Ontario freshwater fisheries call for support to weather COVID-19 impacts

The Ontario Commercial Fisheries’ Association (OCFA) is calling for support from the government and Canadians to assist in weathering the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has hit the freshwater fishing industry – which fishes on the Great Lakes – particularly hard, according to the OCFA. A survey conducted back in late March indicated that by that point, demand for freshwater fish had virtually evaporated.

“Most operators have experienced a near-100 percent revenue decline,” a release by the OCFA said. “There is no demand for freshwater fish.”

Ontario contains the largest freshwater fishery in North America – in 2018, the region harvested 24 million pounds of fish, worth CAD 44 million (USD 30.9 million, EUR 28.5 million). The majority of that harvest is yellow perch, pickerel (walleye in the U.S.), whitefish, and smelt. The Lake Erie fishery is the largest in the world to achieve Marine Stewardship Council certification.

That fishery, however, is in danger of collapsing entirely due to COVID-19. Processors, the OCFA release SAID, have lost long-standing distribution networks, and the closures of supermarket fish counters and restaurants throughout both Canada and the U.S. has resulted in markets for fish drying up. 

“Almost 100 percent of Ontario’s fishing fleet remains tied to the dock, as the fishermen have no place to sell their catch. The start of spring fishing season will be delayed, with a strong possibility that the season will be completely lost,” the OCFA said. “The industry is forecasting 80 percent of employees have or will be laid off.”

As a result of all the losses, the OCFA is requesting a minimum three-month extension on wage subsidies after the stay-and-shelter orders are removed; financial solutions that recognize the industry’s situation, as loan programs and principal deferrals aren’t doing enough; relief on royalty programs for the 2020 catch and possibly longer; and members are urging local residents to buy local.

“As the health crisis continues to build, the safety of our fishermen, employees, suppliers, processors, markets, and customers remains our number one priority,” the OCFA said. “However, the resulting economic fallout that is gripping the fishery will have far-reaching implications for all industry stakeholders for months and years to come.”  


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