Fisherman gathered around an ice-fishing hole in May 2019 about 20 kilometres outside Pond Inlet. This year’s season will look a bit different due to COVID-19 safety precautions. (Photo courtesy of Chris Flanagan)

Winter fisheries on Baffin Island see changes due to COVID-19

Pangnirtung season delayed, other small test fisheries to go on

By Elaine Anselmi

Winter turbot fisheries will be shifting operations in Baffin Island communities due to COVID-19 pandemic precautions.

Last week, Pangnirtung Fisheries announced its winter fishery would be suspended until April 13.

That includes fishing and work at the Pangnirtung fish plant. But both activities may resume after that, provided they’re given a pass to do so from both the federal and territorial health departments, according to a letter sent by Pangnirtung Fisheries.

During the shutdown, the fishery will continue to pay the wages of staff at the fish plant.

In Pond Inlet, a small test fishery will go ahead, following strict protocols to reduce any interaction between people, said Chris Flanagan, CEO of Baffin Fisheries.

While it will be a modest operation, he said, “the goal is to get fishermen comfortable and out there.”

The fishermen use a long line and kite system for catching turbot through augured holes in the ice.

Leo Maktar, vice-chairman of Baffin Fisheries, drops a metal kite into the water to use the pull of the current to direct a line of hooks across the ocean floor. (Photo courtesy of Chris Flanagan)

Fishermen drop a line that’s up to 600 metres long that has between 60 and 100 hooks attached and a kite that’s designed to be carried by the current.

The kite spreads the hooked line out as it drifts to the ocean floor, where the bottom-feeding turbot dwell.

The lines can be extremely heavy after enough fish catch on, so portable winches are used to haul them back up.

This year, in order to keep the fishermen safe and obey rules of social distancing, smaller crews are heading out on the ice.

“The way it will work is one fisherman and one member of their family, they’ll go out fishing, do the gutting and heads and tails on the ice, bring back pretty processed products and go to the [hunters and trappers association] freezer or processing room, sanitize it, put it in bags and freeze it and distribute it to the community,” Flanagan explained.

If a few fishermen are out at a time, he said they’ll coordinate so as not to return to the processing room and freezer at the same time.

As Pangnirtung’s processing plant is currently closed, all of the fish caught in Pond Inlet will remain in the community this year.

“We had planned to send the fish, semi-processed, to Pang, where they would do the final processing and check quality assurance, but that’s not possible so we’ll keep it in the community,” said Flanagan.

Baffin Fisheries is still going ahead with market research and sorting out logistics for its winter turbot, or Greenland Halibut, fishery.

Developing fisheries in both Pond Inlet and in Clyde River—which is a bit further behind—will require working out transportation for the haul, as well as developing Canadian Food Inspection Agency requirements for the supply chain.

Flanagan said they’re talking to sealift companies about the possibility of bringing frozen containers down south, once the CFIA requirements are developed to sell outside the territory.

There have been other hitches thrown into the mix with all of the changes prompted by the new coronavirus pandemic.

The freezers in both Pond Inlet and Clyde River require maintenance, but the crews hired to do that work cancelled their trips once the situation around COVID-19 worsened.

“They were two days from flying when coronavirus grounded them,” Flanagan said. While there is some allowance for travel for essential services, he said they opted to cancel due to the present risk.

As a backup, Baffin Fisheries’ vice-chairman, Leo Maktar, is working to hook up a refrigerated shipping container.

This week, Maktar told Flanagan, a fisherman brought in 76 fish from his line.

“Let’s say they’re three-to-five kilos each, that’s a good start for one fisherman,” Flanagan said.

There has been a strong interest in the test fishery from at least a few fishermen in town, Flanagan said.

And while there might be a few holdups with fishing this season, there is still a lot of work being done off the ice to get the fishery underway.

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