There are three primary uses of fishery resources in Saskatchewan: recreational angling; First Nations subsistence fishing; and commercial fishing. Commercial fishing dates back to 1885, when rail transport first came to the Qu’Appelle Valley in what was then part of the North-West Territories. Regulated and managed from Ottawa, and based largely on whitefish, the commercial fishing industry was dominated by southern businesses and commercial interests in Alberta and Manitoba, with most exports going to eastern Canada and, until the 1930s, the United States. By 1930, Saskatchewan had taken over regulation of the industry, and improvements in rail transportation had facilitated expansion to the north of the province. Fish-processing plants were soon established across northern Saskatchewan—in places such as Big River, Dore Lake, and Buffalo Narrows—with other species such as pike, walleye, and lake trout becoming increasingly important to the industry. Over the course of the next few decades, the commercial fishing industry expanded rapidly, so that by the mid-1960s annual commercial fish production amounted to 6.8 million kg.
By the mid-1990s, however, the delivered weight of commercially caught fish had fallen by more than 60%, in part because of declining prices, and in part because of new provincial regulations (such as limiting the total number of fish that can be harvested from a given lake) imposed to halt depleting fish stocks. In response to this decline, the provincial government launched a five-year strategy beginning in the late 1990s to revitalize the industry through a number of initiatives, including planned construction of a new $4 million fish processing plant in Prince Albert, provision of $1 million to upgrade existing northern co-op processing facilities under the Northern Saskatchewan Fisheries Infrastructure Program, and continuation of annual transportation subsidies of $300,000 to help northern fishermen offset transportation costs. Although the government’s goal of doubling the annual value of production has not been met, the five-year average from 1998–99 to 2002–03 was $5.14 million—34% higher than the five-year average of $3.83 million during the 1993–94 to 1997–98 period. In 2004, there were approximately 500 licensed commercial fisherman in northern Saskatchewan. The average commercial fisherman earns less than $6,000 per year; 82% of the people working in the industry are of Aboriginal ancestry.
All commercial fish for export are marketed through the Fresh Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC), a Schedule III Crown corporation established in 1969 to promote the sale of fish from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and the Northwest Territories. Saskatchewan is the second largest freshwater fish producer of the five areas served by the FFMC. The corporation is managed by an eleven-member board of directors composed of a chairman, president, four directors appointed by the federal government, along with one director from each participating jurisdiction. The board is supported by an advisory committee appointed by the federal government. The FFMC purchases and markets all fish for export. It sets guaranteed prices in advance of each fishing season, and returns profits to fishermen at the end of the year. Northern fishermen may also sell their catch or a portion of it directly to consumers or to licensed fish processing plants within Saskatchewan. However, fish may not be sold outside the province—by fishermen or fish processors—without an export license from the FFMC.