Lake Winnipeg fishers brace for choppy economic waters due to pandemic
COVID-19 closures lead to drop in demand for walleye in food service industry across North America
Some Lake Winnipeg commercial fishers are facing an uncertain spring season as demand — especially for walleye — plummets due to coronavirus-related economic downturns.
Bill Buckels can pull in between 1,300 and 2,200 kilograms of walleye and whitefish on a typical good day on the lake, but market forces are forcing him into a tight spot just weeks before the season opens.
"Right now, in our darkest hour, both levels of government, including Freshwater, have refused to step in and take this fish off our hands or pay us not to fish," said Buckels, former director of the Lake Winnipeg Commercial Fishers Association.
The Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, a Crown corporation of the federal government, recently informed commercial fishers that the food service industry — restaurants, hotels and hospitality — is suffering so much from closures that demand for walleye essentially has dried up.
The Crown corporation's Winnipeg processing plant is still sitting on winter catch inventory from a variety of species it was expecting to unload for millions of dollars in March and April, said David Bevan, chair of the board with FFMC. That included fish for retail and the food service industry.
'Can't buy fish we can't sell'
That glut of inventory, combined with the drop in demand, means FFMC isn't positioned to purchase the usual volumes of walleye and other species from fishers this spring, said Bevan.
"We can't buy fish we can't sell, but we're looking at a situation where we will buy fish where we can sell it," he said.
"We are working like hell to try and find a way to reorganize."
FFMC isn't shutting the door entirely, said Bevan. The organization plans to buy limited supplies of mullet, carp, whitefish, tullibee and northern pike for sale in the retail market. Off-loading walleye, on the other hand, poses a challenge.
The provincial government said it is aware of the situation facing fishers and the FFMC due to lack of demand for walleye.
"Local fish marketing of all species including walleye can continue, but walleye is a critical part of the value of the fishery," said a Manitoba Agriculture spokesperson.
"Manitoba is monitoring these developments carefully for the current season and later seasons in 2020-21, and taking steps to ensure that commercial fishers can still receive their licences safely and continue to provide fish to those markets that remain open."
Buckels said applying for and securing the $2,000-per-month Canada Emergency Care Benefit program wouldn't go far for him and the business he and his wife have dumped $500,000 into.
He hopes the federal and provincial governments will help tailor financial supports to fishers like him who could face serious impacts to their business this spring and summer.
One idea that's been floated, he said, is to have government pay $2-per pound of fish to commercial fishers based on predicted volumes they'd catch outside of a pandemic scenario, and then have fishers sit out the coming season.
"There's a group of fisherman who have banded together — it's quite a large group and it's growing — and they're looking at seeing if (the) government of Canada could be persuaded to do something of that nature to help support them through a lean time," said Bevan, adding FFMC isn't directly involved in those efforts but acknowledges it could help some fishers.
"It would be something that would be helpful to take care of some fishing."
Kris Isfeld is a third-generation Lake Winnipeg fisher and has been at it for 25 years. He primarily fishes walleye or sauger in the south basin and sells through the FFMC, the local market and other purchasers.
He said he isn't surprised to see demand drop given all the closures, though he doesn't want the entire season shut down.
What he would like to see is offers from the federal government to commercial fishers on par with what's being given to other affected essential food sectors.
"My only hope is that we are treated equally to other producers like milk producers or farmers or anybody who is having trouble selling their commodity — we would want to have the same benefits they have."
Chris Kristjanson has spent his life on the water and comes from a long line of Lake Winnipeg fishers. He said he's proud to be a member of the Search Results Pioneer Commercial Fisheries of Manitoba, a rural supply chain and group that represents commercial fishers in the province.
He suggested the same forces affecting fish demand are making it challenging for all sorts of producers across the world right now.
"I understand that people are concerned that this is an essential food, but everything is essential right now: toilet paper, soap," he said.
"Everybody is in the same boat paddling the wrong way and it's not like any one person is paddling against anyone else. We're all in this together and we're going to have to ride it out."
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is expected to provide a response to the concerns raised by Lake Winnipeg fishers.