Editorial: Feds must put the Ontario commercial fishery in the loop

Photojournalist Giovanni Capriotti had the opportunity to document ‘a day in the life’ with the crew of The Purvis fishing boat recently, part of the Purvis Fisheries fleet currently based out of Providence Bay. photos by Giovanni Capriotti

Manitoulin Island has often seemed like a precipitation pariah when it comes to Mother Nature’s liquid largesse, with much needed rain often heading south into Lake Huron or north to fall along the North Shore. These days the same can be said for federal relief funds as Ontario has been continually left out of the loop when it comes to programs aimed at supporting the commercial fishery.

The first round of funding announcements seemed promising, with significant funding aimed at the processing end of the industry. With stock piling up on the docks as the trawlers came in the need for expanded infrastructure increased, particularly freezers to hold over those fish no longer destined for the restaurant trade due to the COVID-19 shutdowns. But Ontario was left out of that program.

Then came funding for those engaged in the actual fishing with $10,000 available to each individual, but that $10,000 doesn’t go very far when you are trying to keep a business (and its accompanying jobs) afloat.

There are several things the government needs to do to assist the fishing industry in Ontario to transition and thrive in the post-COVID-19 marketplace. First and foremost is the inclusion of Ontario processors in those programs aimed at expanding the physical plant necessary to deal with the acute oversupply of product.

With the collapse of the restaurant trade came a complementary bump in the retail market, as more and more fish were going into homes. This works well for the aquaculture industry and has proven a bit of a lifeline to that industry, but the open water commercial fishery has again been left high and dry due to a lack of marketing muscle.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that entry into new markets when old ones fade away (or stop abruptly as in the case of the restaurant trade) comes at a time when cashflow is strapped and the necessary investment stretches further out of reach (along with market share) with each passing week if delay.

The retail market presents a burgeoning opportunity for Ontario’s commercial fishing industry, particularly given the demonstrable growing public awareness of the health benefits of fish and the likelihood that more people will be staying home even after the waves of the pandemic have subsided enough for life to return to a semblance of the pre-pandemic normal.

By ensuring that Ontario is not left out in the cold when it comes to supports for its commercial fishery, that includes funding to allow for the purchase and installation of the processing infrastructure necessary for value-added products that will assist in breaking into the growing opportunities in the retail trade, meaningful supports for the fishing companies beyond that of the individual fisherfolk and supports for a concerted marketing push to assist the commercial fishing industry to shoehorn into the opportunities in the retail market.

Too often the commercial fishing industry in Ontario misses the boat because it isn’t aquaculture and it isn’t agriculture—facing a Catch-22 lockout of the supports necessary to help keep the industry afloat and its employees out on the water helping to provide locally sourced fish for our dinner tables.

It’s past due for Ontario’s commercial fishing industry to be brought in from the cold.