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Hooked on Sask. fish

Anne Robillard loves fish – particularly when coated in spices and some dry flour and fried in a skillet with the skin left on.

“I grew up being around fish,” she said. “Fishing is a part of our livelihood. It’s one of our main sources for a healthy diet.”

Robillard grew up in summer fishing camps in northern Saskatchewan, where she would work alongside her dad and other family members checking nets amongst other tasks. She is now CEO of Hatchet Lake Development Limited Partnership, which runs Northern Wild Fishery at Wollaston Lake among other projects and services.

The fishery, about 700 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, is supplying fish fillets from northern Saskatchewan lakes for new CO-OP GOLD PURE® Northern Pike, Walleye and Lake Trout.

Building a business

While commercial fishing in the area dates back to the 1950s, Northern Wild Fishery began to turn a packaging plant built in 2001 into a CFIA-approved processing facility about three years ago.

Today, the fishery purchases fish from licensed members of the Welcome Bay Fishers Co-op. The facility processes, vacuum packs and quick freezes fish at lakeside to maintain a premium level of freshness, taste and appearance.

“We had to invest a lot of money into training local people,” Robillard said. “We saw this was a good business and we didn’t want to give up.”

Robillard said there was a lot of turnover and growing pains. One challenge the fishery faces is transportation – an ice road is used from mid-January to March, a barge running in the summer connects to the provincial road system and air freight is available if required.

The second challenge is having a steady supply of fish. Robillard said the fishers will start fishing year-round, albeit in a manner that ensures the sustainability of the fish supply for future generations. To be more sustainable, Co-op’s approach was to use all species of netted fish instead of selecting one species and leaving the rest to waste.

Northern Wild Fishery is also partnering with the Ile-a-la-Crosse Fish Company, which sources fish from the Big Island Fishers Co-operative and opened its own processing facility in November 2017.

Community impact

One of the benefits of the partnership is being able to offer customers a high-quality, sustainably sourced and local fish product. Another benefit is that Co-op is supporting other co-operatives and the economies of northern communities.

Robillard said the fish market has always been a challenge, but the partnership with Co-op is an opportunity to create steady, year-round jobs – not only for the fishers but in the processing plant too. She said the work they’re doing is part of a mission and vision to build capacity in the community.

“We’re going to be on this lake for generations to come,” Robillard said. “We’re looking at succession because we need to bring our young people back.”

Northern Wild Fishery employs about 10 people in the processing plant and reports show the Ile-a-la-Crosse facility expects to employ 30 full-time and casual workers.

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