohio, a Port Clinton commercial fishing company and its
owners, Richard Stinson and Orville Stinson, were ordered to pay
US$160,000 for their part in a racketeering ring that illegally
netted 40 tons of yellow perch which is equal to 6,133 daily sport
fishing bag limits.

11. (SBU) According to Jim Marshall, assistant chief of Ohio's
wildlife division, Ohio anglers exceeded their 2007 perch quotas of
833,000 pounds for the western basin of Lake Erie by more than 20%,
or 200,000 pounds. Commercial trap-netters were under their
allotted share of 216,000 pounds and sport fishing alone took some
800,000 pounds of perch, facts which Marshall says, will have a
significant impact on determining suitable fishing quotas for 2008.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
Fishing in U.S. Waters Is Evolving, Especially in Ohio
--------------------------------------------- ---------

12. (U) U.S. state governments have been shifting fish catch quotas
to the sport fishing industry away from the commercial fishing
industry on Lake Erie. U.S states issue only 32 commercial fishing
licenses: Ohio has 18; Pennsylvania has 11; Michigan has 3; and New
York has 0. There is no legal commercial fishery for walleye in
U.S. waters of Lake Erie, except for Pennsylvania waters, but both
walleye and perch are promoted as high quality sport fish by state

13. (U) Ohio, wracked by fish poaching scandals, has been tightening
regulations on its small commercial fishing industry. Though the
volume of fish taken by commercial and sport fishermen in Ohio
waters is about equal, Ohio's sport fishing industry generates about
US$700 million in annual license fee revenue for the Department of
Natural Resources, while commercial fishing licenses provide only
US$10 million per year. In November 2006 the Ohio legislature
debated buying-out all the remaining commercial fishing licenses in
Ohio, but the bill failed to pass the legislature. Ohio Senate Bill
77, which requires commercial fishermen to submit to surveillance of
their activities, and to purchase, install, and maintain vessel and
catch monitoring devices, entered into force in October 2007. On
January 29, 2008, a newly formed group, the Great Lakes Commercial
Fishermen, announced that it has asked a federal court in Toledo,
Ohio to prevent promulgation of the regulations that would implement

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Ohio Senate Bill 77.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
Ontario Commercial Fishermen Sue Government of Ontario
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14. (U) Ontario's commercial fishermen have major concerns about the
structure and process of the LEC. They argue that the overwhelming
dominance of U.S. agencies in the management of a resource that is
shared roughly equally between two countries magnifies the conflict
between sport fishing and commercial fishing. The LEC, made up of
five members -- four U.S. states (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio,
Michigan) and Ontario, operates by consensus. Ontario Commercial
Fisheries Association's (OCFA) Executive Director Peter Meisenheimer
argues "The LEC is a caricature of consensus with U.S. agencies
imposing their ideological opposition on the commercial fishing
industry through their numerical dominance... Committee decisions
are driven by an agenda to maximize the sale of sport fishing

15. (U) OCFA Executive Director Meisenheimer says the primary threat
to Lake Erie's commercial fishing industry is clear cut: commercial
fishing is in a battle of survival against sport fishing advocates,
who have a vastly different view of how the lakes should be managed.
In September 2007, two Lake Erie fishermen announced that they were
taking the Ontario government to court on behalf of Ontario's
commercial fishing industry to challenge how fishing quotas are set.
Their suit, which is scheduled to be heard in April, alleges that
the LEC is favoring the U.S. sports fishing industry at the expense
of Ontario's commercial fishing industry.

Ontario Fishermen Blame U.S. for Over-fishing

16. (SBU) In response to dwindling fish stocks, the OMNR
unilaterally reduced Lake Erie commercial fishing quotas on January
1, 2008, alleging that the cuts were a combination of low fish
reproduction rates and U.S. over-fishing. OMNR has not publicly
announced fishing quota reductions; instead commercial fisherman are
being so-advised when they purchase their fishing licenses for the
2008 season. OMNR is expected to formally issue a press release
with the 2008 fishing quotas after the LEC meets on March 17, 2008.

17. (U) There is no general trend in fish stocks across the Great
Lakes that would explain the LEC's need to reduce TAC for commercial
fishing in Lake Erie. Different species of fish in each of the
lakes are experiencing different population fluctuations. In the
U.S. states that border Lake Erie, commercial fishing has been
significantly reduced. Ontario and U.S. commercial fisherman both
are blaming the lucrative sport fishing industry for reducing their

18. (SBU) COMMENT: Of the five Great Lakes, Lake Erie provides a
uniquely cooperative fisheries management case study as the two
countries have sought to manage one of the world's largest
freshwater commercial fisheries. Erie is the only lake with a
bi-national committee that sets an overall fish quota for the lake;
individual jurisdictions independently set fishing quotas on all of
the other Great Lakes. The cross-border management relationship
embodied in the LEC, has highlighted a growing rift between
commercial fishermen from both countries and the sport fishing
industry. The commercial versus sport fishing dispute is
exacerbated by the four to one ratio of U.S. states and Ontario that
make up the LEC. This has led commercial fisherman on both sides of
the border to ask their respective court systems to force provincial
and state governments to restructure the way quotas are set.
Ontario commercial fishermen are seeking to persuade the provincial
government to abandon the LEC quota-setting process in favor of
unilateral action. Ontario's new Minister of Natural Resources told
the Consul General earlier this month that she is looking into the
complaints and studying the whole issue. Ontario politicians,
facing significant job losses in the struggling manufacturing
sector, will be particularly sensitive to potential job losses in
the province's commercial fishing industry. End Comment.



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