Yellowknife, NWT – Hay River could have a new fish processing plant by 2016.
Documents published last week confirmed the GNWT’s commitment to replace the town’s decades-old, antiquated facility with a new plant. More than $1.5 million is expected to be set aside to fund the project.
“There’s a lot of employment at stake here,” John Colford, the GNWT’s manager of traditional economy, agriculture and fisheries, told Moose FM. Colford predicts dozens of jobs could be created in the region.
“We think we can bring this back to being a significant contributor, especially in the South Slave and those communities around Great Slave Lake, in terms of income and employment.”
Hay River mayor Andrew Cassidy thinks the proposal is “huge” for the town.
“Hay River was more-or-less founded on the commercial fishing industry,” said Cassidy. “Over the years we’ve seen a decline in the number of people involved, but this would really, really help revitalise that industry.”
The GNWT has long harboured ambitions to bolster commercial fishing on Great Slave Lake.
The injection of more than $1.5 million into the industry was floated in the legislative assembly in February this year, then confirmed in last week’s implementation plan for the GNWT’s economic opportunities strategy.
The plan says the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment will “advance a proposal for the construction, management and operations of an export-grade fish processing plant on Great Slave Lake”.
‘Optimistic but doable’
The GNWT’s proposed budget to support commercial fishing, in the same document, jumps from $200,000 in 2014-15 to $1.5 million in 2015-16.
Colford, explaining those figures, said: “$200,000 is invested in the business and building plan. We’re also going to look, with the same dollars, at a strategy aimed at attracting new entrants to the fishery.
“The fishery seems to have declined both in volume and participation over the past number of years. We’d like to see a resurgence in the fishery and that would require new entrants. We’re trying to do the building plan and the new entrant requirements with the $200,000 allocated.
“In the event that the business plan is successful and we can come up with a reasonable approach, the government would be looking at making an investment of $1.5 million in the new plant.
“This may or may not cover the entire cost of the new plant – if it doesn’t, we would hopefully be able to attract new investment from other partners, which may include the federal government or the private sector.”
Asked how soon the plant could feasibly be operational, Colford told Moose FM: “Hopefully in 2016. It’s a short turnaround, it’s optimistic, but I think it’s doable.”
The GNWT has held brief, broad talks with the federal government to explore a partnership to fund the plant, but has not met with any private-sector representatives.
Colford said the territorial government’s determination to invest in the plant stems from a belief that market conditions are now more favourable to the industry, following years of decline in the North.
“That decline has been largely as a result of circumstances beyond our control,” he said.
“We’re now seeing the downturn turn around, and we’re starting to see an increased demand for product.”
‘This year, it’s whitefish’
That tallies with the experience of John Sutcliffe, executive director of the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters.
“Markets are generally improving. It has popularly been seen as a sunset industry but those in the industry don’t see it that way. It’s cyclical,” Sutcliffe told us.
He believes the Northwest Territories – which, he notes, “barely registers” in the overall scheme of Canadian fishing exports – can tap into emerging markets for sustainable fish.
“There is particular interest in where fish come from and who catches them,” he said.
“There are small to mid-sized enterprises now able to brand their fish, and provide traceability up to and including storytelling by the fisherman who caught the fish.”
Though he doesn’t have the data to prove it, Sutcliffe also thinks demand for whitefish, one of the staple catches of Great Slave Lake, is growing.
“Increasingly, in the tourist areas, whitefish is replacing pickerel as the fish of choice in fish and chips,” said Sutcliffe.
“That’s just anecdotal but I was quite surprised. I saw whitefish advertised at every road stop as I travelled through southern Ontario and Muskoka. That’s different. It’s usually pickerel, it seemed this year to be whitefish.”
So what would a new processing plant actually do for Hay River, and fishing, that can’t be achieved with the current facility?
“That plant is probably 50 years old and it is deteriorating considerably, actually. It is due to be replaced,” said Colford.
“The challenge that we have is that the critical asset to this fishery is the plant. You can put all your money in boats and fishermen, but if you haven’t got a plant to move your product to market, you’re sort-of stuck. The plant is the key asset here.”
‘100 to 150 income opportunities’
The more a plant can process, either through size or efficiency, the more fish can be exported and the more money comes in. Fishing in the north currently operates at nowhere near capacity, despite assertions that demand is returning.
“We have a quota on that lake of about 3.2 million pounds of fish,” said Colford. “We haven’t come close to that quota in years. I don’t think, this year, we even did 1 million pounds of fish.
“We believe there are people out there who would be interested in coming into the fishery, or coming back to the fishery, if the conditions are right.
“There is opportunity, I believe, for increased production off that lake over what we’ve seen for the past 10 years.”
How many jobs could that create?
“The federal government issues vessel certificates on the lake. Last year, there were probably a dozen Class A certificates issued. I think there are close to 30 Class A certificates available for the summer fishery,” said Colford.
“Every certificate generates four to six, possibly eight, income opportunities. If all the certificates were issued and everybody was fishing we’d be talking, I don’t know, upwards of 100 to 150 income opportunities depending on how you do the math.
“When you only issue 10 certificates, you’re talking 60 people. If you issue 30, you’re talking 180 people. There are a lot of income opportunities that just haven’t been realised because people aren’t fishing.”
The NWT Fishermen’s Federation in Hay River couldn’t be reached for comment but Cassidy, the Hay River mayor, hopes those numbers become a reality.
“We’ve got some of the most amazing freshwater fish in the world here, right at our doorstep,” he said.
“It’s a hard life but it’s very rewarding, and it’d be great to have that back in our community as an economic driver.”
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