Despite soaring fuel prices and strict regulations, Hay River fishermen are still finding ways to persevere. Shawn Buckley, with over 30 years of commercial fishing under his belt, had a good summer.
“The fishing was good, above average even,” he said.
Buckley is one of 10-12 remaining commercial fishermen in Hay River, a far cry from 2004 when more than 75 worked full-time on Great Slave Lake.
Numbers have dwindled since the 1990s, when regulations were implemented by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to protect certain species of fish, including the inconnu, more commonly known as the coney.
“On Great Slave Lake, fisheries management is a matter of achieving a balance between subsistence, sport and commercial fishing versus the sustainability of all fish species and stocks,” according to the 2005 NWT Environmental Audit.
A shoreline area spanning 10 miles was created to help re-populate the fish, and although its numbers have risen since then, Buckley is skeptical about what initially caused the decrease.
“The stocks have rebounded pretty well, but we’re not sure if the fishermen or colder temperatures were to blame in the first place,” he said.
Buckley supports federal initiatives to help protect certain species, but he believes this regulation is overwhelming for Hay River fishermen who just can’t afford to go out that far.
“Ten miles is ridiculously far,” he said. “It may not seem like it from the shore, but it is, especially in a 20-to-30-foot boat. If you factor in fuel, it’s very expensive. I hope they do something about it soon.”
Long-time fisherman Alex Morin feels the same way. After more than 40 years in the business, his fishing equipment was seized in 1993 when he failed to pay off outstanding debts. He believes high operating costs are killing the Hay River fishing industry.
“Somebody needs to rock the boat. For some, fishing and trapping is all we know,” he said, noting Hay River has lost many people in the fishing industry if you count fishermen, truckers and others. “We’re controlled.”
Morin addressed a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in August. In it, he mentions the 10-mile regulation and asserts that no species are being threatened in Great Slave Lake.
“Freshwater (Fish Marketing Corporation) is promoting fishermen from southern Canada to come and fish these waters. These fishermen have access to larger boats and can fish at this distance restriction. My concerns again are for the small fishing operations and local people who would like to fish for their own consumption – this ruling will allow only large commercial fishing to take place,” the letter read.
While fuel prices and regulations may hinder Buckley’s ambitions, one aspect of the business has improved.
“Fish prices have rebounded,” he said. “There’s a strong demand for Great Slave whitefish. But you know, I’ll fish a bit of everything. If you need walleye, I’ll go out there and I’ll get the walleye.”
— Myles Dolphin