MS & Q: NWT’s Deficit in Commercial Fishing Infrastructure

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. There are a lot of issues at the forefront  right now that I could speak about on,  but I’m going to start with an issue that I need to keep at the forefront: commercial fishing. Since 2014 the Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment has been talking about a strategy to revitalize the commercial fishing industry.

This is exactly the type of work the ITI should be undertaking. They are not trying to create an industry from nothing: we have a resource, there are markets for that resource, and there are entrepreneurs to drive the industry. There are many positive signs that the industry is, and will continue to grow. So far this season, commercial fishermen have brought in 1.2 million pounds – double the catch from only 3 years ago, and there is a course in the works to train the next generation of commercial fishermen. While there are undoubtedly positives, there is still work to be done, especially in addressing our infrastructure deficit.

We are no further ahead with either refurbishing the existing fish processing plant or construct a new one. This is an essential element to the Government’s strategy. Decades ago, the Territory entered into a deal with the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, which reports to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, so that our fishermen would be guaranteed resources and a buyer for their fish. However, Freshwater has failed to hold up their end of the bargain and let our certified fish processing plant fall below CFIA standards and turn into a receiving station, all for the sake of Freshwater’s bottom line.

I mentioned that the fishermen have doubled their catch in the past 3 years. However, there is a limit to how much that number can grow unless we have more access points on the lake, and redraw the lines of the existing quota zones. These are both the responsibility of DFO.

So, Mr. Speaker, what this all means is that we’ve gone from having 4 active packing plants, a modern processing facility, and 5 landing sites 25 years ago, to one receiving plant, one landing site, and an out of date zoning system.

This Government will be happy to know that I’m not looking for money to fix these issues, other than the $1.4 million already committed. I’m looking for political support. The Fishermen’s Federation engage DFO on a consistent basis, but they’ve hit a wall. They’re told by bureaucrats that in order to allocate the funds, and to make the changes needed to allow our fishing industry to grow, word must come down from the top. I know that the Minister of ITI has discussed the fishery with the Minister of DFO, but whatever came from that meeting did not trickle down. We need continuous political pressure, and follow up, so that we can support the fishermen who have been doing everything they can to rebuild an industry that was once the pride of Hay River, and I know can one day become the pride of the NWT.

Questions

MR. SIMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Earlier, I spoke about the infrastructure deficit when it comes to commercial fisheries in Hay River, so I have some questions for the Minister of ITI. As far as I understand, the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation is responsible for maintaining their commercial fishing infrastructure in the territory. Somehow, we let them shirk their responsibilities, and the fishermen are the ones who ultimately suffered. Now we’re left with a packing plant that needs about $2 million in upgrades to bring it up to code. I’d like an update on the status of the negotiations with Freshwater and when we can expect work to begin on our processing plant in Hay River. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

HON. WALLY SCHUMANN: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As the Member knows, because we are both from the fishing community of Hay River, how important to get this file moving is. The department is working closely with fresh water on trying to move this file along. As of the latest briefing that I’ve got, they were still in discussions with Freshwater Marketing Corporation on getting an MOU and business plan together, and like I say, on my latest briefing, I believe they’re going to try to bring something forward here within the next week or so for us to consider. So that’s where that’s at.

MR. SIMPSON: It’s good to hear that we’re moving and it should be in within a week. If a deal can’t be struck with Freshwater — given their track record, I’m not sure one can be, but I’m still hopeful — will the GNWT take the initiative and dip into that $1.4 million they’ve had set aside and build a fish processing plant in Hay River?

HON. WALLY SCHUMANN: The important thing about the $1.4 million that’s been carried over from last fiscal year to this fiscal year is for the Department of ITI to use that as leverage for the funding that we are putting forward to Cannore to give us the best potential to help build the plant in Hay River. That being said, the Member actually had two questions there, if we weren’t able to make a deal with Freshwater on that moving forward, what could we potentially do with that money. Well, that would have to be a discussion along with myself and our colleagues in this House if we want to wish shift the priorities of the use of that money. Right now it’s designated to use to leverage Cannore towards a position of potential completion of a fishing plant in Hay River.

MR. SIMPSON: I also mentioned that the Great Slave Lake has been neglected by DFO when it comes to the investment in harbors. You look at any lake in the south that’s utilized by the commercial fishing industry, especially one of comparable size, you’ll see just how bad our deficit is. This lack of access points combined with the outdated quota zones means that fish around the Great Slave Lake have to travel much farther than competitors in the south, it means their wages and the cost for equipment is much higher. It puts them at an immediate disadvantage. Because of the low-level engagement to address these issues, as in the Fishermen’s Federation talking to bureaucrats at DFO hasn’t been working, I’d like to know how the Minister is engaging the Department of Fisheries and Oceans so that we can move forward with this revitalization strategy in terms of harbor investment and rezoning.

HON. WALLY SCHUMANN: I guess previously when I was on the Metis Government Council we have a seat at the board of GSLAC, and GSLAC is a governing board that puts advisory suggestions along with DFO on how we’re going to use the lake, and this is one of the areas of discussions how we can re-divide up the lake and make better access points to be considered for the fisherman to access and make a little better living and be able to raise their quota on the lake. These discussions are ongoing. They recently had a meeting as early as last month, and there’s discussions still going on. I can state in this House when we were in Ottawa and I met with the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans that this was a point that was brought up at a political level when we were there and we will continue to try to move this forward.

MR. SIMPSON: As MLA for Hay River North, I regularly attend GSLAC meetings, I meet privately with the NWT Fishermen’s Federation president, I attend the NWT Fishermen’s Federation meetings, I talk to fishermen in Hay River. I know that these types of issues are brought to GSLAC, but aren’t addressed. When I went to my first GSLAC meeting, they brought up issues. We I to the second one, there were the same issues with absolutely no movement. If anything there was a denial of doing anything. I’ve also heard from the federation that when they talk to the bureaucrats they tell them, we need the word to come from the top down to make these changes. You know, we have a little bit of a constituency budget here, not much; it mostly goes to salary and running an office, but I would like to use that constituency budget – if the Minister would help me set up a meeting with the Minister of DFO – I’d like to take him, and I’ll take the NWT Fisheries Federation president and myself and we’ll go down there and we will meet with the Minister so we can start making progress on these issues. If the Minister insists on flying business class, maybe I can just send him and the president. How does the Minister respond to that?

HON. WALLY SCHUMANN: I thank the Member for his eagerness, but there is a process that we have in place here, and we’re engaging Freshwater Marketing Corp., we’re engaged with the federal government at our level, we have our colleagues on the other side of the House through committee. There’s a number of things that we need to do, and I think if time permitting let this process work its way through the system here for the next little bit. As I said, we’re getting very close to coming to an agreement with Freshwater, with an MOU and a business plan that we start moving on. As he stated, we are both from Hay River and this is an important file to us and we need to keep it moving. Just I ask the Member for a little more patience and we will consider what we’re doing moving forward.