Commercial fishing buoyant
Summer numbers better than last year but behind '96

Doug Ashbury
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 14/98) - Great Slave Lake commercial fish production is set to eclipse last year's, figures from the Hay River Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation show.

Total fish production from the week ending May 30 to the week ending Sept. 5 was 501,179.2 kilograms.

The half-million kilogram figure compares with 555,283 kilograms processed for all of last summer and 764,780 in all of summer 1996.

When comparing figures from 1998 to previous years, it's important to remember the season runs to mid to late October.

Whitefish, as usual, dominated the take making up 75.9 per cent of the total weight so far.

Some 380,470.9 kilograms of whitefish were processed at the corporation's three plants located in Hay River, Moraine Bay and Wool Bay.

"There's been some good things this summer and some not so good things," Dave Bergunder, the corporation's NWT zone manager, said.

The good news is that production through the week of Sept. 5 is up at all three processing sites.

At Hay River, total fish production is up about 21,000 kilograms so far while total production at Moraine and Wool bays are up about 40,000 kilograms and 12,000 kilograms respectively so far.

"The bad news is Wool Bay has shut down," Bergunder said.

"If we were able to fish until the end of the season (late October) we would have had a tremendous year."

Wool Bay is about 25 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife. Moraine Bay is about 90 kilometres north of Hay River.

Bergunder said two of the major fishing boats that supply Wool Bay opted to stop for the season. Poor weather was cited.

Markets were good, largely due to the weak Canadian dollar. In spring, the corporation announced it would pay a ten-cent per-pound premium until Aug. 22, then remove the premium. But the market was good enough to sustain a five-cent premium, Bergunder said.

"We were an exporter and we benefited from the low dollar. We were one of the winners. We passed that on to fishermen."

Much of the corporation's fish is bought by Korean and Japanese buyers, but the currency used is US dollars.

Hay River's plant will start whitefish roe processing soon.

Bergunder predicts the corporation will produce about 1,300 kilograms of golden caviar from whitefish eggs. Historically, the corporation makes about 2,600 kilograms of caviar per year.

The corporation is paying fishermen about $5.35 per kilogram of eggs. That translates into about nine cents for each kilogram of fish processed.

Creating caviar is very labour-intensive, from removing the eggs when the fish are dressed by the fishermen, to decanting impurities at the plant.

"Whitefish eggs are extremely perishable," Bergunder said.

The corporation packages the caviar in 11- kilogram pails that are then shipped to the corporation's head office in Winnipeg where it is repackaged into smaller containers for sale to European, the Far East as well as US and Canadian markets.

The product sells for about $7 a kilogram.

There are about 45 steel boats involved in the Great Slave Lake fishing industry, each with a crew of four or five people. As well, the corporation gets some fish from about 20 skiffs operated on the lake.

"I hope the weather doesn't hurt us. We'd like to see more volume," Bergunder said.

The corporation could supply a Florida buyer with 45,000 kilograms of maria (freshwater cod).

The order came in the spring and the corporation is still filling it. As of Sept. 5, 26,393 kilograms of maria had been processed.

China connection?

As for future developments, the corporation is talking with delegates of the China Heilongjiang International Project and Technical Cooperation Group. The group is looking to set up a joint-venture mink farm in the NWT. Fish remains could serve as food for the mink.

If it were to go ahead, the corporation would buy fish remains from the fishermen then sell it to the mink farm joint venture.

Members of the Chinese delegation toured the fish plant in Hay River last month.