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North. Sask fishers weather a dry summer

June once meant hundreds of pounds of walleye flopping on the deck of John Beatty’s small fishing boat on Deschambault Lake.

June once meant hundreds of pounds of walleye flopping on the deck of John Beatty’s small fishing boat on Deschambault Lake.

Beatty, the vice-president of Saskatchewan Cooperative Fishing Limited, helps professionally represent hundreds of fishers who’ve been grounded as depressed demand and physical distancing guidelines staggered inland fisheries.

For him, the recent restaurant reopenings, under the province’s COVID-19 pandemic plan, were cold comfort.

“I miss being out there. It’s been a miserable spring so far,” Beatty said. “But I don’t miss the wind. I don’t miss the rain, the big waves. I miss being out there, where … it’s nice and quiet.”

Reopened restaurants were little relief because local buyers generate only enough demand for small-scale fishers peddling close to home. To work, fishers like Beatty ship larger catches further afield.

Processing operations also aren’t an option, he said. Weighing and packaging fish in ice slurry to ship requires close-quarters work that’s barred under physical distancing.

If that wasn’t so, Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation in Winnipeg would typically buy the catch and send it to market, but it’s tamped down on walleye purchases, and most other species aren’t worth casting a net for, according to Beatty. Even if they were, buyers in Minnesota and surrounding states aren’t interested, he added.

“We’re hit on all sides.”

He estimates local fishers contribute about $500,000 to Deschambault Lake’s economy. Dwindling income has led him to wait for news of markets opening up, but so far there’s nothing. In the meantime, he sometimes checks his equipment, hoping for a chance to fish again.

In May, Beatty was concerned freshwater fisheries were left out of a federal aid package valued at $62 million, which was granted to coastal fisheries. He called on the federal government for extended employment insurance benefits, and more money to improve local docks, ice sheds and processing plants.

The Prince Albert Grand Council and Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron backed those calls. In an email, Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River MP Gary Vidal said he raised the issues and that changes are underway to allow the federal aid program to help fishers in the region.

Beatty said he’s encouraged by promises of support, but he’s waiting for more word.

“The talk is good. Let’s see where it goes.”

He’s not alone. John Carriere, who lives in Cumberland House, has worked in commercial fishing since 1970 and wants more investment.

The region’s industry will bounce back, but the crisis underscores the need for more processing capacity and access to market, he said.

Without it, Carriere misses the independence of working outdoors, and bonding with his children and grandchildren over cast nets. When the season’s at its peak, that may mean 14-to 16-hour days. In the meantime, he’s catching and releasing sturgeon and waiting patiently for the work that supported his family for decades.

“Our seasonal occupation in the north keeps us alive. I think that’s why we’re still there,” he said.