By Keith Norbury

Canada’s seacoasts, East and West, are not the only sources of fish ex­ports from this country.

Commercial fishers pull millions of pounds of walleye, lake whitefish, freshwater mullet, and pike out of inland waters in Manitoba and elsewhere on the Prairies. While most of the catch is destined for the United States, product is also being exported to such faraway locales as France, Finland, Russia, and Iran.

“We sell about 20 million pounds of product a year,” said Jay Middah, Marketing Manager for the Freshwater Fishing Marketing Corporation, a federal Crown corporation based in Winnipeg. Eighty-three per cent is exported, with 62 per cent of production going to the U.S., according to the corporation’s 2011 annual report. France accounts for nine per cent of the market, and Finland for five per cent.

“We can only sell so much fish here in Canada,” Mr. Middah said.

Compared to ocean fisheries, Canada’s freshwater fisheries are tiny. The latter accounted for only three per cent of the country’s commercial fishing value and output in 2008, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). However, it is a niche market in the fishery world, Mr. Middah said. “And we’re a big company in our little niche market.”

While his company buys the catch from about 2,000 fishermen in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Northern Alberta, the most important source is Lake Winnipeg. The corporation, which also operates a 110,000 square foot processing plant in Winnipeg, is entirely self-sustaining, covering all its expenses from sales.

“A lot of people think we’re burning taxpayer dollars, but we’re not.” Mr. Middah said.

In fact, the corporation turned a $1.3 million profit in 2010/11.

The major freshwater fish is walleye, or yellow pickerel. In 2010, the walleye catch in Canada totaled 7,725 tonnes with a landed value of $24.7 million. Almost $16 million of that was from Manitoba lakes. Mr. Middah’s plant processes walleye for export, primarily to the U.S.

A weakening U.S. dollar has hit that market, however. So the corporation has been diversifying its walleye trade, making its first sales of the species to Germany in 2009/10, which the annual report called “a unique success.”

Another significant species is lake whitefish. Again, the U.S. is a major market, but Finland, Russia, Poland and Germany also import lake whitefish, which is “a cousin” of whitefish species native to those countries.

“But they just don’t have sustainable fisheries there that can support the demand. So it’s a really good opportunity for us,” Mr. Middah said.

Pike is another valued export market. In 2010, Manitoba waters produced 1,391 tonnes of pike with a landed value of $1.1 million, according to DFO. That accounted for about three quarters of Canada’s pike landings.

About 95 per cent of Manitoba pike ends up in France, although some of the pike is first shipped frozen to China for processing before continuing to its final destination. In China, the pike is partially defrosted and then deboned. It’s a tricky operation because of Y-shaped bones that run the length of pike fillets. Deboning machines or tweezers, which work well on cod fillets, cannot be used on pike because they shred pike fillets.

“Transportation costs are inexpensive relative to labour costs for processing,” Mr. Middah said. “However, you send it to China for processing, and they take out the bones, trim it nicely, put it into nice little portions and package it for a fraction of our local cost.”

Most of the fish for overseas export is frozen and shipped in freezer containers to Montreal, where it is loaded into reefer ships. An exception is the pike that makes that it processed in China, and leaves the country via Vancouver.

Mr. Middah’s company also produces minced pike, some of which is exported to France, where it’s used in making a delicacy called quenelles.

“They love it in France because they know what to do with it,” Mr. Middah said of pike. “But here, people would rather eat walleye than worry about taking the bones out of pike.”

Another small but important market is whitefish caviar, which is popular in Finland. “It’s just like a lot of the salmon caviar: you freeze it and it holds up really well.”

A fourth major lake species, freshwater mullet, is exported almost exclusively to the U.S., not overseas, Mr. Mida said.

According to DFO, Manitoba’s freshwater fishery dropped off in 2010 to a landed value of $21.7 million from $24.7 million in 2008. Meanwhile, Ontario’s grew to $31.6 million 2010 from $27.3 million in 2008, although still less than the $36.4 million in 2006. Together, Ontario and Manitoba still accounted for over 88 per cent of the landed value of Canada’s freshwater fishery sector in 2010.

Lake fisheries operate year round, even through the ice, although the peak months are June, September and October, when the water is open. It’s what Mr. Middah calls an “artisanal” fishery made primarily of first nations and Metis using small boats and gillnets.

“Fishing represents secondary income for almost all. Seasons are short and you can only fish for so long. And individual quotas are not very big in a lot of cases.”