Back in the mid-1980s, the province began buying back hundreds of commercial fish licences, which could only be sold and transferred to other fisherman. In 1984, there were 800 multi-lake licences and 1,800 single-lake licenses, according to Journal archives. Sullivan now estimates there are only about 10 full-time fishermen, the vast majority relying on other income streams.
Kevin Bell earned a good living during his 18 years of fishing, up to $200,000 a year before costs. His wife runs the Joussard bottle depot on the shore of Lesser Slave Lake, which until last fall was a fish plant and one of two spots where whitefish eggs were collected and brined. Five years ago, before quotas were ratcheted down, theyâ€™d produce 27,000 kilograms â€” worth more than $300,000 â€” of golden caviar alone.
â€œWe went from producing a million pounds of food into the world food chain, now we buy garbage. Does that really make sense?â€� Bell said. â€œFish used to be a protein source in Alberta. Now itâ€™s a toy.â€�
Bell said the end of commercial fishing could damage the ecosystem, leaving unchecked whitefish to gobble pike and walleye roe. And he estimates a loss of 100 jobs around his hamlet.
He knows at least a couple of fishermen who will move up north in the summers to fish Great Slave Lake, where Freshwater Fish hopes to offset the loss of Albertaâ€™s production. There are also ample fish in Lake Athabasca, the giant lake that straddles the Saskatchewan border in northeastern Alberta. But the provinceâ€™s decision has ended the industry.
Fort Chipewyanâ€™s Big Ray Ladouceur, who fished the Athabasca for 57 years, said the death of commercial fishing is â€œthe worst thing that ever happened to our community.â€�
Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather when he was 15, the MÃ©tis fisherman quickly became the first man to make $300 a month on the lake. More recently, he could make over $30,000 in less than six weeks. Fishermen would sell dried and frozen gutted fish, trout and pickerel fillets. Ladouceur would trade fish for groceries.
About 20 commercial fishermen in Fort Chip are now stuck with equipment they canâ€™t use. Ladouceur spent $9,000 for an outboard motor. His boat cost $8,600. Fishermen asked the province for a buyout in the spring, and Ladouceur is one of many saying the province should step up.
â€œIt ainâ€™t going to come cheap, because thatâ€™s my livelihood,â€� said Ladouceur.
Lake Athabasca is one of the only bodies of water where fishing could be sustainable, Sullivan said, but he admits there are concerns over the quality of the fish. Commercial fishing would be possible in other parts of Alberta, if fishermen used highly selective gear, but changing from gill nets to traps would be prohibitive.
Itâ€™s difficult to see a century-old profession die such a slow death, Sullivan said, but good fishing and healthy systems meant something had to go.
â€œItâ€™s an unfortunate thing. This is one of the victims of the growth of Alberta. Some of these little cottage industries just got pushed off the table.â€�