A growing dispute over the right of Manitoba fishers to sell fish outside a government-created monopoly ended up in court Monday.
Amanda Stevenson, president of WMM Fisheries Co-operative Ltd., and the organization itself were each fined $2,000 Monday afternoon after pleading guilty to one count of selling fish to the U.S. without an export licence.
Stevenson said the sale was an act of civil disobedience, to protest the monopoly held by the Winnipeg-based Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. (FFMC).
'Why are we treated differently because of where we live?'
But provincial court Judge Dale Schille said it was obvious the fishers were trying to make a huge profit.
Court was told the WMM co-op, which represents about 300 fishers in the areas of Duck Bay, Lundar, Ashern and Lake Winnipegosis, had obtained a licence in December 2010 to sell fish to the U.S. independent of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. -- so long as it wasn't competing with the monopoly for customers.
The co-op found a customer in Chicago, a fish processing plant, but unknown to the co-op, the processing plant was then reselling the co-op's fish to another customer in New York, which happened to be an existing customer of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp.
Court was told the co-op was instructed to stop selling to the Chicago processor but continued to do so and its licence was subsequently revoked in June 2011. The co-op decided to continue selling to the Chicago processor, which resulted in one of its shipments being seized in July 2011. The sales involved a total of 11,781 kilograms of headless, dressed mullets.
Stevenson and the co-op were originally charged with three counts of selling without a licence but the other two charges were stayed once they pleaded guilty to the one charge.
About 50 fishermen took in the afternoon proceedings to show support for the co-op and Stevenson. Earlier, the fishermen had gathered in front of the Manitoba Legislative Building to protest the monopoly held by FFMC.
Co-op lawyer Kenneth Young asked Schille to consider the sales as an act of civil disobedience and impose a minimum fine of $500.
Young said losing the export licence resulted in most of the 300 fishers and another 100 helpers losing their livelihoods, with most of them going on social assistance.
Schille said the co-op stood to make over $300,000 with its illegal sales, compared to about $130,000 if the fish had been sold to the marketing corporation. He said the $2,000 fine was appropriate.
Outside court, Stevenson said the marketing corporation's monopoly is outdated and is financially hurting fishers in Manitoba. She said FFMC pays the fishers less than 50 per cent of what they can make if they sold their catch on their own.
Stevenson said fishers in Ontario, B.C. and the East Coast are free to sell fish to whomever they want and fishers in Manitoba deserve the same right.
"Why are we treated differently because of where we live?" Stevenson said.
Stevenson compared the co-op's battle with the farmers who challenged the monopoly once held by the Canadian Wheat Board, adding she is confident the federal government will eventually break the monopoly held by the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp.
As she left the courtroom, a grizzled fisherman slipped Stevenson a $50 bill to help cover her fine. Stevenson said members of the co-op will cover her fine and the co-op's fine as well.