By Teresa Bird – North Island Gazette
Published: November 11, 2010 1:00 AM
The dock in Coal Harbour is a busy place since the Quatsino First Nation started an offloading company for commercial fishermen. For the last four weeks they have been offloading pilchards, a type of sardine.
A little fish is big business for the Quatsino First Nation.
The Quatsino First Nation started “just a little offloading company” earlier this year to work with Marine Harvest, said Dave Schmidt, manager of economic development for the band.
“We initially started to pump farm fish for Marine Harvest,” said Schmidt, adding that contract starts in January 2011. “We thought why not do the pilchards, so we picked up the equipment on Oct. 10 and started pumping the following Sunday.”
The crew of 25 has been working day and night ever since. And they are not the only ones who are busy.
Keltic Seafoods has been processing 25 to 30 per cent of the pilchards, while the rest are shipped by C-Force to processing plants in Campbell River and the Lower Mainland.
“It was supposed to just be a test run for the farm fish,” said Schmidt. That test run has turned into $75,000 in revenue from pumping 2,500 tons of the little sardine-type fish.
Schmidt said the venture has been a very collaborative effort by North Island businesses. Keltic, C-Force, James Walkus, Bear Cove Ice and Cove Fish have all helped Quatsino Offloading Company set up and keep operating, and it hasn’t all gone smoothly.
“The first offload took 18 hours,” said Schmidt. “We had pump problems, tote problems. I am thankful to Mitch Ponak from the Snow Queen. He was very patient. It’s a lot smoother now.”
The company employs mostly First Nations but has had to “go outside” the aboriginal community to recruit workers from other North Island communities.
The pilchard run has been a good training ground and a good start for the company. Pilchards were once plentiful of the west coast of Vancouver Island but dwindled in numbers about 50 years ago. Then in 2000 a test fishery was held and five years ago 50 licenses were issued.
“The quota has been rising every year,” said Schmidt. “Half the licenses were to go to First Nations but I think the only First Nation boat fishing pilchard is the James’ (Walkus) Ocean Joye.”
The fishery officially closes Feb. 2, but Schmidt said it depends on the fish. He is hoping the work lasts into December.
Then the work with Marine Harvest will begin, providing six to nine months work for about a dozen employees.
Schmidt said the revenue will be used to build the company and the facilities at the Coal Harbour dock, but the jobs are important.
“It’s not just the money, it’s the jobs close to home,” said Schmidt. “Lots of these guys used to work at Alpha or Keltic.”
And their experience has been valuable.
“The crew is working amazingly well,” said Schmidt. “we’ve had long hours, night shifts. Every employee has really stepped up to the plate. We went from one employee to 25 overnight. It’s been a challenge. The crew has done an amazing job.”