Pyzer predicts gloomy future for Rainy River watershed

He’s known to many as a radio host and outdoor writer. In fishing circles, he’s sometimes known as “Doctor Pyzer.”
But at last week’s watershed conference in Fort Frances, he was “Dr. Doom.”
Gord Pyzer brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the podium last Thursday afternoon when he addressed the fourth-annual ManOMin Watershed Conference at La Place Rendez-Vous.
In addition to 30 years as a senior manager with the Ministry of Natural Resources, Pyzer also is an award-winning writer and angler. He is a regular competitor in the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship, finishing as high as fourth place.
So when he was asked to predict how the Rainy River watershed would look 20 years from now, his answer brought a silence over the room because he bluntly predicted the sport-fishing industry here will have become a shadow of its current vitality due to mismanagement and over-harvesting.
Pyzer then cited a disturbing precedent to support his conclusions.
“Four hundred years ago, the cod stocks off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland constituted the largest single biomass the world has ever seen,” he remarked.
“There are countless stories of seamen who lowered buckets over the sides of ships to gather water and brought them up full of fish instead.
“Even as recently as the 1960s-’70s, surveillance aircraft from the many countries that were tracking the fish reported schools a mile long, a mile wide, and a mile deep.
“Today, so few fish remain, it is illegal to catch cod.”
Pyzer said he believes the population numbers have been reduced to below the point where the fish can ever recover, because of too little genetic diversity and too much competition from other species that have moved into the niche they once occupied.
“If you can do that [to the cod], you can do it in any lake,” he warned.
Pyzer then recited the story of the Tragedy of the Commons to his skeptical audience.
He asked conference delegates to imagine they all were cattle farmers and grazing their herds in a common pasture. The pasture can only sustain a certain amount of grazing pressure, so each farmer has agreed to limit the number of animals he places there.
“But if one person places an extra animal there, he will reap the profits when he sells it,” Pyzer explained. “In the meantime, that extra animal has put more pressure on the pasture than it can handle and it begins to deteriorate.”
The problem, said Pyzer, is the person who placed the extra animal enjoys all the benefits while the consequences of his actions are spread out among all the users of the resource.
“So the only logical thing for the others to do is put in extra animals so they, too, can reap the extra profits and soon the pasture can no longer support the herds,” he noted.
And that, said Pyzer, is what will happen in the Rainy River watershed. People who care only about their own short-term interests will destroy what was once the greatest fresh-water fishery in North America.
“I believe it’s going to happen over the next five-10 years,” he predicted. “I hope I’m wrong, and if I am, I’ll gladly come back here and apologize.”
And don’t expect the government to make sure it doesn’t happen.
“The most poignant lesson I’ve learned in 30 years is governments do not lead, they do not manage resources. They monitor their decline,” he stressed.
Governments will, however, follow trends and even pass useful legislation if presented with a unified front. And that, says Pyzer, is the key to averting an environmental tragedy.
“Conferences like this one are a start. We need to develop mechanisms that unify people,” he remarked, backing Rainy River First Nations Chief Albert Hunter’s idea of a summit on rural culture to bring together all the parties with a vested interest in the health of the watershed.
“We have to assume management and responsibility for the resource,” Pyzer argued. “At the end of the day, it is the collective will that matters.”