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Fishing for a ‘much brighter future’

Sustainable certification for Chemawawin Cree Nation’s Cedar Lake fishery opens new markets

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On Cedar Lake, some 460 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, members of the Chemawawin Cree Nation spend the summer and winter casting nets, looking to pull in schools of walleye, goldeye, lake whitefish and northern pike.

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On Cedar Lake, some 460 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, members of the Chemawawin Cree Nation spend the summer and winter casting nets, looking to pull in schools of walleye, goldeye, lake whitefish and northern pike.

“It’s peaceful out there,” said Floyd George, president of Cedar Lake Fisheries Inc.

For the Chemawawin Cree, fishing on Cedar Lake is a way of life. Generations have set out on the lake; since the 1930s they’ve fished commercially under the banner of the Cedar Lake Fishery, which employs several members of the First Nation.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Floyd George, president of Cedar Lake Fisheries Inc., says fishing on Cedar Lake is a way of life, and sustainable certification will ensure it will remain for the next generations.

“That’s our livelihood, that’s how we feed our families,” said George, who has been fishing for more than 50 years. “It’s a big thing for us.”

This year, the Cedar Lake fishers are angling towards a more prosperous future with the announcement of an official sustainable fishing certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, an international non-profit that sets global standards for sustainable fishing.

The certificate, presented during an event in Winnipeg Thursday morning, is set to open Cedar Lake’s fishery up to a market increasingly keen for responsibly caught seafood — while ensuring their fishery remains healthy for generations to come.

Cedar Lake is one of just two Manitoba fisheries to be awarded the Stewardship Council’s certification. The Skownan First Nation fishers on Waterhen Lake were the first in Canada to receive the designation back in 2014. Today, fishers on both Waterhen and Cedar lakes are the only source of sustainably caught northern pike in the world.

“Us fishers have always practised fishing sustainably,” Wesley Catcheway, president of the Waterhen Lake Fishers, said. “When the (eco-certification) came out we all agreed to it. It works for us.”

Catcheway and George were among a half-dozen speakers at Thursday’s launch of “Fish Forward,” an initiative aimed at connecting fishers, consumers and businesses interested in sustainably caught seafood. The fishers were joined by representatives from the federal and provincial governments, the Marine Stewardship Council and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, who are collaborating to promote sustainable fishing in Manitoba.

“Manitoba has a mandate to secure the sustainability and certification of our commercial fisheries,” Natural Resources and Northern Development Minister Greg Nesbitt said at the launch.

Manitoba boasts a sizable fishing industry, employing more than 2,300 people each year across 300 commercially fished lakes — particularly in rural and northern communities. Indigenous fishers make up 85 per cent of the province’s licensed commercial net fishers.

In spring 2022, the province announced a $2.5-million investment in the industry, aimed at helping fisheries towards more sustainable practices and, eventually, eco-certification. The Sustainable Fisheries and Certification Program, supported by funds from Indigenous Services Canada, is helping pay for better data collection, commercial fishery certification and better marketing of sustainable, Manitoba fish.

With more than 80 per cent of Manitoba fish sold to international markets — especially the United States — eco-certification has become an increasingly profitable option for fisheries.

“It helps ensure that fishery remains productive and in place for the long term,” Kurtis Hayne, program director of the Marine Stewardship Council in Canada, said in an interview after the Fish Forward launch.

The council’s internationally recognized certification program sets standards for commercial fisheries looking to earn a sustainable designation. To get that certificate, fisheries need to make sure they’re minimizing their impact on the local ecosystem, the fishery is being well-managed for the long-term and the fish stock is healthy and sustainable.

Beyond the economic benefits, Hayne stressed sustainable fishing will play a key role in global food security in the years to come.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kurtis Hayne, program director of the Marine Stewardship Council, says sustainable fishing will play a key role in global food security.

Canada is home to approximately 30 certified fisheries. A little more than 60 per cent of the country’s wild-caught fish is eco-certified, compared to a global average of about 16 per cent, Hayne said.

More than three billion people around the world rely on seafood as a key source of protein — including several northern Manitoba communities.

“It’s really important we maintain the sustainability of those fish so they have that food security, they have those livelihoods and those communities remain thriving,” Hayne said.

Walter Umpherville’s family has been fishing on Cedar Lake for three generations. His kids have joined the family business now, and he hopes this way of life will continue.

“I think it’s the future,” Umpherville said of the new certification. It offers Cedar Lake both a competitive edge in the fishing industry and an assurance the community’s way of life will stand the test of time.

The Cedar Lake fishery was once on the brink of collapse. Between 1998 and 2003, the fishery voluntarily closed to allow the stock a chance to rebuild.

Nowadays, the fishery keeps track of its stock, working collaboratively with the province to assess stock data and prepare annually adjusted quotas that adapt to the health of each fish species. Sections of the lake are intermittently closed off to avoid overfishing. Bycatch — unintentionally caught fish that can’t be sold — is minimized. With their certification in hand, the Cedar Lake fishery is hoping to expand into new markets, such as Europe, in the years to come.

“It’s leaving something for my kids to look forward to,” George said, adding he’s training his 15-year-old grandson in the family business already.

All in all, George said, Cedar Lake is looking toward “a much brighter future.”

julia-simone.rutgers@winnipegfreepress.com

Julia-Simone Rutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers
Reporter

Julia-Simone Rutgers is a climate reporter with a focus on environmental issues in Manitoba. Her position is part of a three-year partnership between the Winnipeg Free Press and The Narwhal, funded by the Winnipeg Foundation.

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