The province and the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation have earned a federal rebuke over the decision to seize a shipment of U.S.-bound rough fish and lay charges against the fishers who attempted to export their catch.
Selkirk-Interlake MP James Bezan, a Conservative MP who represents approximately 1,200 Manitoba fishers, said he disapproves of actions taken by Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship and Freshwater Fish in the case against WMM Co-Op, a group of approximately 300 western Interlake fishers who attempted to export fish to the U.S. on their own.
The public criticism is among the first signs the Harper government may have an appetite to end Freshwater Fish's 44-year-old monopoly over the export of freshwater fish caught in Manitoba waters -- at least when it comes to rough fish such as mullet and carp, which command low or non-existent prices on the international market and are routinely dumped as wasted bycatch.
"I completely disagree with the course of action the FFMC and the province took there. I think that market should be made available to the fishers," Bezan said Tuesday in an interview from Victoria, B.C. "I think the argument Freshwater Fish makes is weak."
In 2011, Manitoba Conservation officers seized 7,700 kilograms of mullet and carp at a depot in Duck Bay, at Lake Winnipegosis. WMM Co-Op planned to sell the catch to Schafer Fisheries, an Illinois company that specializes in finding markets for low-value fish.
WMM Co-Op had already sold approximately 450,000 kilograms to Schafer under an export licence initially granted by Freshwater Fish, but cancelled after the Crown corporation learned some of the mullet was bound for one of its customers, a New Jersey gefilte fish processor.
WMM Co-Op's directors were charged under the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act. They've pleaded guilty and are awaiting an August court date.
Freshwater Fish president and CEO John Wood said earlier this month there was no choice but to charge the directors for violating the terms of the licence and the act. Although Freshwater Fish does not buy carp right now, it does pay a low price for mullet and the greater New York City market pays the highest price for the abundant species, formally known as white sucker.
The concern in Winnipeg is any reduction in the volume of fish processed at Freshwater Fish's Plessis Road plant will increase overhead, reduce profitability and ultimately deliver lower returns to fishers and taxpayers.
Bezan said he does not buy that argument when fishers aren't getting paid for the millions of kilograms of rough fish that are dumped on Manitoba lakes every year.
"FFMC isn't marketing those fish because the fishers aren't delivering them for the price they're buying them at," Bezan said. "If they don't become more flexible, the fishery is unsustainable."
The continuation of the status quo will lead so many fishers to quit the industry, Freshwater Fish will face dwindling supplies of the higher-value fish it successfully markets, such as walleye, sauger, yellow perch, northern pike and lake whitefish, said Bezan.
"Let Freshwater Fish do what they do well -- that is, take the higher-value fish -- and let the fishers find markets for the rough fish," he said. "We have to be a little more innovative and not be so narrow-minded in that we see ultimate control by the Crown corporation."
Saskatchewan, where fishers continue to sell to Freshwater Fish even though they no longer must do so, may be a model for Manitoba to pursue, he said.
Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh said the province supports the idea of dual marketing when it comes to rough fish -- up to a point.
"We have encouraged that FFMC exercise flexibility in terms of export licences to sell bycatch products," Mackintosh said Monday in an interview. "But that's with the expectation marketers observe the terms of the licences."