Winter 2023 fishing season. Single-line step process to harvest wild caught Arctic char in Qikqitarjuaq/Photo courtesy of First Fish.Kira Wronska Dorward, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

First Fish, a five-year-old non-profit company based out of Toronto, grew out of president Michel Labbé’s involvement with Toronto-based non-profit condominium development. 

Labbé then grew a name for himself nationally by developing affordable housing initiatives, and began looking at a new opportunity in Qikiqtarjuaq. That was when First Fish was spawned. 

“I went up [to Nunavut] to work on housing, with a model where home ownership doesn’t require grants, but does require a job,” Labbé recalled. 

With up to 60 per cent unemployment in some communities, “it become clear we couldn’t get involved in housing without employment creation.” 

Initial experiments with Arctic char and social enterprises were “touch and go,” until First Fish found the “perfect partner” in Pangnirtung. 

“We’re very happy to help them out by not only selling their fish, but by creating a surplus to reinvest… the whole idea is to run business efficiently, but also develop social impact. [They] need a better price for production, and with the importation down south, we give them direct access to the southern market instead of selling in bulk. 

“What we’re finding in the Toronto market,” continues Labbé, is that people are getting excited about the quality of the fish, which is helping with pricing.” 

“On our end,” says marketing director Mickayla Labbé, “we are responsible for bringing the fish down to Canada and Ontario… we’re there just after the whole fishing component and to share the story with Toronto and southern Canada.” 

Sustainable methods and a culturally-appropriate approach 

All the fish, predominantly char and turbot, is procured, processed and packaged in Rankin Inlet and Pangnirtung by local Inuit fisherman using traditional, artisinal practices such as the net and long-line fishing as opposed to dragging a net across the ocean floor, as some industrial fishers do. 

There are also the value-added preparation practices undertaken by Nunavummiut such as smoking and cubing of the char and turbot meat. The Arctic fish sourced from Nunavut waters is a healthier option than its southern counterparts, richer in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and containing less mercury. 

The net and long-line traditional fishing eliminates the gross waste of industrial practices, as a single fisher can see what he pulls in and can throw back unwanted fish. In addition, Inuit can employ their own value-added practices of preparing the fish for shipment and consumption in the south. Most industry and shipping takes place from January to April, with large quantities being frozen and moved for distribution, primarily in Ontario, to a range of restaurants, stores and wholesalers. 

Less frequent, bigger shipments are the norm due to frequent disruptions in the supply chain that remains a fact of life in Nunavut. 

“It’s very different to move product,” said Labbé, describing the trials and tribulations of shipping out of the North as “unusual.” 

“It’s the nature of how things go, and we’ve just kind of accepted that that is a struggle with working with local communities.” 

However, the results are worth the effort. 

“It’s really incredible,” Labbé said. “I’m always shocked at the abilities of the incredible fishermen. It’s mind-blowing what they do on the ice.” 

Julai Alikatuktuk, a fisherman literally on the front lines at Pangnirtung and Cumberland Sound Fisheries, described what fishing practices look like for winter char, which usually takes place in the dark. Net lines are set by fishers underneath the ice, typically working in pairs — although Alikatuktuk says fishing parties depend on the number of people who want to go, and that “we all help each other” in groups of up to six. Fishers then depend on the “ice crawler” or “nulugiut” on the cast net line, which is attached to a flashlight to indicate movement. During daylight, fisherman also use sound to listen for changes in location. Turbot can be fished at any time of day. 

Going back to basics in this way, individual and local employment is also the rule, with First Fish’s non-profit model ensuring that any surplus beyond the baseline needed to run the company is reinvested into local communities. 

“It was entirely our goal from the beginning to bring local employment opportunities,” says Labbé. 

Product sales also go towards supporting various community-led initiatives and projects designed to grow sustainable fisheries on Baffin Island “through training, equipment, capacity building and exploratory research. The surplus can also be used for any other local activities that will benefit the communities, such as arts and tourism developments.” 

“It’s good for morale boost,” says Jon Johannsson, owner of Dalvikingur Holdings, an entrepreneur who oversees operations of the fishery in Pangnirtung. The partnership with First Fish is intended to promote domestic consumption of Canadian fish. 

“First Fish is a big help in getting [Cumberland Fisheries] into the Canadian market,” says Johannsson. “They have created more work in the community. We have 180 workers and $2 million in payroll.” 

Except for Johannsson himself, who’s a native of Iceland, “100 per cent” of the workforce comprises local people. 

“Our goal is not to interfere with their process,” says Labbé of both the fishing practices and the way money is reinvested into the communities. “I love to work with Indigenous communities, and to be that link with a product that is sustainable and has only benefits. The reactions from everybody getting to engage with [First Fish] has been really positive. That has been incredible for us, and we’re super excited to share [Inuit] stories. I don’t think there’s anyone else in Toronto doing [this].” 

Room for expansion 

First Fish products are available around the greater Toronto area at boutique food stores, the summer farmers markets in Toronto, through wholesalers, various restaurants, and the company’s website: firstfish.ca. 

In terms of the future, Mickayla Labbé shares her hopes to keep growing the company and expanding sales, which will “create more important job opportunities. The whole idea was to be able to help any way we can.” 

There’s also potential to increase variations like smoking the fish and expanding to encompass more kinds of products, such as shellfish. 

Johannsson discloses a goal in Pangnirtung to increase productivity. 

“Over the coming years, we are going to be creating a ‘cultural calendar’ process, so more fish can be processed in the off season, and so we can extend our season to the Canadian market.” 

“As plans expand,” comments Michel Labbé, “this is one of the few fisheries that has the ability to grow and create more employment. We deal with the two larger plants, which gives a bigger range of choices for our clients.” 

“We’re just hoping for growth,” Labbé concludes. “Chefs here absolutely love the fish and are always impressed by the quality. That definitely goes for all our customers as well, everyone is not only excited about where the fish comes from but that they can taste the difference… and it’s very culturally appropriate.”

By Kira Wronska Dorward, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Nov 27, 2023 at 06:54

This item reprinted with permission from   Nunavut News   Iqaluit, Nunavut
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