Great Slave Lake fishermen worried
Subsidy cut could cripple fishery

by Mark Sproxton
Northern News Services

NNSL (May 12/97) - Fishing on Great Slave Lake hangs in the balance with a 20 per cent cut to the territorial fishing subsidy.

Scores of jobs on the lake could be lost if the territorial government goes ahead with the approximate $100,000 cut, said Kim Tybring, a member of the NWT Fishermen's Federation.

"You can't measure the effect of a loss like that," he said. "There's about 175 jobs created on the lake and we figure a substantial portion will be gone.

"With the price the way it is, personally, I don't want to sail. I'm fortunate enough I can go do something else. Many others can't. I feel sorry for them."

The fish rate subsidy helps offset the cost of doing business in the high-cost North while competing against southern fishers.

The volume-based subsidy helps cover such items as road and lake freight costs.

Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development officials announced a cut to the subsidy at the fishermen's annual spring meeting April 26 in Hay River.

The cut translates into a seven- to eight-cents-a-pound loss to the fishermen, Tybring said.

Part of the subsidy is paid in the summer and amounts to about 50 per cent of the market value of the fish. The winter portion covers about 12 per cent of the market value of the fish.

In 1996-97 the total subsidy paid to fishermen equalled $526,000. For 1997-98, the budget has been approved just $398,000, said Bob McLeod, assistant deputy minister of RWED.

"Our budgets have been reduced and everybody's getting hit," he said. "We're trying to deal with it as equitably as possible."

Coupled with soft fish markets in which whitefish prices continue to fall, it won't make economic sense for most operations to continue, Tybring added.

But while the immediate future looks bleak, fishermen and the government have also agreed to work together on an economic study of the lake and fishing methods.

This may prove worthwhile because it could mean more efficient operations, Tybring said. Possible changes include using nets with smaller holes, translating into more fish caught with fewer nets and less time spent fishing.

He estimates the study could take two years.

"We want to work with the fishermen and we definitely want to start as soon as possible," McLeod said.

"We're not exactly sure of the impact on the community yet. Hopefully the study will minimize those impacts."

Any changes that will help the fishermen would be great, said Dave Bergunder, manager of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation in Hay River.

The FFMC buys the fish from fishers at a predetermined price and sells it on the market.

This year the FFMC is paying two cents a pound less for whitefish than last year. Whitefish makes up about 80 per cent of the Great Slave Lake catch.

Competition from international fishers is forcing lower prices through the FFMC, Bergunder said.

In the meantime, Hay River MLA Jane Groenewegen said she will work with the fishermen to try and help them make their case to other members of the legislative assembly when it sits later this month.

"The option for alternative employment is limited," she said. "This government needs to consider that.

"I'm not saying a government subsidy is the entire answer, but this will have a significant economic impact."