A good run may make for more work, but Marius McCallum wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’ve had good weather this year,” he said while unloading his latest catch at Fisherman’s Wharf. “It’s been good fishing out there going on two weeks. We normally only get one.”
McCallum is part of an industry that helped found Hay River, but has been largely scaled down in recent decades. A combination of economic factors, greater opportunities for employment elsewhere in Canada, and the harsh realties of life as a fisherman on Great Slave Lake have contributed to the industry’s slump, but the NWT Fishermen’s Federation is working hard to change that.
“We’re trying to revitalize this industry,” said Burt Buckley Sr., a board member with the federation. “Last year we closed the plant in October, and we’re going to close it in October again this year.”
In previous years, a lack of interest and working fishing boats closed the Hay River fish plant much earlier.
Buckley said this year there are a few more fishermen from outside the territory, as well as a few more local residents plying the waters.
“There are just more fish to put through, so we’ll stay open for the whole season,” he said.
This is the first year parts of the process and the plant itself are being run by the federation and not by the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, and, although Buckley said it’s still early days, he is so far pleased with the results.
“We’ve taken over the fish-weighing aspect of it,” he said. “It used to be Freshwater hired a guy who would weigh everything, but we’ve taken it upon ourselves this year.”
The federation has also hired a worker to deal with human resources and payroll concerns.
Buckley said the current system is an improvement, but that there is still a ways to go in terms of development for the local fishing industry falling under its own jurisdiction.
“We’re in the very early stages of trying to get our own plant built,” he said, citing energy inefficiencies and the “dilapidated” condition of the current plant as reasons for needing a new facility. “We want something that will take less energy and be more efficient. We can be an agent for Freshwater. That means we can dictate how we work.”
Industry developments aside, it’s the lifestyle that keeps fishermen coming back each season, according to Buckley.
“Very stubborn individuals make for good fishermen,” he noted. “Otherwise, they would be doing something else, for sure.”
Buckley said some people think fishermen work easy hours, but those people don’t realize that, while he gets home from work around 3 p.m., he left at 2 a.m.
“People don’t see us work,” he said. “You can drive by a truck on the road and see what they’re doing to some extent, but no one is out on the lake with us watching us fish.”
McCallum employs a younger helper for the season to help him on his boat, saying the physical nature of the labour can be hard sometimes.
“It’s hard work, but it’s a way of life,” he said, while hoisting crates filled with ice and fish from the dock into the back of a truck. “You can’t help it, it’s in the blood.”
— Sarah Ladik