Fish Story – The Federal Fish Marketing Corporation

Commentary, Marketing Boards, Frontier Centre

The reasoning behind "single-desk" marketing has always seemed fishy, but the latest follies at the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation confirm that the enterprise has more to worry about than foul odors.

One of the arguments proffered in defence of government-sponsored monopolies goes like this. Only central control over the supply and distribution of vital national goods and services — things like wheat, first-class mail, local telephone hook-ups, education and medical care — can ensure quality and reliable delivery. To boot, running things this way will ensure equity, efficiency and prosperity for producers.

And the moon is made of green cheese. Considering actual experience, it's fair to say that each of these industries has had real problems in achieving all, or even any, of those goals. The quality, price and availability of these goods and services-and of many others that have fallen into the trap of single-provider control-have become political footballs instead.

The FFMC's main virtue from its inception thirty years ago has been its high standards. Its customers could reliably expect to receive a quality product. Not any more. A Winnipeg fish store recently sent a load of rotten whitefish back to the plant, which has a monopoly on marketing the Prairies and Northwest Territories catch. The store turned to an aboriginal supplier in Ontario and was rewarded with fresh fish at almost half the price charged by the marketing board.

How about equity for the producers? When the FFMC centralized processing in its Winnipeg facility, it made 90% of the northern catch useless: high air-freight charges rendered shipping every kind of fish except pickerel uneconomic.

Prosperity? Unemployment in the aboriginal industry skyrocketed. The disemployed fishermen were consigned to the dead end of welfare and special subsidy programs. Those who work Manitoba's large southern lakes have fared better, but even they continue to peddle a large part of their catch on the black market.

How about efficiency? The Corporation was supposed to run at a cost of 4% of total sales. Instead, in some areas, the tab for administration amounts to 40%.

The FFMC became, like so many of its single-desk sisters, a politicized organization. Former MP Ron Fewchuk was installed as president even though his only other qualification was having worked in a bait-and-tackle shop as a teenager.

A House of Commons committee that reviewed the FFMC this year reports this week. If it has its way, sweeping changes will result. The NDP fisheries critic, Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer, puts it bluntly: "If heads need to roll, then let them roll."

A change of personnel won't do the job. The problems stem from the monopoly framework and its regimen of top-down management. The original purpose of the FFMC, Stoffer adds, "was to protect the small-town and aboriginal fishers from ruthless buyers." Since the Corporation has lost sight of that, he says, fishermen want to regain control of their catch.

That's the key to a sustainable freshwater fishery. In remote South Indian Lake, locals cite evidence that community revenue would go up $2 million a year if they were allowed to process and market their own catch.

It's hard to tell if the FFMC could survive in a competitive marketplace. It would be splendid if the public could recover its considerable investment by selling the corporation's fixed assets. But even if they have to be dumped at a loss, the gains to producers and consumers should more than cancel out the difference.

Another benefit: if the FFMC had to compete for its trade, it would be less likely to ship rotten fish.