High hopes for commercial char fishery in Gjoa Haven

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As a test fishery in Gjoa Haven approaches its fifth and final year, James Qitsualik is envisioning a commercial enterprise for Arctic char that could surpass the operation at Kitikmeot Foods in Cambridge Bay.

Sampling fish caught in nets at Backhouse Point in Chantry Inlet are James Qitsualik, left, chair of the Gjoa Haven Hunters and Trappers Association, and Queen’s University biology masters candidate Geraint Element. Scott Arlidge photo

“The abundance of char is incredible,” said Qitsualik, chair of the Gjoa Haven Hunters and Trappers Association, who added that whitefish stocks are also ample. “We know the fish are there. It’s just a matter of time, of waiting, and getting the exact numbers, starting it up and being able to maintain commercial fisheries… If everything goes according to plan, hopefully we can start a fish plant here in town.”

Such a venture would provide an economic boost to the community, Qitsualik said.

“We’re so limited for resources and employment up here so anything we can create is a plus. We’re always pushing to find anything we can possibly do to create employment, even if it’s seasonal employment,” he said.

Gjoa Haven Mayor Joanni Sallerina shares Qitsualik’s enthusiasm.

“That would really benefit people who go out on the land,” Sallerina said, adding that a fish plant “would be really ideal.”

The community already has a standing commercial quota, but Qitsualik said he hopes to see that increased.

“Our old quotas are like 20 years old. They need to be updated,” he said. “Those test fisheries will prove the numbers we were saying. I’m expecting an increase in quotas in all our commercial fishing lakes.”

These Arctic char caught at Back River are among the bounty from a test fishery that’s in its fourth of five years in Gjoa Haven. Brendan Palmer photo

Although the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) isn’t a partner in the project, it is acting in an advisory capacity.

“If it is determined through (the) process outlined in the New Emerging Fisheries Policy that a commercial fishery is feasible and sustainable in Gjoa Haven, quotas or any other fisheries management regimes would go through the decision-making process as outlined in the Nunavut Agreement,” said DFO spokesperson Michael Niziol. “Fisheries management decisions are made in consideration of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and using the best available science.”

Multiple phone messages left with various Nunavut Wildlife Management Board staff were not returned.

Through the Towards a Sustainable Fishery for Nunavut (TSFN) program – a partnership between communities and university researchers – Gjoa Haven harvesters have been netting 200 char from each of three test fishery sites per year. The approximate 3,000 kilograms of fish annually has been distributed to community members. Providing healthy local foods is one of the objectives of TSFN.

The program also includes a rigourous scientific component that involves the study of the health and genetics of the fish as well as contaminants in the local environment.

In addition to Gjoa Haven, the DFO has issued exploratory licences – to help determine the feasibility of commercial fisheries – in Iqaluit, Taloyoak, Cape Dorset and Qikiqtarjuaq over the past year.