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Meet One of Canada's Last Great Lakes Fishermen

Today’s generation of young people seems to be drifting further and further away from the land, whether it's commercial fishing, animal husbandry, or farming. I'm a fourth generation freshwater lake fisherman and probably one of the last unless someone...

by Kendall Dewey
Mar 29 2015, 3:10pm

Photos by Matthew DeMille.

Though Canada's most famous seafood exports—lobster, crab, halibut, and cod—come from the coasts, fish from the Great Lakes in Ontario have a distinctive, sweet pond flavour. Much of the fish—whitefish, pickerel, yellow perch, and herring—comes from Prince Edward County. Located halfway between Toronto and Ottawa with a population of some 25,000 people, the place has become a culinary destination packed with wineries, farmers' markets, cheese festivals, and recently, the addition of some highfalutin restaurants. Newcomers have even dubbed it "The Hamptons of the North."

Fish purveyors Kendall Dewey and his wife Joanne do everything: fish, gut, filet, weigh, and package the fish that nearby restaurants like the Drake Devonshire can't get enough of. But at 62 and 55, they want to slow down and no one is interested in taking the reigns of their business in a county that prides itself on farm-to-table cooking.

Trying to find someone young that's interested in commercial fishing is very, very difficult. Right now, there's nothing I'd like better than to be able to sell off at least a portion of our fisheries. Being able to supply a continuous, local source of fish that's in demand is really difficult, so it's not a nice tidbit to throw out to get people into it. Our gear is also quite primitive compared to what's used in the oceans—no sonars or huge trawls. I look at today's generation of young people and they really seem to be drifting further and further away from the land—commercial fishing, animal husbandry, and farming. Young people don't seem to be interested. These are the kind of jobs that have not kept up with the cost of living in today's society.

READ MORE: Fishing Is One of the Deadliest Jobs in the UK

I'm a fourth-generation fisherman from the freshwater lakes. When I was born, we were at an inland lake, Lac Seul, in Northwestern Ontario. That's where I spent the first five years of my life: fishing with a handline for northern pike with my mother while my dad was out in the boat with his father or brother. It was my father who taught me fishing. I spent the last summer that he commercially fished on Lake Huron when I was 16. At the time, the Great Lakes were suffering from very bad pollution and sea lamprey invaded and decimated some varieties of fish, so he had to give up fishing to take care of his family.

Fish2

Tempura yellow perch with romesco, caper aioli, grilled lemon, coleslaw, and chuffed potatoes from the Drake Devonshire.

As a fisherman, there's no such thing as a salary. We can bring in as little as 100 pounds or 10,000 pounds of fish or more on any given day since we're very much controlled by mother nature and the quotas set by the Ministry of Natural Resources. This spring, we can anticipate good whitefish prices between $2 to $2.50 a pound but that's just a guess right now. It's not a lot. When I fished with my father, whitefish was the big thing and that would bring $1.15 to $1.25 a pound. This was back in 1968.

The only reason why people are still able to do this is by farming on the side, taking odd jobs in the summer, or working in factories. Others are semi-retired or have full-time jobs and do this on their vacation time to make extra money. There's not a lot of us who are bona fide full-time commercial fishermen in the area. I'd say there are six to eight families, maybe. A few decades ago there were dozens. My kids have helped me out but I never encouraged them to take over the business whatsoever. I left it up to them to decide and they chose otherwise. You watch children grow up and interact with their peers and watch what kind of society they're growing into. Commercial fishing just doesn't fit with the direction that 20 and 30-year-olds are taking now.

The Deweys.

The Deweys outside their fish-processing facility.
As told to Matthew DeMille

What will happen if the fishing licence can't be sold or transferred? It'll be retired and chances are that it'll never be reissued by the ministry. Lake fish will be gone from the culinary establishments, that's for sure. You're so preoccupied with trying to make a living that you don't have time to form local associations or put on social events like we did years ago. We used to have a blessing of the fishing fleet at Picton Harbour at the start of the season, but we don't do that anymore.

The industry still exists and still needs a place like ours: a central location for other fishermen to drop off fish and someone to treat them properly. Maybe there's something genetically embedded in me because I'm fourth generation but I don't want to see this industry die during my lifetime. I'm doing what I can to keep it viable. I hope that by the time I can't handle the fish, there will be someone there to take care of what's left.

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kendall dewey