Some commercial fishers in northern Saskatchewan can't believe how much money they made harvesting a previously ignored fish in a span of a few weeks last month.
As part of a new program with the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, tullibee in Pinehouse Lake, Sask., are caught for their eggs — which are then sold as caviar in Europe, primarily in Sweden and Finland.
Lionel Smith, the chair of the fishing co-operative in the nearby village of Pinehouse, a predominantly Métis community, said "it's a game-changer for us."
"Potentially, it's going to save the fishing industry here in Pinehouse. So I'm extremely happy," he said.
Smith said he grosses between $40,000 and $60,000 harvesting other fish in a typical season from early December to mid-April.
He said he grossed $44,000 from catching tullibee over 16 days last month — this from a fish that he said has been "tossed away" for the last 50 years.
"I've never really seen that kind of money on fishing," he said. "So I'm hoping we go larger and it's going to be a continued market for us."
Hope for fishing revival among young people
Smith said most of the fishers in his village are older and younger generations don't take up fishing "because it's not really a moneymaker."
"We're starting to lose our fishing industry bit-by-bit," he said. "I'm hoping that this can pull the young kids back into the industry to keep it going."
Smith said he hadn't done open water fishing in 40 years, so there were new challenges in determining how to do it with the most efficiency.
The fishers were "shocked" and "overwhelmed" at the amount of fish they brought in, he said.
"You could only carry so much," he said. "I was catching 50 tubs of fish in a day. And you can only carry 15 boxes in your boat to come home."
"So I had to make three trips home. So we couldn't keep up."
He said he knew there was going to be lots of tullibee in the lake, but he didn't realize he would be grossing almost $3,000 per day.
"I was smiling every day, regardless if it was windy or a little bit rough out there or a little cold. I was smiling," he said.
Smith said the village has 14 licensed commercial fishers. Seven of them took part in this program on a trial basis, in addition to about four to six labourers for each fisher, he said.
He said since there are no quotas for tullibee in Pinehouse Lake, he thought they could harvest 200,000 kilograms, but they ended up only having the capacity to take about a quarter of that.
"We didn't know what it would take to pull out 200,000 kilograms of tullibee. It's extremely hard for this small town," he said.
"We can do it. It's just going to take more of an effort on our part. We weren't ready for all that work, but we'll make it happen."
Dave Bergunder, the vice-president of field operations at FFMC, said the window of harvest is only for a few weeks in October when the tullibee eggs are a certain size, colour and texture.
Unexpected return for fishers
Tullibee from Saskatchewan is normally not a big seller because the fish is tough, Bergunder said.
He said the corporation typically only offers $0.55 to $0.65 per kilogram for it.
The Pinehouse fishers had agreed on a price of $1.10/kg for tullibee in this project, but they initially received $1.95/kg before getting $2.16/kg.
"We were able to get more out of the marketplace for the caviar, so we increased the price so that we could pay the fishermen," Bergunder said.
FFMC's tullibee caviar is a salted product that is sold in stores and used in restaurants in Europe, he said.
He said Pinehouse Lake has been chosen for this new program because of its "very large" tullibee population.
He said FFMC also has programs to harvest tullibee for their eggs in some lakes in Manitoba. The corporation has also been buying northern pike, or jackfish, eggs from Saskatchewan over the winter months for years, he said.
As to whether this program is sustainable, Bergunder said they have to be conscious of conservation.
"So I think it would be prudent for the province to look at quotas carefully so that it can be sustainable and that we're not doing any damage to the lake," he said. "We should only harvest what's sustainable."
In a statement, Saskatchewan's environment ministry said it supports commercial fishing and is encouraged by the development of fisheries that promote the use of underutilized fish species to supplement existing quotas.
Given the limited harvest, the ministry has not yet set a quota for tullibee on Pinehouse Lake, it said.
New program considered a success
Under the terms of the special order for tullibee from Pinehouse Lake, the FFMC bought the tullibee whole without the need for local processing. It sent a minimum of three trucks a week to transport the fish to the FFMC plant in Winnipeg for processing. It also supplied the ice and purchased other fish that were harvested in the process.
He said they first tried the program in Pinehouse in 2020, but it didn't develop as hoped.
"We learned a little bit more this year and we'll make some changes and improve it and make it better for next year," Bergunder said.
"I think it was a great project and we've really got to thank the fishermen and the people of Pinehouse for making this thing a success."
Pinehouse is located approximately 375 kilometres north of Saskatoon.