Let Fishermen Off the Hook: Allow more marketing freedom

Commentary, Joseph Quesnel, Marketing Boards

With the Canadian Wheat Board changes, one wonders what will happen to other marketing monopolies, such as the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC).

By far, Manitoba represents the largest share of the FFMC, which is still the sole selling and marketing agency for commercial freshwater fish in Manitoba, Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

The problem with the FFMC is that selling prices have been declining for a while now with the value of the Canadian dollar and prices to fishers are declining due to rising transportation costs. Consequently, commercial fishing is disappearing in some areas.

The Frontier Centre for Public Policy just released a new study called Free to Fish: How a Freshwater Fish Monopoly is Impoverishing Aboriginal Fishers. It argues that the solution is to move toward much more marketing freedom for commercial fishers in the regions still under the FFMC monopoly.

Although it highlights how First Nations and Metis fishers are particularly affected by the FFMC, it shows how in general the monopoly is a problem for all Prairie fishers.

Northwestern Ontario left the monopoly in 2011 and Saskatchewan followed suit in 2012. The Northwest Territories is looking at leaving as well.

In the last provincial election, the Manitoba PCs ran on a pledge to review the FFMC in Manitoba. With the NDP re-elected to a majority government, the question is will Manitoba withdraw as well?

Will the government trust its own commercial fishers to find their own markets and survive on their own as has been done in other provinces?

The Frontier Centre specifically looks at the total payments paid out to fishers under the FFMC as it operates under a pool system. The sad reality is that from 2001 to 2010, the total payments for all the fish species have been declining, with occasional spikes here and there.

When the FFMC was created in 1969 the market conditions were quite different. A commission of inquiry in 1965 observed that the export market was weak because there were too many exporters in Canada to counter control exercised by too few importers in the United States. Fishers were very dependent on buyers who supplied all the fishing equipment at the beginning of the year. But, they didn’t know what they would receive until the end of the year. The FFMC provided a way to ensure they were paid.

Fishers were often compared to “indentured servants” to the fish companies.

The eventual Freshwater Fish Marketing Act was set up and province voluntarily opted in through agreements and enabling legislation.

The problem now, however, is Prairie fishers are much more sophisticated and tech-savvy than in the past. They have access to new markets and opportunities. Many know that they can get better deals outside the FFMC for their fish, especially for certain species, such as carp and mullet and others, that the FFMC does not pay as much for. New emerging markets such as China are opening up and commercial fishers know about them.

Indigenous fishers are particularly affected because they tend to be located in northern locations that are far off from the FFMC’s Winnipeg-based plant. Often many fishers complain that the cost of transporting makes it not worth it to market their fish.

It’s time for Manitoba to take a serious look at how the FFMC may be harming their fishing communities.