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Eco label no cash cow for Waterhen fishers

ECO-CERTIFICATION is the future of Manitoba lakes -- but fishers won't rake in more money as a result, said the head of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation.

John Wood, president and CEO of the Winnipeg-based Crown corporation, warned Manitoba fishers not to expect immediate dividends from sustainable certification, a freshwater milestone achieved first in North America at Waterhen Lake.

In June, the Marine Stewardship Council, an international organization that employs biologists to place ecological stamps of approval on fisheries, bestowed sustainable status on the walleye and northern pike catch in Waterhen Lake.

Wood said he expects more freshwater fisheries to be certified as wholesalers and retailers choose to only buy fish caught in a manner that does not degrade the environment or threaten stocks.

He said fishers who believe certified-sustainable fish will command a higher price are mistaken.

"What we've been telling fishers for years is getting certification will assure your markets for years, but don't think it's going to give you a premium price," Wood said Tuesday in an interview.

Unlike organic products, which come with perceived health benefits, consumers won't pay more for fish simply to save the environment, Wood said.

Fishers at Waterhen Lake spent seven years pursuing eco-certification partly to attain a higher price for their walleye, Waterhen Lake Fishermen's Association president Lorne Huhtala said last week.

Huhtala claimed the province and Freshwater Fish were holding off on approving an export licence for sustainable Waterhen walleye. Wood, however, said the fishers have not completed their application.

Provincial officials are helping the fishers fill out the paperwork, Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh said Monday.

Wood said the regulatory hurdles that must be passed in order to export walleye to the U.S. would make this product less profitable than fishers believe. He recommended the Waterhen fishers sell their sustainable walleye within Manitoba.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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