Open market won’t be friendly to northern anglers, says local fisheries owner

The owner of a local fish processing plant worries the Manitoba government’s decision to withdraw from a fish marketing monopoly will hurt northern anglers.

The province announced last week it will exit the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act. This will allow commercial fishers in Manitoba to sell their catches to buyers other than the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC), a centralized marketing body.

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“It’s much harder to run a fishery in the North than it is in the South. It’s not as profitable,” said Jim Churchill, owner of Churchill Fisheries in Denare Beach.

“This will squeeze out all the small fishermen. It’s tough enough the way it is right now for small fishermen,” he said, mentioning higher freight, fuel and living costs in remote northern regions.

FFMC gives anglers a guaranteed customer, as the corporation must buy all fish commercially caught in Manitoba, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. FFMC also sets yearly prices ahead of time so anglers know the value of their catches.

Under the PC government’s plan, Manitoba anglers would be permitted to sell their fish to the highest bidder, whether that is the FFMC or another purchaser.

Churchill worries about potential ripple effects. If FFMC were no longer required to buy all fish caught on a commercial licence, or was disbanded altogether, he said northern anglers would suffer.

He compared the situation to the hog marketing system in Saskatchewan. When open marketing came in, he said, that province’s small hog producers found themselves squeezed out by larger ones.

Churchill’s business buys fish for, and purchases fish from, FFMC. This includes fish from Manitoba that are delivered to his plants in Denare Beach and Pelican Narrows. Only a small percentage of his business is done outside of FFMC.

Regardless of what happens with FFMC, Churchill said his business will endure. He noted that Saskatchewan’s withdrawal from the monopoly five years did not hurt his bottom line.

“We’re quick on our feet,” he said. “And worse comes to worse and the corporation disappears, we will end up just purchasing fish from fishers and processing and selling.”

The Manitoba government argues that withdrawing from the FFMC monopoly is all about marketing choice for anglers.

Rick Wowchuk, legislative assistant, Manitoba Sustainable Development, called the move “a victory for Manitoba fishers, one that will allow them to compete more effectively in the world’s seafood market.”

The announcement also received a thumbs-up from the Norway House Fisherman’s Co-op, the largest single commercial fishing operation in Manitoba. Based in Norway House, the operation employs nearly 50 full-time commercial fishers.

“We are pleased with the Manitoba government’s decision to allow for and create flexible marketing options for commercial fishers,” said Chief Ron Evans of Norway House Cree Nation.

Manitoba’s withdrawal from the monopoly is not immediate. Churchill said he has been told there will be about a year’s worth of consultations with anglers before anything changes.

– With files from a Manitoba government news release

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