Pang fish plant languishes with anglers in short supply

Operators pin hopes on big summer catch


It’s been an extremely slow and unproductive winter for the turbot fishery at Cumberland Sound, and both the Pangnirtung Fisheries processing plant and its workers are feeling the pinch.

With just five fishermen going out on the ice this winter, compared with 20 a year ago, the catch plummeted to a meager 20 tonnes from last year’s 150 tonnes.

Just why this has happened is the subject of some dispute.

Pangnirtung Fisheries chair Hezakiah Oshutiapik blames the low participation on unreliable ice in Pangnirtung Fiord

“The mouth of the fiord rots very fast from the current,” said Oshutiapik. “You can’t trust the ice anymore.”

But Pangnirtung Fisheries’ general manager Donald Cunningham said the ice was fine this year.

He said he suspects that few fishermen ventured out it may be because the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been conducting research on the Arctic char near the community, offering salaried employment that is more reliable going after turbot.

As a result, the floor staff at the fish plant have had very little to do since mid-March, and many are laid off.

Between the New Year and April 28 the fish plant has paid its staff $13,418 for hours of turbot processing.

For the same period in 2009 that number was $72,815.

The comparison is even worse when you consider that the floor staff got a raise between this year and the last.

Cunningham explained that when the plant is dealing with low volumes it really hurts the company’s finances because the overhead costs don’t decrease.

Also, the staff still need to carry out the same clean-up of the floor whether they process many fish or few.

Even in a good year like 2009, the annual catch never comes close ot the 500-tonne quota from the inshore turbot fishery of Cumberland Sound.

As a result Pangnirtung Fisheries is looking to expand its summer operations.

Last summer’s exploratory fishery brought in almost 30 tonnes of turbot, bringing the annual 2009 catch to around 180 tonnes.

Cunningham explained this summer should be a lot better, because last summer’s focus was to map the areas where the turbot may be found in summer.

The previous year’s test fishery found that the places Inuit winter ice-fishermen find turbot aren’t the same as where the fish are in summer.

In contrast to the recent decline in winter fishermen, Oshutiapik said there was so much interest in working on the summer fishing boat that they had four local Inuit aboard instead of two as had been planned.

Unique in Nunavut, Cumberland Sound is specifically designated as an inshore fishery apart from the internationally-recognized 0B area outside the sound.

Turbot require a very different style of fishing from Arctic char, with which Inuit are intimately familiar.

Turbot fishing in winter is by hooked loglines more than a kilometre long to catch the deep-water fish.

In summer turbot fishing is either by net or by hook, but either way the ropes need to be long enough to reach the fish near the ocean floor.

That limits the minimum size of a turbot fishing boat, which puts it out of the reach of the small char-fishing boats of most Nunavummiut fishermen.

“Our little 24, 26-footer boats are too small for summer fishing,” said Oshutiapik.

Cunningham explained that this summer’s test fishery is essentially a dry run: bringing up a boat and crew from the south, giving them last year’s mapping data and seeing if the summer catch turns a profit.

“The skipper who was here, he said it was the best longline fishery that he’s ever seen,” Cunningham said.

Depending on this summer’s catch, Pangnirtung Fisheries may consider investing in a larger boat for more production, in turn producing more local Inuit employment.

But that will require financial assistance from the government.

Oshutiapik seemed optimistic about the company’s long-term prospects. Cumberland Sound’s turbot travels all over the world to tables in the U.S., Europe and the Far East.

Cunningham said the federal government’s plan to build Nunavut’s first harbour in Pangnirtung would do a lot to cut down on costs, which would allow the plant to offer higher wages and buying prices for fish.

Currently, turbot boats have to ferry their catches to the beach in small boats, one 15-pound pallet at a time.

Such a harbour would also help Pangnirtung Fisheries move its processed product out the community.

With a wharf, the company would be able to load refrigerated sea-cans onto the sealift boats and move a lot of its less processed product more affordably by back-freight.

That means taking advantage of lower shipping prices on sealift freighters which are returning to the south almost empty.

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