Some Manitoba fishers are arguing the federal government funnelling $62.5 million to the fish and seafood sector will not keep their heads above water given the “catastrophic” spring season.
The new Canadian seafood stabilization fund announced Saturday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not geared toward helping harvesters, according to three commercial fishers who agree the bulk of it will instead go to processors to help them protect workers and comply with health guidelines in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It won’t buy a lot of masks and freezers,” said Bill Buckles.
Furthermore, the local fisherman said it does little to help northern communities and others in Manitoba who primarily catch and sell pickerel — known as walleye elsewhere in Canada.
“We would just be putting fish into a freezer to be discarded” or sold at a lower cost, he said.
In an interview after the announcement on Saturday, the president of Pioneer Commercial Fishers of Manitoba, a lobbyist group, described a situation in the Prairie province that is “different” from coastal provinces and territories.
Einar Sveinson said freezers in Manitoba are bursting with pickerel, yet sales of it are down 98 per cent.
“With Lent, and everything that’s going on, all those sales got sent back, if not cancelled, so that put our industry in a bad spot,” he said, adding that processing companies are currently rejecting pickerel.
Some fish such as carp, suckers and pike will continue to be accepted, although Sveinson, a commercial harvester based in Gimli, Man., said “there’s really nothing left” by the time northern communities add up the costs of packing, administering and transporting those varieties.
With public health orders directing the public to limit gatherings, close restaurants and stay home, the food system has been disrupted. In a letter to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, dated April 25, Sveinson asked for an increase in aid to inland individuals and communities whose livelihoods depend on fishing.
Sveinson said in an interview he hopes the federal department will consider paying them not to fish for a year.
He suggested commercial fishers should receive $2 per pound for a quota.
“To let us go ahead and fish would actually negatively affect our market for the next three to four years,” he said.
Easing the line
Vince Crate, who fishes in the northern basin of Lake Winnipeg, said a pay-not-to-fish plan could keep commercial fishers like him afloat.
At approximately 8,400 pounds per quota, he estimated his income would work out to “around the same” as he would make after paying out his expenses for a season.
Crate said he cannot afford to go out on the water this spring if the buyers are not purchasing the main products.
As a band councillor for Fisher River Cree Nation, which handles about 150 commercial fishing licenses, he said the provincial government cannot provide licenses then leave fishers to “fend for themselves” and the federal government needs to do more.
Crate sits on the board for the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, a federal Crown corporation with headquarters in Winnipeg, which buys, processes and markets freshwater fish. It is one of three major processors that gets products from fishers in Manitoba onto the plates of consumers.
“The restaurant and hospitality industry is being impacted particularly hard, resulting in a global collapse of the food-service supply chain,” reads a letter to stakeholders from Stan Lazar, president of the Crown corporation, on April 20.
According to the federal fisheries department website, Manitoba created an open market when it withdrew from the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act, and now Crate says buyers who not obligated to buy are opting out of unfavourable offers.
“If there’s no market, none of the fishers in Manitoba are going to make any money,” he said.
“The fishers will be in for some tough times.”