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Gut the federal fish marketing board

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In what may be the final nail in the coffin of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Board's existence, both the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives and the federal Conservative party have passed resolutions to end this Crown corporation's monopoly.

A once thriving commercial fishing industry began to collapse in the late 1960s when the federal government determined fishermen didn't have the ability to sell their own fish. It was the beginning of the end for thousands of fishermen as the government decided bureaucrats could do a better job at selling their fish.

The marketing board shut down and dismantled fish plants in communities across Western Canada to make way for a massive processing plant that was built in Transcona. Its mandate was to buy all the fish caught from the Northwest Territories to northwestern Ontario. Unfortunately, the government never took into consideration the huge transportation costs associated with getting the fish from rural and remote areas to their processing plant. The bureaucrats were not going to let a small thing like this get in their way, so they decided to charge the northern fishermen for the transportation of their fish to Transcona.

Compounding the transportation costs with the low prices paid for the fish, the northern fishermen soon learned the only species of fish that could be transported with a meagre profit was pickerel. This meant all other species were to be thrown away. Millions of pounds of fish are left to rot every year on the shores of our lakes and rivers.

With their processing plants in ruins, and laws put in place forbidding them to sell their own catch, the welfare cheque soon replaced the paycheque. At the end of the day, these northern communities (mostly aboriginal) lost everything. They lost their way of life, their fish processing plants, jobs and their traditional markets in Canada and United States.

With the northern fisheries all but out of the way, the bureaucrats now focused on what was in close proximity to their plant in Transcona. They found it in the southern basin of Lake Winnipeg. As luck would have it, this area was teeming with pickerel and only a short hour or so away from Transcona. Transportation costs were down to pennies per pound for these fishermen while northern fishermen were forced to pay upwards of a dollar a pound to transport the same fish.

Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship published A Profile of Manitoba's Fishery, which describes this story in numbers -- and numbers don't lie. Between 2001-02 and 2010-11 approximately 200 commercial fishermen hung up their nets and quit fishing. The reason for such an exodus was the average fisherman's income dropped from $17,417 to $10,998 in the same period. The northern fishermen's income dropped even further to $5,699. As Ron McDonald, the former chairman of the federal standing committee on fisheries and oceans, once stated, the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act is "legislative poverty."

The marketing board's 2013 annual report has just been released and again shows this marketing board sinking into an abyss. In its 10-year summary (2004-2013), the board processed seven million fewer pounds of fish and paid the fishermen $7 million less than 10 years earlier.

It gets worse. They dug themselves further in debt by borrowing another $6 million this year. The Canadian government guarantees this Crown corporation's loans which are now at a staggering $27.2 million.

If there was ever a time to fish or cut bait, it is now. Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs to hold a vote on this issue in the House of Commons and give our fishermen the same freedom he gave our wheat farmers.


Kim Sigurdson is CEO of Aboriginal Cogeneration Corp.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2013 A17

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