Fish has always played a part in the traditional diet of my people on the James Bay coast. When times were tough and the hunting and trapping was not bringing in enough food for the family, fish provided a way to survive those lean periods.
While I was growing up, having fish that came from local fish nets at least once or twice a week was a normal part of my life. There were no sport fishermen in Attawapiskat. My people gathered fish in traditional methods using gill nets. Fish were treated with the same respect as other animals. Only enough fish nets were set up to supply what was needed. This was hard work and it required a great deal of skill in order to be able to predict where fish would swim, what times of the year and day they were most plentiful and how to best orient one’s nets.
I don’t eat fish as often as I did when I was younger. I no longer have access to those people who go out on the rivers to gather fish. As a matter of fact, in Attawapiskat, there are not many people who still gather local fish from the rivers. I considered buying and preparing store bought fish at one point but I often wondered to myself where this sea food came from. Twenty or 30 years ago, we could be assured that most of the fish we bought for ourselves here in Canada came from our fishermen from the east and west coasts.
In the past few decades, this reality has radically changed. The Atlantic cod fishery collapsed after many years of over fishing. Other fisheries also depleted their natural stocks due to newer methods and technologies that made it more efficient to find, gather, transport and process fish in huge numbers.
These days, most of the fish in our grocery markets are being grown like farm animals in fish farms. This sounds like a great idea to solve the dilemma of fewer fish in the wild. However, there are problems with these fish, including the practice of putting additives in fish food to offset the damages caused by living in pens and to augment the colour of their flesh to make them more tempting to the shopper.
A recent W5 documentary, “Safe to Eat?” made the point that even if the box our food comes in is labelled “Product of Canada” it may not be entirely true. It turns out that if 51 percent of the total cost of the package of food was incurred in Canada, then it can have the label on it, even if the actual food inside comes from another country. This means that if the packaging costs more than the fish inside, then they can put a “Product of Canada” label on it.
In terms of fish products, most of our sea food now comes from China, which has become our second leading source of imported foods after the United States. This would not be such a problem if were not for the fact that China has laws that are far less strict when it comes to farming and processing fish.
How practical is it to have to farm fish in a highly populated country in Third World conditions, process it in fish plants that also lack stringent controls, and then have it shipped overseas to our side of the world. It is difficult much of the time merely to establish where exactly our fish or other foods are coming from. You have to be prepared to ask questions and there is a good chance that the store clerk selling the fish or food won’t even know the origin of the product.
When our family collected wild food from the land in the form of geese, fish, moose or caribou, we never had to worry about the quality of the meat or the danger of contaminants or additives to the animal’s diet. We knew that each and every creature was fed and cared for by Mother Earth. The earth provided us all with everything that we needed. In this modern world, it is proving more difficult every time I go to the grocery store to try to understand what is in the food I am buying and just where it is coming from.
None of this will change for the better unless we tell the manufacturers, food processors and the food distribution and sales industry at large that we don’t appreciate this worry. We have to let them know that we are prepared to pay more for healthy and safe foods and be informed of their origin. In the meantime, think about getting your fishing rod out and heading off to a safe, clean lake to catch some fish.