Precarious perch — Article by Rick Conroy

November 14, 2014 Borys Holowacz Latest Posts

The Times, November 12, 2014

No one to take over the last County fishery

It’s a cool, cloudy Sunday morning. The Deweys, Kendall and his wife, Joanna, have just returned to their Sophiasburgh home and fishery with their morning haul, sorted into bins. They unload everything into their processing facility—a tiny room that opens into their wooded, rural yard. Here, they will weigh, record and clean their catch. Just the two of them.

Kendall’s family has been in the freshwater fishing industry for four generations, based on Lake Huron until he moved to the County in the ’80s. Here he met Joanna. He is the one who taught her to fish with a hook line. Eventually, the two married and started Dewey Fisheries.

The husband-and-wife business is the last fully functioning fishery left in Prince Edward County. There is one other fishery that runs out of Belleville, but it just acts as a depot for anglers to sell their catch. Because of its size, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) refers to Dewey Fisheries—to Kendall’s chagrin—as a boutique fishery.

But it is. The Deweys are always welcoming visitors to their property: anglers who want the Deweys to process their catch, chefs who want to serve local fish, and regular customers who want to buy fish for their families. Kendall spends every afternoon carefully processing fresh caught pickerel into fillets to sell to local restaurants.

“People do just drop in or call ahead, whether it’s for their own personal use. At this time of year, it’s popular with the moose camps and the deer camps and whatnot. People take fish, and also they’re getting ready to put it away for the winter,” says Kendall.

There are many reasons the once-thriving fishing industry on this peninsula has been reduced to this couple, now in their early 60s, and independent anglers.

MNR is one of those reasons, clashing with fisherfolk on quotas, types of fish and equipment. Kendall recently had to order pickerel from Lake Erie to satisfy local demand, forced to release nearly 2,000 pounds of local pickerel from his whitefish nets. He says it’s politics.

MNR intervenes with good intentions. Overfishing, dams, water turbines and lake pollution as the population surrounding the Great Lakes grew over the past century has severely depleted fish stock. But that intervention has had farreaching consequences, decimating freshwater fisheries and leading to a much higher demand on ocean fish.

Perch-2

“From a culinary perspective, when I go to a restaurant—especially a local restaurant—and I see tilapia on the menu, or Chilean sea bass, that’s so weird to me,” says Matt DeMille, head chef at the Drake Devonshire, which boasts Dewey Fisheries pickerel at the top of its dinner menu. “But when I see pickerel or perch or salmon, even if the pickerel is from Lake Erie, I know. It weirds me out when I see a fish that’s from thousands of miles away.”

Another problem is that making a living catching fish is not as viable as it once was. The Deweys manage, but it’s a full-time job, and they do everything themselves, from laying and hauling the traps, weighing and processing the fish and dealing with suppliers and buyers.

And it’s the kind of work you must love. The couple works seven days a week, with days beginning before dawn and lasting well into the winter. Joanne pulls her hand out of her work glove to show her arthritic knuckles, gnarled by years of exposure to the cold lake water.

The Deweys do love their work. The deep lines on Joanna’s face, characteristic of anyone who spends a lot of time on the water, show a woman who is always smiling.

The two speak fondly of the fish they enjoy most—yellow perch, herring, whitefish and, occasionally, the rare and delicious black crappie.

“They are really tasty,” Kendall says of black crappie. “You won’t find them very often in a restaurant or a supermarket or whatever. You’d have to really go to a specialty place to find that.”

On December 2, the Drake Devonshire is hosting a fundraiser dinner, featuring the Deweys’ fish, along with a documentary on lost fisheries by local artist Suzanne Pasternak and a talk by Kendall. The fundraiser will benefit the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists. But to Chris Loane, the Drake’s general manager, it’s just as important to keep everyone aware of the history of the County’s water culture.

And what will the Drake do when the Deweys retire?

“I don’t want to think about life without him now, because he’s too important,” says Loane. “I’m hoping that he can find someone to take on the legacy and fight the good fight, because he really stands for a lot of stuff that’s not around anymore.”

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