Sask. fishermen feeling left out from federal pandemic help
Saskatchewan Cooperative Fishing Limited vice president says situation 'bleak' with 'no market'
This time of year would normally mean a flurry of activity for commercial fishermen in Saskatchewan, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put that on hold.
"Now we should be working and preparing our nets and re-doing them, and boats as well— we need to sometimes re-rivet boats. It takes a whole month to do that," said John Beatty, vice president of Saskatchewan Cooperative Fishing Limited.
"At the end of the day, if we just sit around for the whole summer, it's just not healthy and not good."
Beatty's group represents hundreds of people in the industry who fish large lakes across northern and central Saskatchewan. Most of their product is purchased and exported through a federal Crown corporation, the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, in Winnipeg. By late April, with a glut of inventory due to the pandemic, the Crown's leadership said it's just not positioned to purchase the usual amount of fish this spring.
Beatty says that leaves few options for Saskatchewan fishermen.
So what we're saying is, why not us as well in the picture? We're fishers as well.- John Beatty, Saskatchewan Cooperative Fisheries Limited vice president
"It's pretty simple, it's pretty bleak," Beatty said. "Now we got word that they will, for practical purposes, shut down. So really we have no market now due to this COVID-19 situation."
He said peddling fish locally would just flood the local market and could also hurt the people outside of the co-op whose livelihoods rely on it. And while he says the emergency response benefit, CERB, is helpful, it has limits that would end before freeze-up, when summer fisheries would reach their quota for the season and many workers would return to EI. Many of the seasonal workers depend on that within the cycle of a year to take them to the next season's work.
"We're looking for some kind of assistance for the summer and winter fishery," he said. "I've been hearing all these news reports that the east and west coast fishers are getting some help from the federal government, and there's none for the inland. So what we're saying is, why not us as well in the picture? We're fishers as well."
Fishermen, FSIN say federal help falls short
The federal government has announced $62.5 million for the fish and seafood processing sector, and this week said more help is on the way for fishers and harvesters.
During a virtual sitting of Parliament Tuesday, Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton asked Bernadette Jordan, the minister responsible for fisheries, when her government would support inland fishermen. Jordan acknowledged the "extreme impacts" on northern and First Nations communities and said she knows more needs to be done to support them and local fishermen. She said Ottawa will "continue to make sure we address those needs."
Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron says he hopes recognition and help for inland fishers comes soon.
"Almost on a daily basis, if not a weekly basis, we have this federal government that is saying 'from everybody to the schoolhouse to your house in your community, you will not be forgotten.' Well, Prime Minister Trudeau, you are forgetting our inland fishers. They are being forgotten," he said.
Cameron said inland fisheries feel they've been left out, with much of the federal help so far focused on processing and products with a longer shelf life. He said the FSIN wants to remain optimistic that help could be on the way.
"I hope it comes this week because our people cannot afford to wait any longer. They're waiting. Kids and children are waiting. Their families are waiting. I can't stress how important it is that some relief funds gets to those employees, and everybody involved in inland fisheries," he said.
Beatty said he wants people to know that those in his industry are hard-working.
"We like to make a living and that's how we were taught. And we have bills to pay as well," he said. "So we need some sort of help in the meantime, in the downtime."