From Fish Marketing to Co-op

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

Many people expected that the end of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC) monopoly would lead to a disaster in Manitoba. It has not–fortunately.

In fact, this move by the government may re-vitalize the Indigenous commercial fisheries in the northern part of the province.

Manitoba commercial fishers sell about $60 million worth of fish annually. It is a very profitable business.

Manitoba was one of the last provinces to withdraw from the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act which forced freshwater fishers to sell their fish through the centralized marketing board. Indigenous Fishers in Manitoba, northwestern Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories had to sell their fish exclusively through the FFMC. Currently, only the Northwest Territories remains in the agreement.

FFMC gave fishers a guaranteed customer base because the corporation purchased all fish commercially caught. The FFMC also set prices ahead of time so commercial fishers knew the value of their catches before they put their boats in the water.

Northern fishers are predominantly First Nations and Metis. They made up about 75 to 80 percent of the FFMC’s fishers.

For years, northern fishers complained about the centralization of FFMC’s processing plant in Winnipeg and its terrible job at marketing some fish species, called “rough fish” (carp and mullet). Due to FFMC’s regulations and its monopolistic control, fishers saw their opportunities, especially in China pass them by. Northern fishers complained that FFMC was more interested in selling and marketing pickerel caught mainly in Lake Winnipeg than in selling other fish caught elsewhere.  

But, now there are positive signs that fishers are adjusting to the changes. Very recently about 100 commercial fishers met in Winnipeg to discuss how they can form a co-operative.

Already, there is considerable interest from Indigenous organizations. The Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF) reportedly gave the fledgling co-op $100,000 in seed money to help with start-up costs.

The MMF President said the Federation has already been approached by delegates from China who want to purchase Manitoba fish.

He told the Winnipeg Free Press that “China is running short [of fish for food]. They can’t sustain what they need for the Chinese population from the ocean. So, we can be the fish farm to the world. We have 100,000 lakes.”

Northern Indigenous fishers said that the centralization of fish processing in Winnipeg meant the loss of processing jobs in the North. As a result, the Norway House Fisherman’s Co-op, the largest single commercial fishing operation in Manitoba, supported the end of the FFMC monopoly. This could mean increased interest in expanding processing operations – with more jobs – into the north.

Choices in marketing continues to be popular among Manitoba fishers because they believed in their ability to process and market fish, as well as their co-op’s ability to develop new value-added products and new markets. The fishers felt that a centralized marketing board lacked the dynamism to adapt to new market realities. Also, with the advent of the internet and a more highly educated workforce, fishers and co-ops could easily find markets.

No wonder, fishers in Manitoba, Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories withdrew from FFMC.

This is not the first time naysayers who oppose marketing choice predicted doom and gloom and were proven wrong.

Hog producers in Manitoba used to have a single desk marketing authority until the late 1990s. The Manitoba government discontinued the Board and allowed direct sales between producers and processors. Hog farmers survived and have emerged in a strong position with more hog production than ever.

A more prominent example was the end of the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly. Wheat farmers were divided over that issue, but they have adapted to the new market reality.  Canada continues to be the sixth-largest wheat grower in the world.  In the end, discontinuing the FFMC in Manitoba will, hopefully, mean a renaissance for commercial fisheries. No one should doubt their ability to do well.