What do the 2022 Forest and Freshwater Foods Indicators Tell Us?

The Thunder Bay Region is home to grasslands, meadows, numerous freshwater lakes and is surrounded by the Boreal forest which provides an abundance of wild game, fish, berries, mushrooms and much more. Forest and freshwater foods present a potential growth area that could positively impact issues of climate and sustainability, responsible harvesting, Indigenous food sovereignty, and economic and social opportunities for communities across Northwestern Ontario. 

The Indigenous food sovereignty movement has continued to evolve and forest and freshwater foods play a central role in this work. Efforts are being made to promote the recognition of forest and freshwater foods as essential food sources for Anishinaabe people. In addition, Indigenous people continue to assert self-determination over their lands and rights to be able to hunt, harvest and fish on their traditional territories. Balancing the acquisition of forest and freshwater foods with conservation efforts should be prioritized to protect these food sources and ensure their long-term sustainability. Protecting forest and freshwater food systems and realizing Indigenous food sovereignty are essential for the long-term health of our region and its populations. 

There is continued interest among people in the Thunder Bay Area to learn about what foods are available in our region and how to harvest them sustainably. The Lakehead Regional Conservation Authority offers mushroom foraging workshops annually, and recently, the Boreal Museum has begun offering wild-harvesting and sustainable foraging workshops. Since 2017, the Indigenous Food Circle and Gaagige Zaagibigaa have been hosting numerous food foraging, harvesting and traditional skills (such as hide tanning and fish smoking) workshops within Thunder Bay and across the Region. 

As awareness of the value of wild-harvested foods grows, demand is increasing. These foods are most often shared informally, but some products are being sold through local shops, grocery stores and restaurants. This has led to the development of small businesses harvesting seasonal fresh products like local fiddleheads, berries and mushrooms, as well as processing foods like blueberry jam and foraged teas.

While forest and freshwater foods have been a core part of human diets from time immemorial, there is surprisingly little data available about forest and freshwater animal, plant and fish populations. There is a need to establish baseline data for monitoring the health of forest foods ecosystems in Northwestern Ontario as climate change becomes more of a visible threat in our area, monitoring forest and fresh water food becomes a necessary tool for climate protection and species rehabilitation. 

For a combination of economic and conservation reasons, the Ontario Government does collect information on the numbers of large game (e.g., moose, deer, and bear) in order to adjust the numbers of hunting tags (or permits) that are issued during hunting season. In 2014, the overall population of moose was in decline in Northwestern Ontario and estimated to be 41,000. This  led the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to reduce the number of moose tags issued by 22% in an effort to repopulate. Fewer moose and tags available impacted people in and around Thunder Bay that hunt moose for food. But, the conservation efforts were a success because in 2021, there were an estimated 46,000 moose – about 5,000 more – in Northwestern Ontario. 

Lake Superior and other inland freshwater lakes in the area are home to many species of fish. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the harvest of Cisco, Lake Whitefish and Lake Trout (the top three commercial species) decreased between 2019 and 2020 by as much as 28%.  17  Some fish are harvested for personal use while some are harvested commercially and exported, mainly to the United States. Currently, there are two businesses that offer Great Lakes fish for sale to local markets. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry also stocks a number of fish varieties including brook trout, rainbow trout and splake in area freshwater lakes.