The Earliest Fishing Season Ever!
Some people say that the drive up Highway 6 into northern Manitoba can be long and boring; I am not one of them. The last time I travelled to Grand Rapids and Misipawistik Cree Nation was in February and the snow and the Spruce trees created a beautiful landscape. Now that spring is here, the trip reveals a whole new landscape of rocks, streams, trees and shades of red and green from plants growing along the road. Grand Rapids also looked different, while the water is open year round due to the Hydro electric dam; the grasses and trees were now turning green signifying a new year and a new season. The reason for my recent trip was to attend a meeting with the Grand Rapids Fishers Coop, Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, Transport Canada, Natural Resources and a representative from the Manitoba Fishers Loan Program. All were in attendance to discuss the conditions of the 2010/11 freshwater fishing season. Topics included a Memorandum of Understanding to create a new lake management board and a review of fish prices for the upcoming season.
The meeting began with a prayer and then a presentation from Donna, a lawyer representing the Fishers, to explain a Memorandum of Understanding between the Minister of Water Stewardship and the Lake Winnipeg Commercial Fishers’ Committee in regard to the construction of a new management board for Lake Winnipeg; The Lake Winnipeg Fishery Resource Management Board. The purpose of this board is to create a new type of management board for Lake Winnipeg. The board would be a single lake-wide management board which is forecast to be a more effective way to manage Lake Winnipeg. The idea is deemed unique as the board will have four fisher representatives sitting on the board so that recommendations about Lake Winnipeg, by this proposed management board, will include not only government representatives and experts but local fishers as well.
Who will be on this board? One fisher representative from each of the North Basin, the South Basin, the Channel Area and the Whitefish Fleet; two experts with scientific knowledge; Assistant Deputy Minister of Ecological Services (Manitoba Water Stewardship); Assistant Deputy Minister of Regional Operations (Manitoba Conservation) and one neutral chairperson. The fisher representatives are to be selected by the formation of sub-committees from each of the four fishing jurisdictions and these nine individuals are to comprise of the new board. In order for this to pass each of the Community Licensing Areas (14 in total) must sign the memorandum in order to come into effect. The initial response from the Fisher’s board was to reject the memorandum as the Fishers of Grand Rapids want to have a board specifically set up for the North Basin of Lake Winnipeg. No one seems to like the idea of someone from the south making decisions about the northern section of Lake Winnipeg, one board member said, “…it’s just more of the same.” The official vote from the Fisher’s was left until the end of the meeting during the Fisher’s only section of the agenda.
Next up was Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation. Freshwater Fish Marketing did a presentation to the community that included production numbers from the year before, improvements to their processing facility, and the set prices for the upcoming fishing season. David Northcott began by giving the total production numbers for the 2009/2010 season. The overall production numbers presented by Fresh water was a total production of 12,552,000 kgs with nearly half or 5,370,000 kgs coming from Lake Winnipeg. David broke down the different fish species into individual categories and discussed the current market value of each type. Competition from international markets was also discussed in relation to market availability and the forecast is that all of the quota allowed from Lake Winnipeg will have an available market; however at a reduced cost from last year. But what is the cost? That question was asked several times from the community during the presentation.
The cost, what affects it? The number one thing that affects the price of fish is the exchange rate of the US dollar. The example given to show the change in the price of fish was a comparison from 2001 until the present. In 2001 a 6-8 oz pickerel was sold from Freshwater for $5 US; when converted it would yield $8 Canadian. Today, even though the market value has been raised to $7.50 per kg, when converted at par, the value remains only $7.50 Canadian. As a result of the strong Canadian dollar Freshwater states that they have a deficit of 5, 500,000 dollars over last year with the loss of the exchange rate benefit; unfortunately this money needs to come from somewhere. In an attempt to help improve returns Freshwater discussed equipment upgrades to help save on labour and peak loading of fish, as well as investigating new markets like “Fish on a Stick” at the Minnesota Twins new baseball stadium. But what is the price that the Fishers will get for their fish?
Freshwater concluded their presentation with the 2010/2011 fish prices. Walleye, Sauger, Pickerel and Mullet have all gone down in price. Specifically pertinent to Grand Rapids and Misipawistik Cree Nation are the changes in Whitefish prices. While the price for small and medium Whitefish, $1.05 and $1.58 respectively, have not changed, the price of the larger fish have decreased, large Whitefish fell from $1.78 to $1.70 and Jumbo Whitefish fell from $2.35 to $2.00 per kg paid to the fisher. These lower prices have a huge effect on the income of the fisher with the potential of losing approximately $2000 from their bottom line ($0.35 x 6000 kgs quota).
“The price of fish is going to be hard on fishers”. That was the opening line of the Fisher’s only section of the meeting. To try to help the fisher, the Co-op was able to give one net to each of the fishers to try and help cut the costs of the upcoming season. The vote on the MOU was next on the agenda and it was unanimously rejected by the Fishers as they do not believe that decisions about the North basin should be made by those in the south. The plan is to hold out for a North basin committee; discussion then turned to how to set up this committee and what this committee will entail. The meeting was called to an end with a prayer and a moment of silence for the Fishers lost in the previous season.
There are still many questions in regard to the situation in which the Fishers find themselves. What kind of pull do we have? What will we get out of this? Why is it always the Fisher losing money? Does the wage of the C.E.O. of Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation go down the same as the Fisher? How long can we operate our Fish Station due to the poor fish prices we are facing? These are questions that I hope to help the Fishers of northern Manitoba answer. By working with the Fishers it will be an opportunity for them to tell their stories and present their ideas on how to best change the current system so that it better addresses the needs of the Fishers and their families in northern communities.
Dean Rennie is a Masters student at the University of Manitoba.