Interlake fishers trying to team up

Executive members of the WMM Fisheries Co-operative paid a visit to fishers of Lake Winnipeg, inviting them to a meeting in Riverton on Aug. 25 to discuss the issues around the marketing of freshwater fish in the province.
Fewer than 50 fishers were in attendance, but the meeting was well-attended by members of the Progressive Conservative and New Democrat political parties, many of whom took the opportunity to weigh in on the issues raised by the co-op.
The WMM Fisheries Cooperative Ltd., based out of Lundar, is headed up by Amanda Stevenson, President, with Frank Kenyon, as Vice-President, and Brandy Harding serving as General Manager. This family fishes on Lake Manitoba, but have long been discontent with having to market their fish through the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC), the crown corporation that was established by fishers in the late 1960s to empower them to get fairer market prices for their fish.
They are not alone in their dissatisfaction. Many fishers on Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin and other lakes have joined the co-op, whose board and membership are comprised solely of fishers. The co-op is seeking changes in how fish may be marketed in the province. Currently the Freshwater Fish Marketing Board works on behalf of Manitoba’s fishers to sell fish. They in turn must sell only through the marketing board, except in the case where a license to sell fish outside the FFMC’s markets has been obtained.
The co-op arose out of the need to address some fishers’ plight for survival. Fishers on Lake Manitoba, Lake St. Martin and others, suffer as a result of market price differences between various species of fish. The FFMC successfully markets Pickerel and Whitefish, obtaining good prices for those fishing on the south basin of Lake Winnipeg. However, other species of fish, including Mullet and Pike, do not fetch the same high market price. Unfortunately for those not fishing on Lake Winnipeg’s south basin, lesser-valued species are in abundance in their waters.
Fishers in the western part of the province, therefore, are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to making a living. This was the reason the WMM Fisheries Co-operative got started. The members needed to find another way to market fish so that the species lining their nets could bring in a liveable wage.
The co-op lobbied to get a five-year export license to sell headless Mullet to non-FFMC markets.
“We were successful,” said Stevenson. “On Dec. 2 we started shipping.”
After successfully marketing three-quarters of a million pounds of headless Mullet, and bringing in $500,000 in revenue which doubled the fishers’ income, their export license was abruptly cancelled.
“We thought we were following the rules…there’s no way to know where the fish goes once they are sold to processors,” said Stevenson. “It was arbitrary. No proof was required.”
The co-op membership has responded with a challenge to FFMC, endeavouring to draw in support for a dual-marketing system in which fishers may either opt in or opt out of the FFMC. Furthermore, about 90 per cent of the co-op members want dual marketing for all fish species.
“Many are of the mind that the legislation, both federal and provincial, needs to be changed…We’ve taken a vote, and our members are fully in support of dual marketing,” said Harding. “Dual marketing, especially of the non-quota species, is required to make a viable living. They’re not being marketed properly (by the FFMC).”
In support, Stevenson cited that FFMC lost $300,000 last year on Mullet, in contrast to their co-op’s success in bringing in a sizable profit of $30,000 on the species.
The idea of dual marketing has received opposition from fishers who rely primarily on Pickerel and White Fish, and who are the winners within the current system. However, Stevenson and Kenyon argued that the FFMC are not bringing in prices nearly what they could be on the world market, for multiple reasons, including money-wasting inefficiencies in the system.
“How do you know you’re going to be better off?” Kenyon asked FFMC supporters. He argued that an efficiently run co-op could do better.
This question has lead some to the call for an independent third party review of FFMC, an idea supported by both the New Democrats and the Conservatives. The difference between the parties appears to be that the New Democrats support the current single desk system, likening it to the Canadian Wheat Board, while the conservatives would consider a dual marketing system, potentially.
“Freshwater’s mandate is to maximize returns to all fishers, not just those who catch certain species,” said Stevenson. “We know many of you fishermen in the south basin are very comfortable with the fish marketing board, but should all fishers be tied to it if it is only working for some?”

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About Teresa

Teresa Carey is a ceramic artist, writer, photographer, journalist, publisher and nature lover. She lives in Manitoba's Interlake on a small acreage close to the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

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