Northern Sask. fishers triple harvest of once undervalued fish now prized for caviar


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Northern Sask. fishers triple harvest of once undervalued fish now prized for caviar's Profile

A year after getting unprecedented returns from harvesting tullibee under a new program, commercial fishers in Pinehouse Lake, Sask., tripled their harvest in October.

In just over two weeks of fishing, 14 commercial fishers from the nearby predominantly Métis village of Pinehouse, which is about 375 kilometres north of Saskatoon, harvested more than148,000 kilograms of tullibee, according to the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. (FFMC).

In 2021, Freshwater said eight fishers harvested nearly 46,000 kilograms.

The total return split by the fishers and their labourers last year — including for other fish caught in the harvest — was just over $230,000. One fisher told CBC he grossed in 16 days what he sometimes makes in a year.

This year, the total return to the Pinehouse Lake fishers was about $798,000 — or an average of about $57,000 per fisher.

Last year, the fishers initially received $1.95/kg for their tullibee before it rose to $2.16/kg. This year, the price they received started at $2.58/kg before ending up at $3.14.

Plant packing fish at ‘fantastic, great speed’

Dave Bergunder, FFMC’s vice-president of field operations, called this fall’s harvest a “huge success.”

“But the success belongs to the fishermen, and to the plant and to all the workers and the community there,” he said. “That’s what made it successful.”

The tullibee are caught for their roe — which are then sold as caviar in Europe, primarily in Sweden and Finland. FFMC’s tullibee caviar is a salted product that is sold in stores and used in restaurants.

Bergunder said they’ve developed a fishery that’s really benefited the community, adding the tullibee harvest — which was in its third year — is now a “little more polished.”

“They’re really looking after the product very well,” he said. “The plant is putting it through in a fantastic, great speed.”

Some tullibee caviar on top of a dish served in restaurants in Sweden and Finland.
An image of tullibee caviar from Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation marketing material. (Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation)

Bergunder says possible changes next year include expanding to more lakes, as well as Saskatchewan-based processing. Currently, the eggs from the tullibee are processed in Winnipeg.

Without identifying them, he said two other northern Saskatchewan communities have inquired about having similar tullibee harvesting programs.

“I think the news has gotten out,” he said. “People have heard the dollar values of what’s happening here, and so people are calling out: ‘Hey, will you do this here?'”

Bergunder says government biologists will determine what can be sustainably harvested because no one wants to hurt the resource.

“We don’t want to mess this thing up. It’s a great thing for the community,” he said. “We don’t want to kill the golden goose here.”

Fish population seems strong

Mark Duffy, a fisheries management specialist with Saskatchewan Environment, says the ministry doesn’t know how many tullibee are in Pinehouse Lake or how the recent harvests have affected their numbers. But based on what the ministry has heard from commercial fishers and recreational anglers, he says, fish populations in the lake seem to be strong.

“We have consistent catches year over year and generally if we don’t get complaints then things are looking pretty good for us,” he said.

Duffy says the ministry has a small team of biologists doing a lot of work in the Île a la Crosse and Buffalo Narrows area, but haven’t been to Pinehouse Lake in a number of years.

The ministry is planning to turn its attention to the Pinehouse Lake tullibee fishery next year — including watching for any changes to the northern pike or walleye populations because they prey on tullibee, Duffy says.

“We want to make sure that we’re able to monitor that, and catch things if there is any harm done to the fishery before it really becomes too bad and irreversible,” he said.

Duffy says the ministry watches to see how long it takes fishers on Pinehouse Lake to reach their quotas on other species, such as walleye and northern pike, something that seems to  be fairly stable year after year.

“If they start taking a long time to catch the same amount of fish, then there are some concerns there,” he said.

He says the ministry’s work on determining the overall health of the fishery will include weighing whether there needs to be any quota put on the number of tullibee harvested in the fall.

Selling what used to be left for scavengers

Mike Natomagan, the mayor of Pinehouse and the president of the Kineepik Métis Local, believes the lake can handle this harvest given that fishers have been harvesting large amounts of tullibee as bycatch in the winter for decades.

“There’s no change here except that we have a market for tullibee,” he said. “Because this is how our fishermen were fishing before — only that they left all this tullibee on the ice for animals and birds.

“And now they found a market a month early that they can fish in open water and sell it.”

Natomagan says the harvest has definitely provided an economic boost to the village and he hopes it stays.

“You can see it and feel it within our community,” he said. “It boosts up a community for a month to have 50 to 70 people practising that traditional harvesting. We’ve been in a down time, especially with wild rice and fishing.”

Lionel Smith, a fisher and the chair of the fishing co-operative in Pinehouse, says three-quarters of local fishers’ work during the winter harvest is discarding “rough fish” they catch, such as tullibee, and leaving more than 200,000 kilograms on the ice for scavengers.

“We have too much out there, so this is how we can control it,” he said.

Local fishers can harvest even more, he says, but they will be meeting with Freshwater and the environment ministry next summer to determine the right amount to catch.

“We can double this but we’ve got to decide at what point are we going to harm the lake,” he said.

Still, Smith says, this fall’s harvest was a good thing because he had previously thought his village would lose its commercial fishing industry in five to 10 years.

He said the fishers’ big haul created a lot of interest in the village.

“As soon as it started happening, I could hear the comments in the community: ‘Which licences are available? How can we do better? How can I get in?'” he said. “And that’s a kind of buzz I haven’t seen in the 40 years I’ve been fishing.

“To me, it went excellent — more than perfect.”

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