Economy
Yellowknife

Big Fish enters NWT pond with plan to transform fish industry


The winner of a Yellowknife business contest says his planned new restaurant can help to transform demand for the territory's fish and revitalize its long-suffering fishing industry.

Liang Chen, already the co-founder of the city's Copperhouse restaurant, won the grand prize in this summer's Win Your Space contest with a plan for a new eatery.

Armed with a year's free leased space and other perks, he expects to open an establishment named Big Fish in downtown Yellowknife early next year. (He originally named it Fat Fish but says he has changed it after the similarity to the Fat Fox, a former Yellowknife café turned catering company, was pointed out.)

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Big Fish will sell a range of locally caught fish cooked "Asian-style," says Chen, with NWT fish also available at the counter for residents and tourists to take home.

Chen hopes his restaurant will drive enthusiasm for NWT freshwater fish and, in turn, generate more interest in the industry.

Ultimately, he thinks Big Fish can help the territory's fishing industry secure new supports and move away from the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC).

"We're going to be only using local, fresh fish, and providing something both tourists and local Yellowknifers will enjoy," said Chen.

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"Hopefully this will catch on and encourage recognition of our fish, and eventually we'll get some sort of fish export out of this."

At this point, you may have questions. Like, how can one restaurant have that impact? What's FFMC? And why should you care?

Stand by for a brief lesson in fish sales.

What happens to NWT fish

FFMC is a beleaguered crown corporation that currently has the exclusive right to market, and sell, freshwater fish caught in the NWT.

Dealing with FFMC has its benefits, as it sells to more than a dozen different countries on NWT fishers' behalf, but both the fishers and the territorial government have long complained that FFMC doesn't always act in fishers' best interests, nor secure the best-possible prices.

Liang Chen at the Cabin Radio studios in August 2019

Liang Chen at the Cabin Radio studios in August 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Why is FFMC beleaguered? Largely because it used to have similar rights to sell fish from a range of other provinces, but those jurisdictions have pulled away from the agency in favour of an open market, where anyone can process and trade in their fish.

As a result, FFMC has had less fish to sell and more competitors. It is consequently in the process of being overhauled. Two months ago, a federal panel recommended replacing FFMC with a new version led by a federation of regional fishers and fish processors.

Meanwhile, the territorial government has a plan to start getting some NWT fish to market without the crown corporation's help.

A new fish processing plant in Hay River, funded by around $9 million from the federal and territorial governments, is supposed to be operational by the fall of 2020. That will allow the NWT to process fish without having to rely on sending it south to FFMC in Winnipeg.

Once the fish plant is working, the NWT's plan is to keep sending some fish to FFMC – or whatever replaces it – but also begin selling processed fish within the NWT, which will let fishers keep more of the profits, while exporting to other customers the FFMC doesn't currently serve.

So in summary, the current way of selling fish is perceived to be letting the NWT down. The territory is opening up ways to sell fish to new customers by other means.

Chen's vision

But who will the new customers be?

This is where Liang Chen's Big Fish comes into the picture.

New customers "will be identified during market research," the NWT government said in its strategy for the industry, published in 2017.

Chen doesn't think he needs market research. He believes his restaurant can do that work, getting fish under the noses of eager tourists who will then – he hopes – Instagram the living daylights out of it, take some home for family and friends, and wax lyrical about the quality of NWT fish to anyone who'll listen.

That in turn will drive demand in other countries for NWT fish, the theory goes, setting up new export markets.

"Because the cooking method will be fairly familiar to a lot of Asian tourists, my hope is enough people will eat here, take fish samples home, realize how great our fish is, and start more demand," Chen told Cabin Radio.

"If there is demand from major cities in Canada or Asia, I'm sure the government will step in and say, 'we've got to step up this fishing.'

"Right now, there is no demand so things can be put on hold. My hope is, with a small restaurant, we can let people know our fish is great and revitalize our commercial fishing industry."

According to the City of Yellowknife's Win Your Space rules, Chen's restaurant must be open by the end of the first quarter of 2020.

He says he already has a chef "pretty-much ready to go," has a menu designed, and knows where he will get his equipment. He also has a downtown location selected, though he wasn't willing to make that public while his lease was still to be finalized.

"It's a big advantage, getting everything ready ahead of time," he said.

"Hopefully we'll be ready to launch right after New Year's."

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