MAPLE BEACH — Early in the spring on the northeast corner of Lake Manitoba, commercial fisher Frank Kenyon spends an overcast morning pulling up two of the 45 gillnets he’s set below the ice of Portage Bay.
The first net is placed in less than three metres of water, only a few hundred metres from Maple Beach, a small cottage community best known as one of the many overcome by Lake Manitoba during the 2011 flood. Driving a pair of snow machines, towing a heated warm-up shack and small cargo sled, Kenyon and helper Randy Strawa head to a mound of ice that marks the near end of the net.
They use an auger to clear the hole of ice, release the net from its mooring and then drive off to the far end of the net, about a football field away. When the other end is free, the two north Interlake residents haul up a broad array of the fish that teem below the featureless surface of broad, shallow Lake Manitoba.
There are northern pike, the long, lean fish that are among the most widespread in the province, valued for their firm, sweet flesh. There are lake whitefish, which indigenous Manitobans and early settlers prized above all other creatures in the water as a source of sustenance. There are walleye, the most valuable commercial fish of all, known to Manitobans as pickerel and featured on restaurant menus across the U.S. Midwest.
But the most abundant fish caught in this particular gillnet is the white sucker, the edible but unloved creature commonly known in Manitoba as mullet. In this particular haul, there are as many mullet as all the other fish combined.
Working with small claw tools, Kenyon and Strawa remove each fish from the gillnets one by one. The walleye, pike and whitefish wind up in one pile, along with a few sauger and yellow perch. Their heads are cut off, their guts are stripped out and they’re placed in a hard plastic container full of ice.
The mullet are tossed into a separate pile, which Kenyon and Strawa ignore. When the fishers reset the net and drive off to the next hole, ravens will descend to consume a fish often discarded because they command too low a price to justify the cost of shipping them to Winnipeg for processing.
"How would you feel about your job if you had to throw away half of your work?" asks Kenyon, 64, a Fairford resident who’s been fishing on Lake Manitoba for 45 years. He has longish white hair, a craggy face and the sort of deep tan a Canadian can only obtain in March from being outside all winter. "We have so much natural resources in Manitoba and we just throw it all away."
Kenyon estimates he personally discards about 20,000 kilograms of so-called rough fish — that is, commercially unviable species — every winter season, which runs from the freeze-up in November until the end of March.
A lot of his discarded catch is mullet, which the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation will purchase, albeit at a low price. He also throws away freshwater drum, better known as sunfish or silver bass, as well as the invasive common carp. Both of these are also plentiful, edible species with little to no commercial value.
At a time when ocean fisheries around the world are struggling with dwindling fish stocks and concerns about a planetary protein deficit are beginning to mount, Manitoba is blessed with an abundance of edible and nutritious freshwater fish. Yet every year, commercial fishers across Manitoba discard an unknown quantity of fish — estimates range from millions of kilograms to tens of millions — either by leaving them on the ice for the ravens in the winter, tossing them back into the water for the gulls during the warmer months or simply allowing them to rot.
This waste of unwanted species, known as bycatch in the fishing industry, is common around the world. But an increasing emphasis on sustainability in the world’s fisheries is beginning to shine a spotlight on the wasteful practice in Manitoba, where bycatch is discarded mainly as the result of low or non-existent prices for all species except walleye, sauger, perch, whitefish and northern pike.
The precise quantification of the waste of bycatch is difficult, as that would require hundreds of Manitoba commercial fishers to keep track of how many fish they catch and throw away every time they pull up a gillnet. For now, provincial ecologists have no clear picture of the scale of the problem. But that’s changing with a push to eco-certify the fisheries in Manitoba lakes.
"We’re going to have to start looking at bycatch to get a better handle on what’s caught and what’s retained," said Brian Parker, fisheries director for Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship. "We are moving into an age when we are going to have to learn a lot more."
A pilot project on Waterhen Lake, where commercial fishers have been asked to keep track of numbers, may soon allow the fishery on this west Interlake body of water to obtain Manitoba’s first eco-certification. The long-term plan is for all Manitoba fisheries to obtain the same label, which offers buyers, processors and consumers the confidence their product was caught in a manner that doesn’t harm the environment.
"As more and more fisheries get eco-certified, if you don’t have that certification, you could be at a disadvantage," Parker said.
While that might sound simple, eco-certification has immense implications for the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, which buys, processes and exports the vast majority of fish caught in Manitoba lakes.
The Crown corporation, founded in 1969, is required to buy, process and market all the freshwater fish offered to it by fishers in Manitoba. In practice, it primarily purchases only a handful of commercially viable species, which are shipped to Winnipeg and processed at the corporation’s Plessis Road plant for the export market.
During the most recent fiscal year, Freshwater Fish bought six million kilograms of walleye and another 200,000 kilograms of sauger, which are filleted at the plant and sold as pickerel in Canada and walleye in the U.S. It also purchased 3.8 million kilograms of whitefish, 1.9 million kilograms of northern pike, 1.6 million kilograms of mullet, 300,000 kilograms of yellow perch and 500,000 kilograms of other fish.
These fish are sold whole, filleted or ground up into a minced product factories elsewhere will convert into fish balls or gefilte fish. The Crown corporation also sells whitefish and pike roe to the European caviar market.
But the specialization of the processing lines at the Plessis Road plant means only some of these species are processed in Winnipeg. Pike, whose skeletal structure differs greatly from walleye or whitefish, is frozen whole and shipped to China for deboning; it eventually winds up in markets in France and elsewhere in Europe. Perch, which only arrive in small quantities at the plant, are shipped out to a Wisconsin processor that specializes in the species.
Handling other species would pose not just technical but financial challenges for the Plessis Road operation, which Freshwater Fish president and CEO John Wood doesn’t like a to call a fish plant.
"I like to call this food-processing, not fish-processing. Food-processing is a high-technology, international business," he says on the floor of the plant, where $12 million has been spent in recent years on new equipment such as blast freezers.
Freshwater Fish, which also buys from fishers in Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, purchased $27.8 million worth of fish and made $66.7 million worth of sales in 2011-12 to buyers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Its operating costs include $10.9 million worth of salaries for hundreds of full- and part-time workers at the processing plant.
The key to the Crown corporation’s success is a large volume of fish of the same species and, ideally, size. "We’re taking an inconsistent product and trying to make it as consistent as we can," says Wood, explaining a restaurant chef likes to rely on walleye filets of the same size.
But this uniformity makes it difficult, if not impossible to expand to other species. For example, many chefs consider the finest-tasting fish in Manitoba to be the burbot, an abundant freshwater member of the cod family, more commonly known as mariah in Manitoba. Although plentiful, the burbot’s lack of apparent scales makes it a forbidden food for observant Jews, so its presence at the Plessis Road plant would challenge the kosher certification Freshwater Fish needs in order to ship a third of its product to the kosher market.
"If there was a large supply of burbot, we would find a way to handle it," Wood surmises.
Freshwater Fish also doesn’t process the extremely abundant freshwater drum and common carp. The problem is the absence of buyers, as the market for carp in particular bottomed out after U.S. governments began paying fishers to remove Asian carp from the Mississippi River basin just to bury the aggressive creatures in landfills.
Freshwater Fish has full-time staff trying to find new markets for Manitoba fish, notes Wood, pointing to the success of shipping perch to Wisconsin, which increased the price paid out for the species to $3.75 a kilogram last year.
"In the past, we had been criticized of not doing enough to develop new markets. That was probably a legitimate criticism," Wood says. "We’re finding things we probably missed before."
But the problem posed by so-called rough fish — the carp, drum and even mullet, which Freshwater Fresh bought last year for 46 cents a kilogram — remains perplexing, as the Crown corporation is better suited to buy, process and sell more valuable fish.
"That is the $64,000 question. Economics drives our world," Wood says. "How do we get a potential excess of protein here to where there is a deficit of protein, when the cost of moving it from Point A to B makes it unprofitable?"
Up on Lake Manitoba, Kenyon believes he has the answer — or had it, before he wound up in a legal dispute with Freshwater Fish, the source of most of his income.
In 2009, Kenyon and his daughter, Amanda Stevenson, pooled the resources of 300 west Interlake fishers, many of them Métis or residents of First Nations, to form the WMM Co-Op, with an eye to shipping rough fish to the United States.
Although Freshwater Fish has the exclusive right to buy Manitoba fish bound for the export market, it provided the WMM Co-Op with an export licence with the provision none of the fish wind up in any market already served by the Crown corporation. In December 2010, Kenyon’s group struck a deal to sell mullet and carp to Schafer Industries, a Thomson, Ill., operation that’s successfully found buyers for U.S. rough fish.
Some fishers living far from Winnipeg claim they don’t sell mullet to Freshwater Fish because it isn’t worth the shipping cost to the Plessis Road plant. In 2011, Schafer Fisheries sent its own trucks to Manitoba to pick up approximately 450 kilograms of rough fish — until Freshwater Fish pulled WMM Co-Op’s export licence.
(imagTag)Freshwater Fish says Schafer was reselling some of that fish to A&B Famous Gefilte Fish, a New Jersey processor that has bought product from Freshwater Fish.
"It was going into customers in the New York area," Wood says. "They were not operating under the terms of the licence that required them to sell to a new market. Under the law, we had no option but to remove their licence."
The licence was pulled in May 2011. Incensed WMM Co-Op fishers, who were receiving a better price from Schafer, continued to fish.
In July 2011, Manitoba Conservation officials seized 17,000 pounds of carp and mullet sitting in a shed in Duck Bay, which sits north of Pine Creek First Nation on Lake Winnipegosis. The co-op’s directors, including Kenyon and Stevenson, were charged under the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act.
The seizure incensed Schafer Fisheries, which hoped to buy a total of 1,350 kilograms of mullet and carp from WMM.
"I don’t know where Freshwater gets off saying those were their customers," says Mike Schafer, the second-generation operator of the company started by his father in 1955. "I didn’t go after any business I didn’t already have. I sell those fish every week. I don’t understand why they’re a problem."
To Wood, the answer is simple: Anything that could reduce the volume of fish coming through the doors at Plessis Road has the potential to increase the per-unit cost of processing — and thus deliver a worse return to both fishers and Canadian taxpayers.
This dispute has become the piscine equivalent of the old battles between the Canadian Wheat Board and Saskatchewan protest farmers who shipped wheat to the United States in the years before Ottawa ended Western Canada’s single-desk grain monopoly.
The parallels are not lost on Schafer. "I’ve spoken to government officials and they tell me Freshwater is on the way out. It’s an obsolete organization. They got rid of the wheat board and let free enterprise reign," he says.
The WMM directors, meanwhile, have pleaded guilty to the charges against them. Kenyon nonetheless says he’s looking forward to an August court date in Dauphin, where he intends to recount how Freshwater Fish vetted Schafer Fisheries as a buyer.
"They never buy mullet at a price where we can make a living shipping it to them. And they don’t buy carp at all. We seem to be a problem to them, because when they’re unable to offer a price and we can make money selling it ourselves, it makes them look bad," Kenyon said.
"It’s not that Freshwater is wrong. We always get paid when we sell to them. But they just can’t handle rough fish because it costs them too much."
The dispute has won Kenyon a broad array of allies among other disenfranchised fishers, ecologists hoping to rid Lake Manitoba of troublesome carp and political lobbyists who simply don’t like the idea of single-desk monopolies.
"If they had a market, why weren’t they exploiting it? They can’t have it both ways," says Gordon Goldsborough, a University of Manitoba aquatic ecologist. "They can’t say they have a market and then stand in the way. Why don’t they let someone else deal with it and assume all the risk?"
Colin Craig of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, whose freedom-of-information requests for Freshwater Fish’s expense records have annoyed the Crown corporation, says he believes Manitoba fishers should have the right to choose how they sell their fish.
"When they were given a bit of flexibility a year ago, they showed they were able to do remarkable things," says Craig, referring to the WMM Co-Op. "The whole situation is absurd, when you think about it in an urban setting. Imagine if a furniture maker had to sell couches to the government. People would be aghast at such a Soviet-style system. Yet we put up with this on the Prairies."
Manitoba fishers are being discriminated against because they are the only ones in Canada required to sell through Freshwater Fish, adds Dave Olson, a Gimli fisher who’s been fishing on Lake Winnipeg for 40 years.
He claims even whitefish, once the most valued fish in the lake, has become discarded as bycatch due to low prices that have kept him off the water for seven summer seasons.
"The whitefish has just tanked under the board. It’s one of our best fish, and it’s kicked around like a sucker," he says, claiming even a whitefish-optimization program intended to boost prices still doesn’t make the fish worth catching.
At Freshwater Fish, Wood chafes at this sort of criticism. Saskatchewan fishers, who lobbied their government to withdraw from the Crown corporation’s umbrella, continue to sell almost all their catch to Freshwater Fish. Nobody else has the ability to create the infrastructure to manage the fishery operations over so many different lakes, he says.
Manitoba fishers could find themselves with similar problems if the single-desk monopoly ended in this province. Every move that reduces the volume increases overhead and makes processing less profitable, he says.
"No matter what we do, somebody will find something to criticize about it. Quite frankly, that gets a bit tiring," he says.
Ironically, the eco-certification efforts that will challenge Freshwater Fish to find ways to buy and process more species will require the Crown corporation to remain in place, suggests Scott Forbes, a University of Winnipeg ecologist.
"One of the reason we need to keep them around is eco-certification is coming. If we turn Manitoba into a wild west and have 20 different processing plants, that becomes impossible," Forbes says.
Still, he says some flexibility is needed to ensure rough fish — especially carp — can be exported.
"I’d really like to see Frank and Amanda be successful, because we really need to fish these things," he says, referring to carp, the most damaging invasive species in Manitoba lakes. "We have people who are trying to be creative, exploring new markets, and there are regulatory issues that need to be resolved."
For Kenyon, this is not just an environmental issue. West Interlake fishers are packing up and moving to Alberta for better-paying oilpatch jobs, he claims.
"We can make more money if we don’t throw away half our catch," he says, pointing to his pile of mullet. "It’s just a sad waste."