Fishing woes
Worst winter commercial fishing season in 10 years

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 15/00) - Bad weather and poor ice conditions are to blame for a dismal winter commercial fishing season on Great Slave Lake.

"Looking back on the last 10 years I'd say that this was one of the worst seasons we had on Great Slave Lake," said David Bergunder, zone manager for Great Slave Lake in Hay River with the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp.

According to a report by the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp., commercial fishermen's catches have diminished for the second straight year.

In the winter of 1998-99, extremely mild temperatures prevented ice on the lake from freezing well enough for commercial fisherman to get to their fishing grounds at a reasonable date.

And during freeze-up, the ice froze and then broke up a number of times, creating very "rough ice" conditions, further hampering fisherman from getting to their fishing grounds.

"We finally made a buck a pound (for whitefish) but we couldn't reach them," said Bergunder.

As a result, production of whitefish for the 1999/2000 season dropped by almost 30,000 kilograms from the previous year.

One of the most significant drops in production occurred with catches for burbot (maria), with only 4,424 kilograms caught compared with 63,476 kilograms the year before.

Overall, fish catches on Great Slave Lake dropped 95,217 kilograms from last year -- from 413,860 kilograms in 1998/99 to 318,643 kilograms this year.

"The season was not as good as the year before," said Marius McCallum, a commercial fisherman based out of Hay River, who fishes in Deep Bay.

"We had lots of wind come in Christmas Eve. I was OK but for the other guys on the Hay River side, the ice broke off and moved out and some guys lost nets and tubs out there (on the ice)."

Extreme winds occurring on Dec. 24 broke the "off" shore ice and a number of nets were lost.

It was not until mid-January that fishermen were able to gain access to the deep water offshore. When they finally did get out onto the ice, many fishermen had trouble finding the fish.

Frustrated fishermen rapidly reset their nets and began fishing again. Fuelling their frustration was a huge increase in gas prices that inflated operating costs.

On a positive note, a new initiative by the sales department at Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. focuses on increasing sales of burbot (maria).

"We've been selling maria for years but it doesn't seem to do much. The problem is that we should have been selling fresh samples instead of frozen ones.

"In the marketplace, there is always a home for everything at a certain price. What we want to do is get a better price (for burbot)."

The price for burbot this season will stand at 33 cents a pound, down from the previous year.