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The Akiwenzie family's sustainable fishing future

Natasha Akiwenzie of Akiwenzie's Fish.

Stock list at the Akiwenzie market booth.

Akiwenzie's Fish.

Natasha Akiwenzie and son, M'Kade-Miingan at their booth in the Wychwood Barns Farmer's Market.

Weekend farmer's market at the Wychwood Barns

Andrew Akiwenzie is no ordinary fisherman. Along with his wife, Natasha, and their three sons, he runs a small commercial fishing and fish processing company, Akiwenzie's Fish & More from the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation Reserve on the Georgian Bay. 
Since 2006, they've been driving some 240 km to sell their fish at Toronto area farmers' markets weekly--first at the Dufferin Grove Park Farmers' Market and, later, also at The Stop's Farmers' Market at the Wychwood Barns. But, as Akiwenzie points out, not much has changed in the Akiwenzies' approach to angling since he began fishing Lake Huron's waters 40 years ago from the very same bay: each fish gets pulled from the water by hand and, if the nets turn up empty, the Akiwenzies call it a day. 
"I take what I get, what Mother Nature wants to give me that day--if it's five fish or if it's 50 fish--and I'll bring it down and try to feed as many people as I can with it," he says. 
This is the difference between what the Akiwenzies do, as sustainable fishers, and how the bulk of commercial fisheries acquire their daily catch. It's an ecologically directed approach ill suited to fishers whose buyers are large corporations with contract-bound quotas, but the Akiwenzies wouldn't have it any other way. 
"Our reputation has grown, but what we take out of the water hasn't," says Akiwenzie. 
Often, the Akiwenzies' smoked fish and fresh fillets are among the first to sell out at the farmers' markets where they can be found weekly, selling their stock. (When Yonge Street went to photograph the Akiwenzies, the fish had already sold out for the day). As popular vendors, the Akiwenzies regularly find themselves fielding questions as to why they couldn't bring just a few more fish to market. 
"I kind of have to remind people that I'm a sustainable fisherman," he says. "If you're a sustainable fisherman who never runs out of fish, you're not sustainable." 
The tenets of sustainability--and what that logistically means for fishmongers--are sometimes a surprise to the consumer, says Kristin Donovan, co-founder of Hooked Inc., an ethical seafood market with two locations in Toronto. 
"Because we're not dealing with big-boat industry and a big distributor, we're really dependent on the boats we're buying from," she says. "If the weather is bad, the boats don't go out and we don't get fish."
"It's a fairly high-risk, modest yield approach to fishing,” says Anne Freeman Dufferin Grove Park Farmers' Market co-coordinator. "It's wonderful, in the sense that it's the way fishing should be done, rather than scooping everything at once. But it's not easy."
It may not be easy, but sustainable fish proponents like Donovan and the Akiwenzies see no other alternative. There's a quality component involved, as well. As the Stop's farmers' market manager Cookie Roscoe puts it, the Akiwenzies' fish tastes "like candy."
The Akiwenzies have been involved with the Stop's weekly farmers' market since its inception. While Roscoe admits she initially sought vendors who were strictly farmers to populate the market's stalls, she brought on the Akiwenzies on Freeman's recommendation. The partnership proved an ideal one, and also led to a friendship between Roscoe and the family of fishers.  
She's also borne witness to the rigours of government scrutiny placed upon the Akiwenzies by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). She recalls a particular instance in which an MNR inspector asked Akiwenzie how he disposed of "damaged product."
"Andrew says, holding his hands open to the sky, 'I give them back to the spirits,' and the guy says: 'Keep a binder of that!'" 
On his end, Akiwenzie is less concerned about the MNR's stringent safety regulations than by its August 2011 extension of commercial fishing boundaries into Owen Sound and Colpoys Bay for both his family's First Nation community and the Saugeen First Nation. 
"When somebody gives you something too quickly, too eagerly, there's something wrong with it," he says. "What I've been telling our fishermen, and our politicians, is to ask for a study of the health of those bays right now."
Akiwenzie worries that the bays have become overstocked with non-native predatory fish that, in addition to agricultural runoff, have thrown the balance of the local ecosystem. He also worries that the communities now allowed to fish these bays will be blamed if fish populations fail to level out. 
A representative from the Ontario MNR says the MNR is "not aware of any issues related to agricultural runoff or stocked predator fish that are affecting the abundance of lake whitefish" and that "the fishing agreement contains measures to maintain the sustainability of the bays."
Whatever the future holds, Akiwenzie maintains that he will continue to run his business for as long as he can. This, he says, is the way food is meant to be shared.
"[Buyers] get to ask me any question they want: when the fish was caught, where the fish was caught, what the weather was like," he says. "That's a beautiful chain--two links: me, and the consumer. And that's the way it should be."

Kelli Korducki is a writer and reporter based in Toronto.
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