I think this piece is particularly interesting since we have commercial fishing going on at Flathead Lake in Montana, and it serves the same market as Alberta did. This is probably good news for the folks at Mountain Lake Fisheries in Whitefish as the demand for their product likely goes up. It’s kind of sad to see some of the commercial fisheries going away, mostly because it indicates poor management of fish species and the loss of traditional methods of existence. I’m not much of a caviar guy so this doesn’t influence me much, but I do hope this will improve the fisheries for everyone to enjoy. Give it a read. Tell me what you think.
From the Calgary Herald EDMONTON – October is golden caviar season in Alberta, right before the whitefish spawn in Lesser Slave Lake’s shallows.
But Finnish cruise-goers and gourmands will have to find other roe to hoe. After years of conflict and decline, the province finally cut bait in August with its 174 remaining licensed commercial fishermen, effectively killing the caviar hub on the west side of the giant lake 250 kilometres north of Edmonton.
The demise of Alberta’s commercial fishing industry has been rumoured for decades. There simply weren’t enough fish for everyone, the province decided, as aboriginals exercised their treaty rights, the number of anglers grew and the pace of northern development sped up.
“There’s too many people at the table and not enough pizzas,” said Mike Sullivan, a fisheries biologist with Sustainable Resource Development. “The commercial fishermen were the last, by policy, so they had to be cut out.”
Alberta’s fish production made up three or four per cent of the $65-million annual haul for Freshwater Fish, the Manitoba-based Crown corporation that sells most fish products caught on Prairie lakes. Alberta’s whitefish wound up on restaurant plates in Chicago and New York; the caviar often went to cruise ships on the Baltic Sea.
It doesn’t take an advanced economics degree to understand the calculation. Aboriginals have treaty rights to fish. Sport fishing brings an estimated half-billion dollars to Alberta’s economy. Depending on the year, commercial fishermen haul in just one to three million per year in sales.
In 2011, the province paid for a review of northwestern Alberta, the most prolific of eight commercial fishing zones. Peter Colby, an Ontario-based freshwater fisheries management expert, studied 12 lakes and interviewed biologists, anglers and aboriginal and commercial fishermen.
Commercial fishing could exist in Alberta, Colby concluded, but not under the status quo. The province could intensively manage the industry or opt for natural management, but it couldn’t do both. It certainly couldn’t continue with the existing mistrust between invested parties.
“Relationships between fisheries managers and fishing groups are in tatters,” Colby wrote in his 2012 report. “Mutual trust and respect do not exist.”
Commercial fishermen told Colby they were being squeezed out. Along with smaller quotas, the province encouraged sport fishing and populations of prized predator fish like walleye and pike. On some lakes, commercial seasons were cut to one or two days a year.
Both management and fishing techniques were partly to blame for dwindling fish stock, Colby’s report notes. Government policies were poorly implemented and enforced. Traditional techniques, like the use of gill nets, inevitably led to accidental catches. Quotas often remained too high even when there were fewer fish, resulting in patterns of overharvest and closure.
Winterkills were also contentious. Fishermen saw the massive loss of oxygen-starved fish — due in part to increasing algae — as a failure to harvest enough. But biologists contended that taking fish could actually make things worse. Fewer adult fish result in more minnows, which eat the tiny zooplankton that eat algae, the main consumer of oxygen in many lakes.
Provincial biologists said conflicts took resources away from habitat planning and analysis in advance of oil and gas development. For every dollar commercial fisheries earned, Colby calculated that the government spent 70 cents.
Back in the mid-1980s, the province began buying back hundreds of commercial fish licences, which could only be sold and transferred to other fisherman. In 1984, there were 800 multi-lake licences and 1,800 single-lake licenses, according to Journal archives. Sullivan now estimates there are only about 10 full-time fishermen, the vast majority relying on other income streams.
Kevin Bell earned a good living during his 18 years of fishing, up to $200,000 a year before costs. His wife runs the Joussard bottle depot on the shore of Lesser Slave Lake, which until last fall was a fish plant and one of two spots where whitefish eggs were collected and brined. Five years ago, before quotas were ratcheted down, they’d produce 27,000 kilograms — worth more than $300,000 — of golden caviar alone.
“We went from producing a million pounds of food into the world food chain, now we buy garbage. Does that really make sense?” Bell said. “Fish used to be a protein source in Alberta. Now it’s a toy.”
Bell said the end of commercial fishing could damage the ecosystem, leaving unchecked whitefish to gobble pike and walleye roe. And he estimates a loss of 100 jobs around his hamlet.
He knows at least a couple of fishermen who will move up north in the summers to fish Great Slave Lake, where Freshwater Fish hopes to offset the loss of Alberta’s production. There are also ample fish in Lake Athabasca, the giant lake that straddles the Saskatchewan border in northeastern Alberta. But the province’s decision has ended the industry.
Fort Chipewyan’s Big Ray Ladouceur, who fished the Athabasca for 57 years, said the death of commercial fishing is “the worst thing that ever happened to our community.”
Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather when he was 15, the Métis fisherman quickly became the first man to make $300 a month on the lake. More recently, he could make over $30,000 in less than six weeks. Fishermen would sell dried and frozen gutted fish, trout and pickerel fillets. Ladouceur would trade fish for groceries.
About 20 commercial fishermen in Fort Chip are now stuck with equipment they can’t use. Ladouceur spent $9,000 for an outboard motor. His boat cost $8,600. Fishermen asked the province for a buyout in the spring, and Ladouceur is one of many saying the province should step up.
“It ain’t going to come cheap, because that’s my livelihood,” said Ladouceur.
Lake Athabasca is one of the only bodies of water where fishing could be sustainable, Sullivan said, but he admits there are concerns over the quality of the fish. Commercial fishing would be possible in other parts of Alberta, if fishermen used highly selective gear, but changing from gill nets to traps would be prohibitive.
It’s difficult to see a century-old profession die such a slow death, Sullivan said, but good fishing and healthy systems meant something had to go.
“It’s an unfortunate thing. This is one of the victims of the growth of Alberta. Some of these little cottage industries just got pushed off the table.”