A group of about 35 western Manitoba fishers demonstrated in front of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp.'s Transcona plant Monday, protesting the federal agency's seizure last week of mullet destined for Illinois.
A spokeswoman for WMM Fisheries Co-operative Ltd. said the protest was an act of desperation.
"We are not happy to be doing this," said Amanda Stevenson, a fisher from Lundar. "We would much rather be in a our boats fishing, but it's a matter of survival."
The issue at stake is the ability of the group to manage its own export customers.
Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. has the mandate to buy all of the freshwater fish caught in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and then sell it into the export market.
But the FFMC will issue export permits under certain conditions.
One of those conditions is that the export permit holders cannot sell to FFMC's own export customers.
For some time, local fishers have been critical of FFMC's track record of pricing and sale of species other than the highest value ones like pickerel and whitefish.
WMM (which stands for Lake Winnipegosis, Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin) members catch a lot of mullet and successfully applied for an export permit last year.
It found a customer called Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Ill., that would pay the co-op twice as much for mullet as the FFMC. Since December 2010, it has shipped 340,190 kilograms of mullet to Schafer.
The problem is that Schafer sells some of its minced mullet to the same kosher fish company in New York that FCM sells to.
John Wood, CEO of FFMC, said they had no choice.
"Essentially they went fishing without a licence, and they had their hand smacked for it," he said. "They had an export licence, but they lost that by violating the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act."
Stevenson said her group took a calculated risk in attempting to make a shipment of mullet to Illinois after they lost their licence last month.
But Manitoba Conservation, which acts on behalf of the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans, seized a trailer of mullet last Friday at Duck Bay on Lake Winnipegosis.
"We figured we'd try to ship anyway because we have to get public awareness," she said. "We have to show both the federal and provincial governments how very important this is to the survival of our communities and our industry. That's what we did."
She said they are lobbying Manitoba Conservation to allow for a dual market in Manitoba.
Wood said the FFMC has been working with the group for two years to try to come to some sort of middle ground.
The FFMC has recently implemented a two-tier pricing scheme that will pay premium prices up to a certain volume.