In fact, this move by the federal government may revitalize the Indigenous commercial fisheries in the northern part of the province.
Manitoba commercial fishers sell about $60 million worth of fish annually. It’s a profitable business.
Manitoba was the last province to withdraw from the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act, which required 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. Only the Northwest Territories remains in the agreement.
FFMC provided a guaranteed customer base because the corporation purchased all fish commercially caught. 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 75 to 80 per cent of 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 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.
There’s considerable interest from Indigenous organizations. The Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF) reportedly gave the fledgling co-op $100,000 to help with startup costs.
MMF president David Chartrand 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. 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.
Manitoba fishers believe 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 had 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 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.
Discontinuing FFMC should mean a renaissance for commercial fisheries in Manitoba. No one should doubt their ability to do well.
Joseph Quesnel is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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