Set Their Catches Free

Worth A Look, Agriculture, Frontier Centre

The Freshwater Fish Marketing Board may be cutting bait soon.

It appears that after what some would consider an eternity, the federal government may take away the monopoly the fish board exerts over the inland fishery.

This Crown corporation was created in the late 1960s to help fishers get a better price for their catch — at least that's what the government said. Its monopoly is almost half the size of Europe in area. It consumes a portion of northwestern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Commercial fishers living in this vast area must sell their catch to the fish board or find themselves standing in front of a judge.

A majority of the 2,000-plus fishers that feed this monopoly are aboriginal descendants of those who began it all, trading fish among themselves thousands of years ago when you could drink water from our pristine lakes.

The commercialization of this industry began to grow when Europeans arrived. It became a major industry after highways were built linking the supply to the demand. Fishers and brokers made good money transporting millions of pounds of fish by truck to markets in Canada and the United States.

Small fish plants popped up along lakes and rivers throughout the North, employing thousands of people.

Though catching and processing fish was important, keeping the fish refrigerated and iced was essential to ensure a fresh, quality product. Workers would go out on the ice-covered lakes in the late winter and saw large blocks from the ice. These blocks of ice could weigh up to several hundred pounds. After hauling them off the lake, they would slide the blocks into a dugout and cover them with sawdust or leaves for insulation. Depending on how much ice was used, it could last well into the dog days of summer.

Surprisingly, the fish arrived in distant markets with more shelf life than it does today. The independent fish plants had good and bad years. Like any other private company, they persevered. Filleting or smoking fish brought more money then selling it whole. Products such as smoked Lake Winnipeg goldeye and smoked whitefish were in big demand at 'white tablecloth restaurants' in Chicago and New York.

Times were a-changing, however. In the 1950s and 1960s the federal and provincial governments were keen on setting up marketing boards or supply-management systems across Canada.

The Canadian Wheat Board was a prime example of what the fish board could be. Both have legislation that prohibits any of their farmers/fishers from selling their harvest to anyone but the government. Memberships are scattered across Western Canada, making it difficult to organize or bring change to this archaic legislation.

The fish board's single selling desk concept, while eliminating competition, has failed to improve financial returns to the fishers or provide the needed innovation to survive in today's competitive marketplace.

Whitefish, the biggest catch by volume, has virtually stayed at the same price for more than 25 years — it sold for 86 cents a kilogram in May 1981 and 75 cents a kilogram this spring. Fishers, like everyone, are on the hook for soaring costs of gas, equipment and salaries for their workers. The opportunity to process and sell on the open market would certainly generate increased revenues.

And now there is news the federal government has commissioned a study into opening the board's monopoly to dual marketing. Some people may ask, 'How are we going to live without the marketing boards?'

In wheat board terms, you need only look to Ontario where farmers have never surrendered their right to choose and sell to the highest bidder. In the fish board terms, one need only look to the Great Lakes where the fishers sell to whom they choose. In many cases, the fishers and the processors work together to supply markets and share in the profits.

Or just look east over the Manitoba border. There, fishers between Kenora and Thunder Bay successfully petitioned the government to be freed from the reach of the fish board.

Karl and Ralph Hale, who own and operate a small fishery in Eagle Lake, Ont., have been selling fish on the open market for more than 30 years. They sell some of their catch semi-processed to buyers in the United States and eastern Ontario. The rest is processed into fresh and frozen boneless fillets. Their market for this quality product is right in their own backyard.

They sell directly to the fishing and hunting lodges for weekly fish fries and, of course, to the American tourists who want to take some home.

The fish board's epitaph will not be long on words as it failed to meet the most fundamental principals in marketing fish. You must sell a fresh, quality product and pay your workers (fishers) a good return for their catch.

This is something private fish buyers and processors knew all along — their reputations depended on it. Their processing plants were at the source, beside the lakes and rivers in which the fishers caught their fish. They were filleted, packaged and transported within hours of being caught. One would only have to enjoy a shore lunch to know the difference between fresh fish and dated fish.

The fish board believed in centralization, one large plant, one selling desk. A clear example of what's wrong is how much time it takes for the fish board to get its fish from the lake to the consumer's plate.

A fisher in Hay River, N.W.T., brings his catch in at the beginning of the week. It's graded, boxed and iced, which can take a day or two. It is then transported by truck nearly 2,500 kilometres to Winnipeg, which can take another couple of days. Unfortunately, this fish is not received in the major cities until the following Monday. At this point, the fish is a week old. Are you starting to smell something fishy?

It will take another couple of days to be distributed to supermarkets and restaurants by wholesalers. The 'fresh' fish now is at least 10 days old.

After close to 40 years of existence, the fish board, with all its legislation, monopolistic powers and centrally located fish plant, cannot deliver fresh fish nor can it provide a decent return for its fishers.