WINNIPEG—With the recent demise of the Canadian Wheat Board as a single-desk buyer and marketer of western Canadian grain products, some say that the western inland fishery should be next.
Critics, such as Winnipeg Free Press contributor Kim Sigurdson, and right wing think tanks like the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, have their sights set on the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act (FFMA). While fishers working the western inland fishery may agree with some of these critics, the issue of wastage in the fishery is of more immediate concern.
As the federal act currently stands, Winnipeg-based crown company Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC) maintains a monopoly over the supply of freshwater fish from the western inland fishery, which includes Manitoba, Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
Founded in 1969, FFMC acts as the sole purchaser of freshwater fish from over 2000 fishers in the region. In 2011 and 2012, respectively, Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario opted out of FFMC. However, commercial fishers in Saskatchewan can still choose to sell their harvest to the FFMC, an option which many fishers exercise. Northwestern Ontario’s commercial fishery has largely been replaced by the sport fishing industry.
According to FFMC’s website, the organization was empowered by the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act to "give our region's many small fishing communities the marketing strength of a larger organization. In working with Freshwater Fish and together, fishers can now access more markets around the world and receive top-dollar for their catch.”
FFMC processes and then markets fish to over 14 countries and 20 US states. Annual revenue for the FFMC tops $65 million, $50 million of which is generated in Manitoba.
But critics of the current FFMC business model argue that the world is a different place today than it was is 1969, and that fishers ought to have the ability to sell their fish to any processor, distributor or packager they can, and for the highest price possible.
The fishery on Lake Winnipeg, the largest managed by FFMC, provides seasonal employment to 800 fishers in a variety of communities, the majority of whom are Aboriginal. Gerald McKay, who self-identifies as an Aboriginal fisher in Grand Rapids, Manitoba, is a member of the Grand Rapids Fishermen’s Co-op, and has been involved in the commercial fishery for over 20 years. While McKay isn’t calling for the abolition of the FFMC, he does believe that it may have outlived its usefulness.
“Freshwater’s gotten top-heavy with bureaucrats and that, administration and staff,” McKay told The Dominion in a telephone interview.
Kim Sigurdson, a self-identified Aboriginal entrepreneur from northern Manitoba, wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press about his opposition to the current FFMC “monopoly.”
“If they’re so good,” Sigurdson told The Dominion, “then let them...compete!”
Both McKay and Sigurdson take issue with the low prices that fishers are paid for their product in the face of high operational costs, particularly those of gasoline and transportation of product from lake to market. The price that FFMC is paying for fish, in fact, is decreasing.
“We used to get $2.40 a pound for pickerel,” McKay told The Dominion. “Now we’re getting $1.80.”
While McKay may believe that FFMC has outlived its usefulness to northern fishers in terms of being able to properly pay them a living wage, the issue he takes truly to heart—and is campaigning against—is waste within the fishery itself.
As a result of the price disparity paid by FFMC to fishers for different species, the monopoly FFMC holds over the western inland fishery and the strict, non-species-specific quota system in place in Manitoba for commercial fishers, many fishers illegally discard lower-valued fish such as whitefish, in favour of higher-valued fish such as pickerel. As a result, widespread—and undocumented—wastage of fish threatens the long-term sustainability of the Lake Winnipeg fishery.
Currently, McKay is working with the Environmental Conservation Lab at the University of Manitoba, the Grand Rapids Fishers Co-op and Winnipeg Harvest to develop a pilot project that would see thousands of pounds of wasted fish diverted to Winnipeg food banks.
Dean Rennie, a Master's student at the University of Manitoba, is working with McKay to develop and document this pilot project. He explained to The Dominion that the project would see by-catch, “the unintended capture of non-target species,” within the Grand Rapids fishery being documented and donated to Winnipeg Harvest, Winnipeg’s largest food bank.
“For the spring and fall fishery in Grand Rapids, and I guess around most of Lake Winnipeg, it involves the price differential [paid by FFMC] between the two most common species, whitefish and pickerel,” Rennie explained. “The undervalued species [generally] ends up getting thrown away.”
The problem, according to Rennie and McKay, is exacerbated by regulations stemming from Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, a provincial government department that issues commercial fishing licenses under a strict quota system.
“Spring license is 8000 pounds,” McKay told The Dominion. “So when a fisherman fishes that 8000 pounds, he’s going to try to bring home 8000 pounds of pickerel, because it’s $1.80 [per pound], and whitefish is about 60 cents. Everything goes on the quota. If he brings in whitefish in the quota, he’s losing $1.20 a pound.”
To get rid of unwanted by-catch, many fishers illegally “bush” or throw out the non-target species brought in by their nets.
“Nobody’s going to bring in whitefish when they can bring in pickerel,” said McKay. “So all the whitefish gets thrown on shore, and there’s nothing wrong with that fish.”
According to Section 16.1 of the Manitoba Fishery Regulations and Section 36 of the federal Fisheries Act, “bushing” by-catch is illegal. However, the practice is reportedly widespread in all fisheries, including those serviced by FFMC. It is estimated that over 3 million pounds of fish are wasted annually in the Lake Winnipeg fishery alone. However, no official documentation and no firm numbers exist in relation to the problem.
“It’s kind of this dirty little secret in the fishing industry that...managers don’t have an idea of how to deal with,” Rennie believes. “Like, if [the fishers] can still get the same fish out of the lake every year, things must be running good. But in reality, there’s so much waste going on that those numbers need to be looked at.”
Rennie and McKay have proposed their pilot project to the province, in part in order to provide data to the Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship about the extent of by-catch-related waste within the commercial fishery in Grand Rapids. But the province is not interested and has refused to take part on two occasions since 2010.
According to documents obtained by The Dominion, because of the proposed project’s “illegal nature,” as well as issues relating to the provincial quota system administered by Manitoba Conservation and supposed “financial incentives” that the project would provide fishers in the Grand Rapids area over other fishers on Lake Winnipeg, the province is currently unwilling to work with Rennie, McKay and the Grand Rapids Fishers Co-op to move forward with the project.
Brian Parker, Director of the Fisheries Branch with Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, told The Dominion, via email, that:
“In 2012, working in co-operation with Lake Winnipeg commercial fishers, a new Lake Winnipeg Fishery Co-Management Board was established. As part of this board’s mandate, the Lake Winnipeg Quota Management System will be reviewed to address changing demands (including by-catch) while ensuring the long-term sustainability of the fishery resource for future generations.”
However, no further information as to how or when this would take place was provided.
“The province is trying to stop us from giving food to the poor,” says McKay. “That’s really sad when your government tries to stop you from helping the poor.”
Whether arising from structural inefficiencies or the problems created by overlapping jurisdictions in the Manitoba inland fishery, it is clear that there are problems with the current system under the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act that are resulting in millions of pounds of wasted fish and lost economic opportunities.
With the long-term environmental and economic sustainability of the fishery at stake, it is beholden on the federal government, the government of Manitoba, FFMC and the fishers on the lake to work together to solve these problems before irreparable damage is done to the fishery, and the remote, northern communities that rely on it for survival.
Sheldon Birnie is a writer and editor living in Winnipeg, MB. He has a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Manitoba.