The Great Slave Lake fisheries needs a boost, and it needs it now, says MLA

'There is no reason in this day in age that we should be sending our fish down to Winnipeg by truck when we could be doing it all here and giving the fishers the maximum return.'

Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson says it's time for the government to carry through on its commitments

Hay River North MLA Rocky (R.J.) Simpson says it's time for the territorial government to follow through on its committment to revitalize the Great Slave Lake fisheries, starting with a modern fish plant in Hay River. (CBC)

Commercial fishers on Great Slave Lake deserve a better deal, says R.J. Simpson, MLA for Hay River North.

A new deal for fishers, he says, begins with the territorial government following through on a 2017 commitment to revitalize the fishing industry. It includes building a new fish processing plant in Hay River.

Hay River, a small town on the south shore of Great Slave Lake, used to have a fish processing plant, but the facility has become little more than a fish transfer station. Instead of processing fish locally for export and sale, catches are shipped and sold through the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation south of the N.W.T. border.

The Hay River fish plant in 2013. Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson says commercial fishers on Great Slave Lake need a new facility; the territorial government agrees and says it's working on it. (CBC)

Although Great Slave Lake commercial fishers can sell their fish freely within the territory, they have no control over the price, processing, marketing or exporting of their product outside the N.W.T.

"There is no reason in this day in age that we should be sending our fish down to Winnipeg by truck when we could be doing it all here and giving the fishers the maximum return," Simpson said.

"What we need is a fish plant and a plan."

$1.5M commitment still stands

An agreement signed more than 50 years ago commits fishers in the N.W.T. to selling any of their product outside the territory through the marketing corporation.

A 2017 N.W.T. fisheries study recommends the territory's gradual withdrawal from the corporation. In 2015, the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment committed to spend approximately $1.5 million on revitalizing the industry.

A department spokesperson, Drew Williams, told CBC the commitment remains on the table. About $1.41 million is earmarked for a fish plant, but the territorial government needs funding partners — likely at the federal level — for the balance of the cost. No price tag for the new facility is available.

Williams said the plant is conceived as a full service facility, where fish could be brought in for processing and come out ready for grocery store shelves. The Government of the Northwest Territories could be ready to tender the project as early as this spring.

But a new facility is only one part of the strategy: a successful Great Slave Lake fishery not only needs a modern fish plant, but needs a marketing plan, a lake management plan and, crucially, enough commercial fishers to support the industry.

"We're going to need to get more people out there," Williams said. "To really take off and to reach a level we think this industry can reach, we're going to need more fisherman."

Simpson calls that progress, but says it was the government that got the Great Slave Lake fisheries into the position it's in now, and he believes commercial fishers eventually want government involvement phased out.

"I don't think the fishermen want to be linked to the government forever," he said. "So I'd like to see them construct this fish plant so that the fishermen can eventually take over."

With files from Kirsten Murphy