Manitoba

'They just don't know': Angry fishers say province didn't consult them on new commercial rules

They've learned a lot fishing Lake Winnipeg's waters for 60 years between them, which is why brothers Bruce and Brad Benson say they're angry commercial fishers like them weren't consulted about new regulations in the local industry.

'There is nobody more concerned about the sustainability of the fishery than the commercial fishers': fisher

Bruce Benson has been fishing Lake Winnipeg for 30 years. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

They've learned a lot fishing Lake Winnipeg's waters for 60 years between them, which is why brothers Bruce and Brad Benson say they're angry commercial fishers like them weren't consulted about new regulations in the local industry.

"They're not necessarily to be blamed for getting it wrong, because they simply don't know what the commercial fishery involves," said Bruce, a 30-year veteran of the lake's commercial fishery — the second-largest in North America by volume.

"There is nobody more concerned about the sustainability of the fishery than the commercial fishers. We have the most to lose. We want a sustainable fishery."

Brad said the latest batch of regulations from Manitoba Sustainable Development isn't going over well with people in the industry. He says a close look at the kinds of changes being made — lower mesh sizes in commercial nets, for instance — suggests the province has been focused more on appeasing recreational anglers.

"Collectively, the commercial fishermen know what's going on on the lake. We all talk, we know what we're catching here, there and everywhere. They [the province] think they know, but they don't," said Brad. 

Brad Benson says the provincial changes to commercial fishing guidelines don't make sense. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"They're making huge decisions that affect us, our livelihood, based on information that … they just don't know."

Fishers on the northern shores of Lake Winnipeg similarly felt left out of the loop last year when the Progressive Conservative government announced changes to the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation last year.

While commercial fishers were previously limited to selling through the marketing corporation, the changes allowed them to market their own catch — which the province said would give fishers the freedom to set their own prices and make more money.

Fishers also cried foul in July 2016, when the Tories began the long process of ecocertifying Manitoba's largest lakes, with some saying the associated regulations were unfair and smacked of a lack of intimate knowledge of the industry.

'Bullying fishers'

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires stood by that decision Thursday and echoed criticism of the FFMC that turned up in a report released last month.

It came from a government-contracted fisheries envoy employed to review the commercial industry, who reportedly met with more than 425 commercial fishers at 23 meetings over the past year.

'The Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation was bullying fishers into signing five-year deals and they threatened to withhold payment from any fisher who did not sign,' Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said. (CBC)

Squires tabled a letter during question period Thursday at the legislature that she says reveals how the marketing corporation proceeded to pressure commercial fishers after the dual-marketing system arrived.

"The Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation was bullying fishers into signing five-year deals and they threatened to withhold payment from any fisher who did not sign," she said, adding FFMC also threatened to place a 25 per cent premium on catches from contracted versus non-contracted fishers.

"There are plenty of opportunities in front of us ... Manitoba fishers deserve that."

She said the province is open to having its fish processed in-province; what she is most concerned with is that fishers get the best value for their products.

Catfish off table

But Bruce still feels the province needs to go back to the drawing board and include more input from people like him.

Recent regulatory changes remove Lake Winnipeg catfish from the list of species available to commercial fishers, Bruce said. That doesn't make sense, he argues, and is further evidence the province is only listening to people who fish for fun.

"My aunt, who passed away recently at the age of 101, when she was a littler girl and she was given a choice between having smoked catfish and candy — and you can imagine how rare candy was back in the day — she would choose smoked catfish," Bruce said.

"It's a delicacy, we love it, it's absolutely delightful. We don't catch a whole hell of a lot of it, but we do like to smoke it, it tastes great.

"They've taken it off the table. Why? Where did they get this from? The only people who say that would be anglers who want to catch catfish in the Red River. And there's plenty of catfish."

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, social justice, health and more. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.