Fishers who catch walleye in North America's first certified-sustainable lake are frustrated they can't yet sell their new, premium product on the U.S. market.
Earlier this summer, the Marine Stewardship Council declared the walleye and northern pike fishery on Manitoba's Waterhen Lake the first sustainable freshwater fishery in the western hemisphere -- and only the second in the world, after a lake in Sweden.
Lorne Huhtala, president of the Lake Waterhen Fishermen's Association, claimed the federal Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation and Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship are holding off on approving an export permit for the walleye, which could command a higher price than walleye from non-certified fisheries.
"When you do a lot of work and you get kicked in the butt, you don't feel very good," said Huhtala, who represents 22 fishers who deploy gillnets during the winter in and around Waterhen Lake, an Interlake body of water located 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.
Huhtala said the Waterhen fishers, most of whom are indigenous, spent seven years on the certification, which they pursued as a means of generating more revenue and convincing young Interlake residents to continue fishing as an occupation.
Huhtala said he believes certified-sustainable walleye, a species known colloquially as pickerel, could be sold for $15 a kilogram to U.S. buyers. The Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation FFMC, which purchases most freshwater fish caught in Manitoba, pays $4.10 a kilogram for walleye, Hutala said.
Huhtala said he has discussed walleye sales to The Fish Guys, a Minneapolis-based distributor also certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international body that employs biologists to determine whether fisheries are environmentally sound.
Brent Casper, The Fish Guys' owner and founder, said he would be "very interested" in purchasing certified-sustainable walleye from Waterhen. The volume of fish produced each winter would be a good fit for his operation, Casper said
He described his talks with the Waterhen fishers as preliminary and subject to Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation approval.
"It's kind of a puzzling thing. It just dropped off the face of the map," Casper said.
Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh said the province fully supports the certification of the Waterhen Lake fishery and insisted no level of government opposes the walleye exports.
The Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, which oversees the purchase, processing and export of Manitoba-caught fish, merely found the Waterhen application of an export licence incomplete, Mackintosh said.
"We'll stick our noses in to see how helpful we can be in completing it," Mackintosh said. "Eco-certification was a huge, important step forward, but it has to work on the ground."
FFMC is developing a chain-of-custody process that would ensure sustainably caught Waterhen walleye is kept separate from other fish handled by the Crown corporation, said Bill Galbraith, fisheries manager for Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship.
The Waterhen fishers, however, want to sell their product directly to the U.S. market. Huhtala claims sustainable walleye is a new product and thus should not be required to be sold through the Crown corporation.
"They're just going to step on us. When we first started, they said it wouldn't work," he said.
The Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation did not respond to requests for comment. Mackintosh said the Crown corporation's board will consider the Waterhen application.
"We want to see FFMC exercise greater flexibility when it comes to export dealers' licences," the minister said.
FFMC has in the past insisted upon single-desk marketing.