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Manitoba’s wild-caught fisheries pursue new markets with sustainability push

Once dubbed the worst in the world, Manitoba’s commercial fisheries were facing millions in lost sales. But following the leadership of Indigenous fisheries, the province is eyeing a future of more sustainably caught fish — with eco-certification and a new initiative to bolster the industry

On Cedar Lake, some 460 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, members of the Chemawawin Cree Nation spend the summer and winter seasons casting nets into the freshwater, looking to pull in schools of walleye, goldeye, lake whitefish and northern pike. During the winter months fishers drive out onto the frozen lake with snowmobiles, cast their nets and return home. They’ll wait four or five days before they return to count the catch. In the summer months they spend hours on boats, waiting patiently for fish to tangle in the mesh. 

“It’s peaceful out there,” Floyd George, president of Cedar Lake Fisheries Inc., said. 

For the Chemawawin Cree, fishing on Cedar Lake is a way of life. Generation after generation have set out on the lake in summer and winter to catch their share of local seafood; since the 1930s they’ve fished commercially under the banner of the Cedar Lake Fishery, which employs several members of the nation.

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“That’s our livelihood, that’s how we feed our families,” George, who has been fishing for more than 50 years, said. “It’s a big thing for us.”

This year, the Cedar Lake fishers are angling towards a more prosperous future with the announcement of an official sustainable fishing certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, an international non-profit that sets global standards for sustainable fishing. 

The certificate, presented during an event in Winnipeg Thursday morning, is set to open Cedar Lake’s fishery up to a market increasingly keen for responsibly caught seafood — while ensuring their fishery remains healthy for generations to come.

Indigenous fishers at the forefront of Manitoba’s sustainable fishing

Cedar Lake is one of just two Manitoba fisheries to be awarded the Marine Stewardship Council’s certification. The Skownan First Nation fishers on Waterhen Lake were the first in Canada to receive the designation back in 2014. Today, fishers on both Waterhen and Cedar lakes are the only source of sustainably caught northern pike in the world.

Northern pike are among the fish species caught by members of the Chemawawin Cree Nation at Cedar Lake, Man. Fishers on Waterhen and Cedar lakes are the only sources of sustainably caught northern pike in the world. Photo: Travis / Flickr

“Us fishers have always practised fishing sustainably,” Wesley Catcheway, president of the Waterhen Lake Fishers, told a crowd gathered in a Winnipeg hotel. “When the [eco-certification] came out we all agreed to it. It works for us.”

Catcheway and George were among a half-dozen speakers at Thursday’s launch of “Fish Forward,” an initiative aimed at connecting fishers, consumers and businesses interested in sustainably caught seafood. The fishers were joined by representatives from the federal and provincial governments, the Marine Stewardship Council and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which is collaborating to promote sustainable fishing in Manitoba.

“Manitoba has a mandate to secure the sustainability and certification of our commercial fisheries,” Greg Nesbitt, minister of Natural Resources and Northern Development for the province, said at the launch. 

Manitoba boasts a sizable fishing industry, employing more than 2,300 people each year across 300 commercially fished lakes — particularly in rural and northern communities. 

Indigenous fishers make up 85 per cent of the province’s licensed commercial net fishers.

During the winter season, Manitoba is Canada’s largest supplier of freshwater fish — the industry generates more than $100 million to the local economy each year. As the province’s fourth-largest fishery, Cedar Lake alone generates between $600,000 and $1 million worth of fish each year. 

In spring 2022, the province announced a $2.5 million investment in the fishing industry, aimed at helping fisheries towards more sustainable practices and, eventually, eco-certification. The Sustainable Fisheries and Certification Program, supported by funds from Indigenous Services Canada, is helping pay for better data collection, commercial fishery certification and better marketing of sustainable Manitoba fish. 

Major retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods demand sustainable fish

The market for sustainably caught fish is growing, according to experts at Fish Forward. 

Businesses and non-profits are increasingly incentivizing fisheries to make sustainability a priority, with some major grocers choosing to only buy fish that sports the Marine Stewardship Council’s signature blue eco-certification label. 

In recent years, major retailer Walmart and its subsidiary Sam’s Club have required all their fish come from certified sustainable fisheries, causing Manitoba to miss out on an estimated $2.8 million in sales. When Whole Foods was looking to buy eco-certified walleye in 2015, Manitoba fisheries lost out. That same year California-based non-profit Seafood Watch called for a boycott of Manitoba fish, citing lacklustre fishery management and dubbing the commercial fisheries on Manitoba’s three largest lakes the worst managed in the world. Only the eco-certified fishers of Waterhen Lake were exempt. 

With more than 80 per cent of Manitoba fish sold to international markets — especially the United States — eco-certification has become an increasingly profitable option for fisheries.

Kurtis Hayne wears a dark suit and holds a microphone in front of a blue banner during a sustainable fishing announcement in Winniepg
Kurtis Hayne, program director of the Marine Stewardship Council in Canada, says sustainable fish will play a key role in global food security — and Manitoba can be a part of that. Photo: Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

“It helps ensure that fishery remains productive and in place for the long term,” Kurtis Hayne, program director of the Marine Stewardship Council in Canada, said in an interview after the Fish Forward launch. 

The council’s internationally recognized certification program sets standards for commercial fisheries looking to earn a sustainable designation. To get that certificate, fisheries need to make sure they’re minimizing their impact on the local ecosystem, the fishery is being well-managed for the long term and the fish stock is healthy and sustainable — meaning the lake isn’t being overfished.

Beyond the economic benefits, Hayne stressed sustainable fishing will play a key role in global food security in the years to come.  

“We face a challenge — globally and here in Canada — feeding a growing population while protecting the planet,” Hayne said. “And wild seafood is a huge part of that equation.”

Canada is home to approximately 30 certified fisheries. A little more than 60 per cent of the country’s wild-caught fish is eco-certified, compared to a global average of about 16 per cent, Hayne said. Right now about half of the fish in stores is imported, Hayne said, but he thinks that trend is set to change.

“With climate change there is a call to eat more locally because of carbon footprints,” Hayne said. “So it’s important that we maintain our fisheries as sustainable here.”

More than three billion people around the world rely on seafood as a key source of protein — including several northern Manitoba communities. 

“It’s really important we maintain the sustainability of those fish so they have that food security, they have those livelihoods and those communities remain thriving,” Hayne said. 

In Manitoba, sustainable fishing a way of life for generations

Walter Umpherville’s family has been fishing on Cedar Lake for three generations. His kids have joined the family business now, and he hopes this way of life will continue.

“I think it’s the future,” Umpherville said of the fishery’s new certification. The market for sustainably caught fish is growing, and the certification offers Cedar Lake both a competitive edge in the fishing industry and an assurance the community’s way of life will stand the test of time.

The Cedar Lake fishery was once on the brink of collapse. In 1996, the fishers approached the provincial government to propose a partnership allowing for better management of the lake. Between 1998 and 2003, the fishery voluntarily closed to allow the stock a chance to rebuild. When the fishery returned, it came with a new management plan that saw fewer licences and more specific quotas to preserve the health of the fish populations. 

Nowadays, the fishery keeps track of its stock, working collaboratively with the province to assess stock data and prepare annually adjusted quotas that adapt to the health of each fish species. Sections of the lake are intermittently closed off to avoid overfishing. Bycatch — unintentionally caught fish that can’t be sold — is minimized. Marine life in the lake is left to thrive. With their eco-certification in hand, the Cedar Lake fishery is hoping to expand into new markets, like Europe, in the years to come.

“It’s leaving something for my kids to look forward to,” George, Cedar Lake Fisheries’ president, said, adding he’s training his 15-year-old grandson in the family business already. 

All in all, George said, Cedar Lake is looking toward “a much brighter future.”

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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