Derek Forsbloom took to Great Slave Lake’s northern waters as a part-time commercial fisher 15 years ago.
As an Indigenous person, Forsbloom said, he has always lived off the land and set nets for fish. He bought a commercial licence so he could keep up with growing demand.
“I enjoyed it, working on the water and on the land,” Forsbloom told Cabin Radio.
In 2018, his business had grown so big he decided to build a Canadian Food Inspection Agency-certified processing facility in Yellowknife so he could sell his harvest to markets beyond the city.
Today, Forsbloom’s business – NWT Fish Company – is one of the territory’s few CFIA-licensed fish plants. While the Covid-19 pandemic had a significant negative impact on demand for his products, he estimates his revenue for 2022 will be four times what it was last year.
But as Forsbloom enters one of his best years yet, he worries his business – and the larger North Slave fishery – will be left behind as the territory moves to transform Great Slave Lake’s fishing industry.
On Monday, the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment updated MLAs on its Great Slave Lake fishery revitalization strategy.
ITI’s director of economic diversification, Joel Holder, said the largest single investment in that revitalization effort is a new, CFIA-approved processing plant in Hay River, now set to be operational by the summer of 2023.
The plant will be operated by the Tu Cho Fishers’ Cooperative, which signed a 2020 memorandum of understanding with the GNWT to increase return on investment in the industry and offer Great Slave fishers greater independence from the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, a federal agency that currently controls pricing of fish exports outside the territory.
Lack of local control over pricing is considered a barrier to retaining fishers and attracting new people to fish the lake.
With construction of the new Hay River plant under way, the department has been working with the Tu Cho Fishers’ Cooperative to bring new entrants into the industry – needed to meet quotas the new plant will demand.
Recruitment efforts include training in basic boating skills and captain qualifications in communities around the lake. Holder said ITI will work with federal and territorial departments to offer prolonged apprenticeship opportunities that give individuals interested in joining the industry a chance to work for a couple of weeks on a boat.
“It’s through the community training programs where we hope to find the next boat captains and deckhands,” Holder said, adding that while ITI’s priority is to attract local fishers to fill the labour needs of the expanding industry, the department may need to look south for new workers.
Training not the problem
Forsbloom does not think training, or lack thereof, is the primary issue when it comes to bringing new fishers to the north side of the lake.
“The number-one issue we’ve got here is we need the equipment to fish, for sure,” said Forsbloom. “But the overreaching issue, flat out, is that we should have a free market system, like everywhere else in the Canada and in the world.”
He said a greater investment in mechanized winter fishing technologies – and access to an open market – would make the Great Slave fishery more economically promising for those who are currently not interested because of low yields and low price points.
Forsbloom said he struggles to meet demand because the fishers he works with don’t have the equipment they need to work more efficiently.
“If we have that,” he said, “the fishers are going to have the sales they need to make this a viable economy on the north side of the lake.”
ITI offers funding for commercial fishing equipment through the Northern Food Development Program, but according to Forsbloom, this financial support barely makes a dent in the investments needed to enter the industry, often in the $50,000 to $70,000 range.
Fear of a Hay River monopoly
Forsbloom thinks there is reluctance on the part of government officials to confirm their intentions to develop an open market fishery.
“To me, this is exactly the same way of saying: ‘We’re going to give a monopoly to the Hay River plant’,” he said.
Forsbloom says he supports development of the Hay River plant. He understands the value of a high-volume, locally run processing facility in the NWT. But he said it shouldn’t be the only business model.
He said if the federal FFMC’s current monopoly is transferred to another corporate entity, such as the Hay River plant or the Tu Cho Fishers’ Cooperative, lack of infrastructure on the north shore would make it difficult for him to keep up with the high-yield demands of the plant.
“It’s a huge concern. If the monopoly gets transferred over to the Hay River plant, or to the Co-op, I don’t think you’ll see any fishermen in Yellowknife,” Forsbloom said.
“The fishers that I’ve talked to, they want to be able to provide fish to the cooperative if there’s market value, and they want the ability to sell it to someone else if there’s better market value.”
Cameron Beaverbones is president of the Tu Cho cooperative. He’s been fishing out of Hay River for almost 30 years, the last 12 of which have been on his own boat.
He said he doesn’t understand why Forsbloom and other north shore fishers are concerned.
“It shouldn’t bother them,” he said. “There’s a big quota over there. You’re never going to catch that quota. There’s not enough fishermen.”
In Monday’s meeting, ITI minister Caroline Wawzonek said the department does also offer support to the industry in general, even those who aren’t members of the Tu Cho cooperative.
“It’s not meant to be a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said. “It really is still meant to support fishers, the fishing industry in the communities, and this is just giving another opportunity, hopefully.”
Forsbloom said that without support through new equipment or the guarantee of an open market, the first-come, first-served quota system on the lake – legislated by the federal agency Fisheries and Oceans Canada – will mean those with the newest, most efficient technologies will be able to drain quotas more quickly and still make a profit selling higher yields to Tu Cho at a lower price that many north shore fishers can afford.
“None of the people in Yellowknife have the equipment necessary to get the volume to make a living doing it,” he said.