Alberta pushing Fort Chip commercial fishers north to Great Slave Lake

Alberta pushing Fort Chip commercial fishers north to Great Slave Lake
Boats on Lake Athabasca head back to Fort Chipewyan. New laws to end commercial fishing in Alberta mean the approximately 20 remaining commercial fishermen will have to travel north to Great Slave Lake to keep working.Photo: File photo.

After 57 years of setting his nets on Lake Athabasca, Ray Ladouceur is out of work, a victim of the Alberta government’s decision in August to end commercial fishing across the province.

“We’re looking for compensation, but so far, nothing has been offered,” Ladouceur told The Journal last week.

“This was done to appease the sports fishermen in the south,” and to silence criticism of the impact bitumen mining is having on fish and people downstream from Fort McMurray, he said.

“If no one is fishing the lake, then there’s no one to complain about what’s happening to the fish and the people who eat them,” said Ladouceur, who has caught fish with lesions and boils which he attributes to chemicals in the water.

By Ladouceur’s estimate, about 20 commercial fishermen were working out of Fort Chipewyan, compared to 60 or more who called the community home port when he started setting nets on the lake.

The Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. (FFMC) expects that some of the 174 commercial fishermen displaced by the Alberta government decision will join the handful who travel north to Great Slave Lake for the summer fishing season.

John Wood, president of FFMC, said the company, which has a monopoly to export fish from the prairies, has been working with the territorial government to strengthen the fishery on Great Slave Lake.

“A number of Alberta fishers are planning to continue their commercial fishing businesses by moving to Great Slave Lake either permanently or for the summer fishing season,” Wood told The Journal.

“This will greatly help the rebuilding of the fishery on Great Slave Lake and will replace the volume of whitefish previously received from Alberta.”

Apart from the loss of their own fishery, the potential lure for Alberta commercial fishermen is the sudden opening in the market for prized whitefish roe, Wood said.

“Alberta represented 50 per cent of the whitefish roe supply,” Wood said, and FFMC will lose the market for this high-demand product, “at least temporarily.”

Some Alberta fishermen have claimed annual earnings of $300,000 a year from whitefish roe, which is harvested in mid-October, well after Great Slave lake fishermen have hauled in the nets for the season.

“Time will tell what the long-term effects will be,” Wood said. “Freshwater will continue to work with Northwest Territories government and fishers from Alberta and NWT to rebuild and strengthen the fishery on Great Slave Lake.”

The Great Slave Lake fishery has been in the doldrums for a decade – a victim of economics. Pinched by the rising cost of fuel and falling prices for whitefish, the lake’s dominant species, fishermen have moved on to jobs in other industries.

Last year, NWT Industry Minister Dave Ramsay made a pitch to the federal parliamentary committee on fisheries for $5 million in aid to revive the industry. That money could bring as many as 200 commercial fishermen to the lake, Ramsay told the committee.

The federal government has not responded, but the territorial government has promised $250,000 to rebuild the Hay River processing plant as part of the strategy to attract more commercial fishermen.

For Ray Ladouceur, the death of commercial fishing in Alberta is “the worst thing that ever happened to our community,” but he’s not about to head north.

Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather when he was 15, Ladouceur said he was the first man to make $300 a month on Lake Athabasca.

Now, commercial fishermen in Fort Chipewyan are stuck with equipment they can’t use unless they heed the call of the Northwest Territories.

“I’m too old for that,” said Ladouceur, who spent $9,000 for an outboard motor. His boat cost another $8,600, and he thinks the government should step up with compensation.

“That’s my livelihood they took away,” Ladouceur said.

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