Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fish marketer going the way of the wheat board?

Monopoly of fish board undercut as feds, province refuse to enforce

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Manitoba fishers are breaking the law by marketing their own fish, in violation of federal statute that no one now wants to enforce.

Next week, I too will illegally send a load of fish to the United States. This market is by far the largest and most lucrative to market our fish in and the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. does not want anyone, including me, competing with them.

Most folks would think twice about doing this, but like those fishers, I know no one will charge me.

After notifying almost every federal and provincial politician in Manitoba, as well as the folks who are supposed to enforce these laws, a group of commercial fishers recently drove over the Saskatchewan border and broke the law by delivering a load of fish to a food bank in Yorkton. Ironically, no one showed up to charge them.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which oversees the fish board, will not enforce these laws as they state the Province of Manitoba, in particular Conservation and Water Stewardship, should being doing it. After speaking with Manitoba Conservation, I realize they want no part of enforcing these federal laws and will not charge anyone exporting fish to the U.S.

It seems odd that the federal government would allow us to break the law with impunity, but nothing seems to make sense when it comes to the fish board and their monopoly. Although it has the same type of monopoly as the Canadian Wheat Board had, the farmers always got something back for their harvest. On the other hand, the fish board doesn't pay for all the fishers catch, though by law they are supposed to.

The board offers prices so low that the fee for transporting the fish to their processing plant in Winnipeg costs more than the fish itself. This is another burden for the northern fishers as they have farther to transport their fish and are charged more for the hauling. More times than not, pickerel is the only fish worth sending to the fish board and the remaining millions of pounds of trout, whitefish and other species are either dumped back in the lake or left to rot on the shoreline.

It seems only right that the fishers should have the same freedom as the farmers but nothing these days is making too much sense in Ottawa.

The vast majority of fishers in the northern reaches of our province are represented by Churchill MP Niki Ashton, a New Democrat who is rather mute on the fish board. Alternatively there is Robert Sopuck, a Conservative MP, who is down in the southern part of Manitoba and appears to support the board. For this reason, a number of fishers have protested in front of his constituency office. They view him as the major obstacle to the removal of the board's monopoly. Ashton must be laughing at this spectacle as there is no love lost between her and Sopuck.

If that isn't enough, the NDP sent Peter Stoffer, a Nova Scotia MP and former fisheries critic, to speak at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg last week. You guessed it: his speech was about the demise of the fish board.

The reason why the fishers are protesting goes back about a year ago. They had found a market for suckerfish, a species the board either paid them little for, or made them throw away because of their inept marketing. The fishers had to fight tooth and nail for a Special Dealers Licence, which is a convoluted document the board created to allow fishers to sell their catch directly to a fish buyer.

If anyone can sell something called a suckerfish, they have to be good. Business was great and the fishers received twice the price that the board had paid them in the past, but like all good things, it ended too soon. With the suckerfish going out and the money coming in, the bureaucrats at the board decided to shut down their operation and charged them with violating their Special Dealers Licence. Whether it was out of spite or just mean-spirited, this was the last time anyone was charged for selling fish to the United States.

The basis behind these charges was that a small amount of suckerfish sold to the American fish buyer was allegedly resold to a customer the board claimed as their own.

If this wasn't so tragic it would be funny as the fishers now have to take the money they made from selling the suckerfish and use it for their defence in court.

In the end we have the fishers more confused than ever as the Conservatives support a marketing board while the NDP wants to trash it.

Go figure.

 

Kim Sigurdson is CEO of Aboriginal Cogeneration Corp.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2012 A9

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