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Just like on Great Slave Lake on a windy day, plans for commercial fishery revitalization – particularly a new fish plant in Hay River – have hit rough water.

That uncertainty was evident last week in both the Legislative Assembly and at a meeting in Hay River of the NWT Fishermen’s Federation (NWTFF).

In the legislative assembly on May 24, Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson asked Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) Minister Wally Schumann for an update on the proposed new fish plant, especially the possibility of federal funding.

Schumann replied that initial discussions are looking “very promising” and he would make an announcement at the appropriate time.

Simpson also noted concerns from fishermen about the operation and maintenance costs of the proposed multi-million-dollar plant, which has yet to have an exact price tag.

“There are some fishermen who are concerned that the department is going to saddle them essentially with this massive fish plant and they might not be able to afford it in the future if times get bad,” said Simpson.

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Schumann noted a business plan was developed in partnership with the Tlicho Co-operative, the business arm of the NWTFF.

“The accounts for utilities were part of the operational expense,” the minister said. “The business plan was based on a worst-case scenario, and it still shows a profit based on the historic catches of the lake, and especially the latest quotas we have been pulling out of the lake.”

When Simpson asked the minister about concerns that a new fish plant would encroach on local markets that some fishers have developed, Schumann said the intent of the strategy is not to compete with or displace existing sales channels.

As for the status of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC), the federal body which owns the existing fish plant, Schumann said the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has still have not indicated what the future plans are regarding FFMC in the Northwest Territories

Rough seas at fisher meeting

On May 26, the very same issues plus others were raised at a three-hour meeting in Hay River by the NWT Fishermen’s Federation.

That meeting was attended by 25 people – fishers and representatives of ITI, FFMC and K’atlodeeche First Nation.

Some fishers raised concerns about the possible large size of a new plant, its possible effects on local sales by fishers, whether there are enough people entering the fishery to justify a new plant, whether it would be more appropriate to create more receiving stations around Great Slave Lake before a new plant is built, and much more.

However, the meeting mainly focused on the proposed new fish plant.

Bert Buckley Sr. said there is a “fear factor” among fishers that it would be too big to sustain.

Tom Colosimo, ITI’s superintendent in the South Slave, said the plant will be designed for the amount of fish now landed and can be scaled up to handle increased catches in the future.

Peter Redvers, director of lands, resources and negotiations with K’atlodeeche First Nation, noted KFN had an outside group called the National Indigenous Fisheries Institute look at the revitalization strategy and the plant proposal.

“They indicated there were some gaps in it and that there were some problems with it,” he said, adding plans for a plant may be moving ahead too quickly without a proper understanding of possible markets.

Redvers suggested a “pause” of maybe two or three months to review the revitalization strategy and form a working group with various parties to take a closer look at it and decide how to move forward collaboratively.

Dave Bergunder, vice-president of field operations for the FFMC, agreed it would be a “wise approach” to take a pause and weigh various options.

Bergunder said establishing collection sites around the lake might be even more important than a new fish plant.

Stacy Linington, the former president of the NWTFF, cautioned a delay might affect the availability of government funding.

“It might never be there again,” said Linington.

In addition, he claimed a silent majority of fishers support a new plant.

After hearing the various concerns, Colosimo explained that, while the GNWT is proposing to build a plant and own the building, the operations will be the responsibility of the NWTFF.

“The GNWT is not driving this process,” he said.

Colosimo noted that, despite the concerns, the plant has not even been designed yet and the GNWT will not build it over the objections of the federation.

The meeting ended without any decision by the federation on how to proceed.

Colosimo suggested the federation get back to ITI at a later date and offer some direction on how it wants to move forward.

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