First Fish: A Project Worth Learning About
A Chef's Vault Interview with First Fish
- Mike Delaney Co-Founder of Chef's Vault, speaks with Mickayla Labbé Director of Sales & Marketing First Fish
How did First Fish begin?
First Fish was founded by Mike Labbé after a trip to Qikitarjuaq, Nunavut in hopes to continue his work on affordable housing when it became apparent that there was a bigger need for jobs to combat the high unemployment rate. Mike and the team met with some dedicated fishermen that strived to grow their fishing business from what started as a clam diving expedition through the ice in the winter with scuba equipment. With the government regulations working against their clam harvesting, they shifted their focus to their successful Arctic Char fishing. Though, due to limited resources, it could only be sold locally and we wanted to change that. What started as a whole fish operation in Qik, quickly led to the involvement of more communities including Pangnirtung, who has been our partner for 2 years and introduced us to Turbot fishing. More recently we have started to work with Rankin Inlet as well where our business has been refined to create more local jobs by processing locally in the communities. Though we are still a new organization we are excited to see the growth that has developed over our first few years and can't wait to continue to grow with the communities.
- Baffin Island Waters
What reactions do you typically get when talking about Arctic Char and Turbot? Is the community familiar with these types of fish, or did you have to educate your customers?
We've had an extremely positive response about the fact our fish is caught by Inuit fishermen in Nunavut though often people aren't very familiar with Arctic Char or Turbot. Arctic Char is more easily grasped and understood due to its similarity to Salmon and it's more occasionally featured in restaurants so it is more well known to customers in Ontario. Turbot on the other hand is more rare to find in Ontario so it requires more education for consumers though it's more well known in the restaurant industry by chefs. Since Turbot is considered a high end halibut, usually customers are open to giving it a try and then will always be back for more.
- Baffin Island Turbot
Working with fisheries in Baffin Island must come with logistical hurdles, could you talk about what some of your hurdles might be, and how it could be solved in a perfect world?
We have definitely encountered some hurdles over the years, mainly with transportation and supply chain issues.
Recently we have seen the effects of climate change on the fishing season; last winter the fishermen/women couldn't start fishing until 2 months later than planned as the lakes were not frozen over yet.
In general, issues such as a broken processing machine that could be fixed quickly down south can take weeks or months to repair as parts have to be flown into town.
With transportation, there is of course always going to be issues with the weather as you can imagine with working with Arctic communities, so flights can be unreliable and infrequent. Often flights can be delayed up to 2 weeks based on the weather, from intense and frequent snow storms to the summer heat that affects the runway capacity.
Currently we're looking into coordinating bringing a container of fish down by cargo ship to combat some of the uncertainty with transportation.
We know that Pangnurtung Fisheries who you work with have a very cool story and history of fishing, but we noticed you don’t have any sustainability certifications, can you let us know how you’re sustainable and why?
Working with small remote artisanal fisheries it is more difficult and costly to get certifications however, we are currently working closely with Oceanwise to make the certifications more widely accessible to these smaller communities.
All the fishermen/women from Pang, Qik, and Rankin Inlet are using local, traditional methods that have been practiced for thousands of years. The fish is hand caught using only nets and long lines, which eliminates any bycatch and creates minimal disturbance to the environment.
The fisheries also follow all quotas established by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and community leaders so there is no overfishing and the species remain in abundance.
Not-For-Profit is a bold statement and claim and not something we see often in corporate Canada. Could you please explain your corporate mantra?
First Fish is proud to be a non-profit as we see the Indigenous communities as our partners and would like to work with them to grow.
Our work is motivated by creating more local employment opportunities, promoting sustainability for future generations and working side-by-side with the Inuit communities to build a vibrant economy and strengthen the social harmony within communities to provide cultural and economic stability and to improve their overall quality of life.
We could only achieve this using our non-profit model in which all surpluses are reinvested back into the local communities.
- Nancy, Moe & William holding Arctic Char & Turbot
Where do you see this business in 5 years?
In 5 years, we are hoping to be working with more communities across Nunavut to become a stable platform for the provision of a wide variety of species that can be caught uniquely by different fisheries.
We would love to see more northern fish on menus across Canada and in nationwide retail stores as our goal is to share the unique stories of the communities to as many people as possible.
What would you like the world to know about First Fish?
We are extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the Indigenous communities in Nunavut and share their unique experiences, unmatched fishing skills, and incredible country food.
Given the quality of our product and the loyalty of our customers we are a demonstration that a business partnership with the northern Indigenous communities can be beneficial to everyone.