Fishing for dollars

It’s no great surprise that some Manitoba fishers support the provincial government’s announcement to opt out of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC), while others have come out in support of retaining the single marketing desk. For the most part, it’s the older fishers and their families that remember the days when large America companies dominated the export market and the resulting very low prices they received for their fish who favour retaining the FFMC. On the other hand, many fishing co-ops across the province feel they can do a better job of marketing their product than the FFMC.

The FFMC was modelled after the Canadian Wheat Board — dismantled by the Harper Conservative Government and no longer in existence — and established in 1969 as a federal Crown corporation to be the buyer, processor and marketer of freshwater fish in the Prairie Provinces, as well as the Northwest Territories and part of Northwestern Ontario. Profits, in the form of final payments, are distributed annually to participating fishers. Manitoba is by far the largest participant in the FFMC.

“The Manitoba government informed the Government of Canada, pursuant to its Participation Agreement under the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act, that it will be withdrawing its participation,” according to a Manitoba government press release. The provincial government said it’s the first step toward allowing Manitoba fishers the opportunity to market their own products outside Manitoba. The FFMC will continue to exist as a marketing option for those fishers who choose to continue to utilize its services.

The commercial fishery generates $21 million in direct income to fishers in Manitoba annually. Manitoba’s fish products are sold primarily to the United States, as well as in European, Israeli and Chinese markets. The fishery takes place primarily in Lake Winnipeg, Lake Winnipegosis and Lake Manitoba, but also includes some smaller operations across northern Manitoba. Species harvested commercially in Manitoba include pickerel/walleye, goldeye, northern pike, sauger, lake whitefish and lake trout.

“We are pleased with the Manitoba government’s decision to allow for and create flexible marketing options for commercial fishers,” said Chief Ron Evans of Norway House Cree Nation.

The Norway House Fisherman’s Co-op is the largest single commercial fishing operation in Manitoba. The operation consists of nearly 50 full-time commercial fishers and produces a quota of nearly one-million kilograms each year.

“We have been exploring options as of late, especially opportunities to sell rough fish to foreign markets,” said Evans. “In the meantime, the Norway House Fisherman’s Co-op will maintain its relationship with and continue to work through the Fresh Water Fish Marketing Corporation, which has provided stability and security for our fishers.”

“For our Métis community throughout Manitoba, the commercial fisheries are the foundation of our economy,” said David Chartrand, president, Manitoba Métis Federation.  “In some areas, it is the only source of income to support our Métis fishers and their families ... The Métis make up a significant portion of fishers in the freshwater fish industry; a fishery in desperate need of renewal and investment.  This new direction will give the industry a chance to survive and will open opportunities for fishers province wide.”

“Manitoba fishers will benefit greatly from the province’s move to create market flexibility in our commercial fishery,” said Barry Matkowski, a Gimli-area fisher. “As fishers in Manitoba, we have a great product to market and work hard to make it available to consumers in Canada and around the world. We thank the provincial government for granting us the flexibility to seek out marketing options and increase our earning potential.”

But Robert Kristjanson, another Gimli-area fisher, who’s family has fished Lake Winnipeg for decades, remembers the not-so-glorious days that the 1965 McIvor Commission said made local fishers indentured labourers of the seven American fish companies then in operation.

For example, during the summer whitefish season, a basin-wide limit allotted among the company-owned fish stations was portioned out to the foremen (skippers) of boats. These foremen applied to the companies to fish for them, according to the Gimli Saga, “and if accepted received a license to fish, and engaged their own hired men, generally two to a boat.”

The fish companies supplied the foremen with everything that was needed. “Some had no supplies of their own; others might have some corks, nets, or a boat, and would order what they needed in addition. The foreman received so much per pound from his catch, from which all the cost of supplies furnished was deducted. His receipts varied enormously ... sometimes he might even find himself in debt to the company.”

In effect, as in the song Sixteen tons: “I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.”

“It is so sad (the announced withdrawal from the FFMC) that I can’t put words to it,” Kristjanson told the Free Press. “I’m not saying (it) has been true blue ... but to add more fish companies is not the answer.”

“The 80-year domination of Manitoba’s commercial fisheries by American companies had gradually reduced the Lake Winnipeg fisheries to chaos,” according to the commission (A History of Manitoba’s Commercial Fishery: 1872-2005, by Karen Nicholson, Historic Resources Branch, 2007). “Between 1945 and 1965, the average price of all landings increased by the pitiful sum of 10 cents per pound.” The average yearly earnings, before expenses, by a fisher was just $1,000.

The McIvor Commission concluded that “fishermen in Western Canada have little or no influence in price determination, and must absorb the risks which resulted from the exporter’s weakness in marketing and the additional costs which resulted from too many exporters and too many dealers, and from the inefficient operation of Canadian handling and processing facilities.”

The commission recommended that to bring order out of chaos it was necessary to establish a Freshwater Fish Marketing Board (FFMB), which came about under the auspices of the FFMC.

Critics of the board argue against it due to the waste of rough fish (known as bycatch) which could be used for processed products. In other cases, some fishers believe they could do a better job of marketing fish and don’t want to be tied down by the FFMC’s monopoly.

Surprisingly, the Saskatchewan Co-operative Fisheries, which could have marketed its own members’ fish when the Saskatchewan government withdrew from the FFMC, have instead opted to continue to ship their fish to the FFMC facilities in Transcona.

Whatever the arguments for or against withdrawing from the FFMC,  no one would want a return to the days when companies controlled Manitoba lakes with the result that fishers failed to earn an adequate living standard.