New program trains next generation of Great Slave Lake fishermen

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New program trains next generation of Great Slave Lake fishermen

A fragrant plate of walleye fresh from Great Slave Lake sits steaming at the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre in Hay River. 

Danton Laboucan, 26, tucks in.

"That's the way of living, man," he says. 

For Laboucan, it probably will be; he's studying to become a fisherman through a free, new program at the friendship centre in Hay River designed to give students like him a leg up into the industry. 

Together with the British Columbia Institute of Technology, the course is helping prepare the students for the commercial fishing trade. Students will get hands-on experience and the in-class learning they need to get to work.

It's not easy learning. The four students spent the morning plugging away at degrees, minutes, and seconds on a map, converting them to miles, subtracting them to find distance between points – skills you don't learn in high school but which are essential for working on a boat.

"I know it's hard, I know you're hungry, but this is going to get you ahead in life like nothing before," their instructor, Ivan Kiss, told the struggling students 20 minutes prior. 

"If it were easy there would be a lot less people in the unemployment line."

That's the point of all this: to get more people to work on the long-dwindling fishery on Great Slave Lake. In 1957, over two million kilograms of fish were caught on the lake.

In 2014, it was a quarter of that. The industry was in steady decline for two decades starting in 1990, only leveling off in 2008.

"We want a whole new fleet, like a whole new generation of fishers out there," says the friendship centre's executive director, Shari Caudron. 

"To my understanding, they're only catching 30 per cent of the quota right now, so our goal is to build up the workforce to get to the point where they can actually get 100 per cent of the quota and help expand the industry." 

Patrick Minute's grandfather was part of those golden years in fishing. Today, sitting in the class, plugging away at the arithmetic, Minute sees the lack of active fishers as an opportunity.

"Means there's lots of fish," he says. 

By next year, Minute and his classmates could be out there trying to catch some of that untapped potential.