First Nations commercial fishermen consider starting season as they await federal relief

By | May 27, 2020

A group of First Nations commercial fishermen in Manitoba are wondering if they should start fishing even with little chance they can sell their catch, worried that money won’t flow soon enough from a federal relief package.

“It’s desperate,” said Sam Murdock

“Our commercial fishery usually starts in the fourth week of May or as late as June 1, so we are only a few days away.”

Murdock is from Fisher River Cree Nation and sits on the board of directors for Fisher River McBeth Fisheries. 

He has been commercial fishing on Lake Winnipeg for over 40 years and said that he and other fishermen have not yet heard details about a $469.4 million relief package for fish harvesters that was announced on May 14.

“How do we access that money to support individuals that are deriving their income from just commercial fishing? A lot of these guys, that’s all they know is commercial fishing,” said Murdock.

The Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, a Crown corporation of the federal government, buys, processes and markets freshwater fish caught for commercial sale in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. In April, it announced it would be buying very limited amounts of fish from harvesters due to reduced market demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The federal relief package for harvesters promises to cover 75 per cent of fishing income losses beyond a 25 per cent income decline threshold.

As the fishing season approaches, Murdock is preparing his gear like he normally would. He took his boat in for minor repairs recently, not knowing if he will be fishing on Lake Winnipeg this season.

Sam Murdock and Vince Crate are looking for more details on the federal government’s announcement earlier this month. (Jeremy Neault)

Murdock said commercial fishing in Fisher River generates around 240 jobs during the spring, summer and fall seasons.

He said many of the seasonal fishermen and workers collect employment insurance benefits from November sometimes up till May.

“I’d have to say 90 per cent of us want to go fishing,” said Murdock.

“It only makes more sense because there’s definitely more money involved.”

To fish or not to fish?

Vince Crate, a Fisher River band councillor and active Lake Winnipeg commercial fisherman said many fishermen have applied for EI and “are getting by” but there’s uncertainty about the fishing season.

Chris Clarke, head of the Norway House Fishing Coop, which has 49 members, said he would like to gather those members for a meeting now that some public health restrictions have been eased in Manitoba. But first, he said he needs information on whether it makes more financial sense to start fishing or wait for the federal relief.

“We can’t take nothing to them until we have information. We need to have an informed decision regarding our fishing season,” said Clarke.

Jane Deeks, press secretary for the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, said relief money will flow “as soon as possible,” but declined to mention a specific date.

“Some people are asking if they will have to wait till your season is over to prove the loss, and that’s not how it’s going to work because we know people are going to need these funds right away,” she said.

Deeks also said that all fishermen who are eligible for relief will receive it.

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