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Fishing for a better deal

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The problems that have plagued the freshwater fish industry for the past three years can be solved. All that is required is for the different sides in this dispute to show a little flexibility and deal with the reality of fishing as it exists in Manitoba.

Fishers from the Interlake area (Lake Manitoba, Lake Winnipegosis, Lake St. Martin) say they cannot make a decent living for the prices they are paid from the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, which has a monopoly to sell all commercial freshwater fish caught in Manitoba. The co-operative representing many of these fishers believes the FFMC spends too much on high management salaries, exorbitant marketing costs, "Cadillac" pensions and unionized wages.

FFMC, denying those claims, says if the co-op doesn't like the markets it provides for the Interlake fish, they can obtain an export dealer's licence (EDL) and find their own buyers, so long as they aren't customers of the FFMC.

The co-op found markets that pay fishers better prices than the FFMC but the whole deal fell apart over charges the co-op was selling to FFMC customers. The FFMC had the power to confiscate the fish and all that was gained was an understanding that the EDL program is unworkable.

Meanwhile, fishers on Lake Winnipeg and in northern Manitoba lakes remained quite content with the existing system, although many also expressed concerns about the high overhead costs of the FFMC. These fishers worry if the FFMC is not in place, it could be complicated and disruptive to develop a new system.

Interlake fishers have arranged for resolutions to be passed at various Conservative gatherings and lobbied the Harper government to table a bill which would allow dual marketing. They have not received the active support of their fellow fishers from Lake Winnipeg and the north because of misinformation the FFMC would be dismantled. This is not the case and definitely not what the co-op is asking for.

What everybody seems to be ignoring is the simple fact fishers from different areas of Manitoba catch different species of fish, and what works for the fishers from one area doesn't work for the fishers from another.

Fishers on Lake Winnipeg and in northern Manitoba catch mainly pickerel and whitefish, which fetch high prices. A typical fisher on Lake Winnipeg can catch up to 680 kilograms of pickerel per day while the Interlake fishers will catch about 90 kg to 140 kg of pickerel daily. The majority of their catch is the less desirable species of rough fish which must be sorted out and most often discarded. The Interlake fishers face tremendous hardship if there is no market that can pay them a good price for most of their catch.

The co-op claims the overhead of the FFMC can be absorbed in the high prices the market provides for pickerel and whitefish, but doesn't allow it to process lower-priced fish at a profit. The co-op was able to pay fishers almost twice as much for their rough fish when they explored a dual marketing system through the flawed EDL system.

The FFMC begs to differ but price lists don't lie.

And there is your problem (and solution). The system should be tweaked to account for these differences.

The FFMC has taken the rigid position its monopoly cannot be changed; the co-op wants dual marketing but the FFMC fears that could create price wars when it comes to the lucrative pickerel and whitefish markets.

Why can't we just be flexible and allow the Interlake fishers to find their own markets for rough fish only?

The issue is hung up in politics and ideology. Conservative MP James Bezan is sponsoring a bill for dual marketing, NDP MP Niki Ashton is fighting it and the provincial NDP government wants to protect the unionized jobs at the processing plant in Transcona.

All we need to do is recognize the difference in the catch available from the different lakes in Manitoba. All too often, millions of tons of rough fish end up discarded. So even a change that allows the Interlake fishers to develop their own markets for species other than pickerel and whitefish is reasonable.

Word is there are good markets in Asia for rough fish and the Chinese won't pay what the FFMC wants to charge -- but will offer a price the fishers can accept.

There you go.

The overhead at FFMC eliminates them from selling certain fish, so let's open it up for the fishers who catch that particular fish.


Don Marks is the editor of Grassroots News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2014 A9

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