Almost $9 million will be spent to construct a “state-of-the-art fish processing facility” in Hay River – one critics have said is long overdue.

The federal and territorial governments announced funding for the fish plant on Tuesday, with construction set to begin in spring 2019.

A cooperative of locals involved in fishing will help to manage the new plant’s operations, staff the plant, pay its operating costs, and keep all remaining profits, the territory said.

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Ottawa is contributing $6.6 million to the Northwest Territories’ $2.3 million. The plant is due to be operational by summer 2020.

“Commercial fishing on Great Slave Lake has been a mainstay of the South Slave economy
since the 1950s,” read a territorial government briefing on the new plant.

“While the NWT’s commercial fishery has declined, the natural wealth of fish in the lake
remains; offering an opportunity to restore an industry that remains important and vital to
the NWT economy.

“A thriving fishery will mean a renewed livelihood for fishers all around the lake.”

Hay River North MLA RJ Simpson said the new plant was “a long time coming [and] great news for Hay River” but warned some outstanding issues remained to be addressed.

Current plant ‘an eyesore’

At the moment, all fish caught in the NWT but exported to markets outside the territory must be sold to the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC), a Crown corporation based in Winnipeg.

FFMC is widely blamed in Hay River for allowing the current fish plant to collapse into what Simpson described in 2017 as “an eyesore, gutted of its ability to process fish, and demoted to a receiving plant.”

Fish, Simpson added at the time, were instead trucked to Winnipeg for full processing.

A CBC report last August laid bare the plant’s failings, with even its manager admitting it existed “in disrepair.”

Building a new processing plant was a key feature of a strategy to revitalize the Great Slave Lake fishing industry released by the territorial government in 2017.

Wally Schumann, the industry minister and also a Hay River MLA, has made plain his own dissatisfaction with FFMC’s representation of the northern fishing industry – and the territory hopes the new plant will help it in breaking away from the old model.

“That’s why we came out with a fishing strategy of our own,” said Schumann in October last year. “How to break away from that and have the possibility of marketing our own fish nationally and internationally.”

At the same time, Peter Vician – a former deputy minister for industry in the NWT – is chairing a federal advisory panel examining the future of FFMC.

The new federal fisheries minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, said last year that Vician’s panel will look at how to transform FFMC “so it remains modern and competitive in today’s open market.”

It’s not clear how any consequent federal changes could impact the operation of the new facility.

‘A direct say’

In placing a fishing cooperative centre-stage in its announcement, the territory tried to signal one way in which its two-year-old strategy is changing how fishing works on Great Slave Lake.

The territorial government says the cooperative will allow locals “the benefits of having a direct say – and even ownership in their industry.”

With the new plant come promises of resources for local fishing operations, training programs aimed at increasing the number of northerners on the lake, and incentives to attract people from outside the NWT to join the territory’s industry.

The territorial government had already pledged to build a new plant and committed some money toward the project, but Tuesday’s announcement confirmed for the first time a timeline and the level of the federal contribution.

The total budget of around $9 million appears to be somewhat lower than the $12 million Schumann had initially hoped for in remarks to the legislature a year ago.

The plant will be built on GNWT-owned land adjacent to the current Hay River facility, while new “collection stations” are to be established in Yellowknife and Fort Resolution to speed up the processing of fish from other areas.

Too big?

Up to 24 seasonal workers will be employed at the new plant, the territory forecast.

On Tuesday afternoon, the territorial and federal governments revealed the 1600 square-metre facility would be able to process 1.4 million kilograms of local fish for sale and export.

The funding will also include the construction of cold storage, loading docks, and parking in addition to the plant itself.

Speaking to Cabin Radio on Tuesday, Simpson said: “Having the ability to process fish locally will mean higher returns to fishers, and a product that is much fresher when it gets to market. This will go a long way to revitalizing the commercial fishery.”

But he said some locals were concerned that the proposed plant “is too big and may wind up being too costly to operate.” In a briefing note, the territory said a bigger plant was better than building one that ended up too small and later had to be expanded.

Simpson urged dredging to ensure fishing boats can safely navigate the river and lake, and hoped more work will take place to both establish new markets for NWT fish and protect local markets the industry has already developed.