Henry Traverse is a proud Anishinabe, a family man, a commercial fisher and what most people would call a “traditionalist.” The Anishinabe are the-third largest Indian tribe in North America — only the Cherokee and Navajo are larger in population.
For thousands of years, fish has been a principal food of the Anishinabe. They would preserve the fish by smoking or salting them. Like all other indigenous people, they utilized the whole fish; nothing went to waste.
Henry and his family live on a small reserve on the northwest side of Lake Winnipeg called Kinonjeoshtegon First Nation (formerly Jackhead). It is a fishing community with a population of approximately 700 people. Like his ancestors before him, Henry is commercial fisher who plies the northern part of Lake Winnipeg for fish. And like those before him, he provides for his family and community the only way he knows — living off the land, or the water in his case.
He, like so many other native fishers, can no longer provide sustenance for his family. It isn’t for lack of a strong work ethic: They are up early every morning and fishing on the lake whether it’s plus 30 degrees in the summer or minus 30 degrees in the winter.
It isn’t the lack of fish, as there has been an abundance of pickerel being harvested in this lake over the past few years.
The reason is that he and more than 100 commercial fishers in northern Manitoba are being charged for fishing a species of fish out of quota — pickerel! Whether it is a fine or a few days in jail, most of these impoverished fishers can’t afford the consequences related to such charges.
The number of fishers being charged may seem high, but after speaking with an official at Manitoba Conservation, it turns out that it’s a typical year. In 2007, 130 fishers were charged, in 2006 nearly 100 and in 2005 it was 120 that were either charged or reprimanded.
The native fishers contend that if you set your nets fishing specifically for whitefish and the waters are teeming with pickerel, you are bound to catch pickerel. In this case, the pickerel are called “incidental catch.” Under normal conditions the incidental catch is usually made up of suckerfish, burbot and whitefish, which fishers are made to “bush.” This means they are brought to the shoreline and thrown to rot in the forest. Henry can’t understand why, with millions of people starving around the world, he is made to throw away a large portion of his catch. Some fishers estimate that millions of pounds are disposed of in this fashion annually because the Freshwater Fish Marketing Board will not pay the fishers enough to cover their operating and transportation costs. Compound this with the inept marketing by this federal Crown corporation, and more and more northerners are hanging up their nets for good.
Even Joe O’Connor, the head fish counter for the Province of Manitoba, empathizes with the challenges the fishers are facing with increasing operational costs.
Like every fish story, there is the one that got away — now these fishers are refusing to “bush” pickerel and want to sell it on the open market, which is offering a huge dollar these days. The prices for pickerel at Safeway in Winnipeg are $29.90 per kilogram and in Minneapolis it is hovering around $13.99 a pound.
A stark comparison is the price the Freshwater Fish Marketing Board is paying these fishers for a pound of whitefish, a meagre 82 cents.
As far as Henry is concerned, he and other fishers are not going to give up fishing without a fight. Last week, more than 50 commercial fishers from First Nations around Lake Winnipeg demonstrated in front of the Legislative Building to demand change in their fishery. This group of “concerned fishers” is growing and with it frustration at the bureaucracies that dictate to them how much a pound of fish is worth and, more importantly, what to throw away and what to keep.
It seems to be the Anishinabe way when something negative, such as the prospect of being fined or thrown in jail, comes along, they peacefully come together in numbers that reflect their resolve.
Kim Sigurdson is a former fish marketer who believes the FFMC’s monopoly should be broken.