Fathoming Lake Winnipeg: the role of commercial fishers and their local knowledge in decision-making.
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Lake Winnipeg and the issue of its declining health are at the heart of this research. At stake is not only the integrity of this ecosystem but also the substantial commercial fishery that depends upon it. Finding a solution to this problem involves a complex mixture of social, economic and ecological considerations. In response to such multi-faceted questions there is an increasing awareness for the role of public participation in decision-making. In recognition of this, there is a move away from top-down governance to one that acknowledges the need for innovative approaches to governance as well as the role for the participation of non-state actors in decision-making. This type of participatory governance decentralizes power in order to permit citizens the opportunity to bring to bear their knowledge in the quest for sustainable solutions. One such source of knowledge is local knowledge. Accordingly, this research explores the local knowledge about Lake Winnipeg held by its commercial fishers and how that knowledge is included in the Lake’s governance. This goal is pursued through the examination of four specific objectives that are: 1) to establish the sorts of local knowledge that fishers hold and the ways in which they gained this knowledge; 2) to identify what informal and formal governance processes already exist for participation of the fishers in the governance of Lake Winnipeg; 3) to determine by what means and to what extent this local knowledge has been shared in governance processes about the Lake; 4) to identify opportunities for the incorporation of the fishers’ local knowledge into the governance of the Lake. A qualitative approach was used to address the goals of the research and included literature review, a focus group with fishers, and interviews with fishers and government personnel. Analysis revealed that the commercial fishers possess local knowledge extending across a broad range of topics from hydrology, ecology, weather, water quality and fish diet, habitat, behaviour and morphology. This knowledge was gained primarily through personal observation, but also from other fishers, scientists, and the media. The more formal participatory processes in which the fishers became engaged have been limited to issues relating to the fishery. These formal processes included the Lake Winnipeg Fisheries Management Advisory Board, the Manitoba Commercial Inland Fishers Federation, and the Lake Winnipeg Quota Entitlement Review Task Force. In addition to these formal processes there was also a less formal network of contact between fishers and those in government and science. This network has involved fishers sharing their local knowledge about the fishery and. to a lesser degree, about the Lake’s environment more generally. Taken together, these various processes have supplied, with variable success, some opportunities for fishers to share their local knowledge and influence fishery related decisions. However, the extent of their participation has been significantly impaired by a number of critical factors. Of these, the most detrimental barrier identified was a lack of meaningfulness and transparency in the key process, the Advisory Board. This, in turn, resulted in frustration, mistrust of government, and ultimately, withdrawal from that process. Reflecting on these problems, fishers made a number of recommendations including the creation of a co-management board and the use of interviews and surveys, public meetings, and collaborative research as ways to ensure that their knowledge is shared and that their concerns and recommendations are considered in meaningful ways that influence fishery and Lake-related decisions.