New Brunswick

First striped bass fishery in 20 years makes a splash

The first Canadian striped bass fishery in 20 years is making a splash in the U.S. and across Canada.

Eel Ground First Nation began fishing commercially in early October

Each bass caught is measured and tagged with details, including the name of the person who caught it. (Submitted)

The first Canadian striped bass fishery in 20 years is making a splash in the U.S. and across Canada.

Eel Ground First Nation obtained a commercial fishery licence this year, marking the first time the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has allowed the fishery since striped bass were labelled endangered in 1996.

Joseph Nagle, purchasing and sales manager at Boston wholesaler John Nagle Co., says the first shipment of 1,800 pounds sold out on the first day.

"It was quite successful in terms of just the initial interest and the quality of the fish," he said. "It flew out the door, if you will.

"People were just genuinely interested when we mentioned to customers we have striped bass in Canada … most people haven't heard of that before."

Eel Ground First Nation fishers is using trap nets to catch its quota of 25,000 fish. (Submitted)

He said people also enjoyed the story of where the fish came from — the Miramichi River, where they've been traditional food for Indigenous people for a long time.

"We always like to sell out that fast," Nagle said. "The next day, people were already looking for that stuff. Right out of the gate, I'd say people appreciate the quality. They are really interested in the story of the fish. There's a lot of people with Canadian ancestry around New England, people from New Brunswick or Nova Scotia lineage."

Nagle also said striped bass is a well-known fish in the area, but the "novelty" of Canadian striped bass set it apart.

John Nagle Co. sells to restaurants and grocery stores such as Whole Foods.

In the 1990s, the striped bass population in the Miramichi River declined to about 5,000, but in the last 10 years the population has boomed. Some people estimate there are a million fish in the river.

Eel Ground First Nation can catch 25,000 striped bass this fall.

Optimistic First Nation

Chief George Ginnish of Eel Ground said the crew of one boat and four or five fishers started the catch in early October using trap nets. 

"We're excited," he said. "The number have actually been increasing in the last couple of weeks … It's our first kick at it and we expect that spring fishery would be much better, much larger."

Eel Ground First Nation chief George Ginnish says the community has been pushing for a striped bass commercial fishery for almost 10 years. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

He said it's difficult to estimate exactly how much revenue the First Nation is receiving from the fishery, but it is selling the fish for $4 a pound. Some days fishermen catch 1,200 pounds, other days about 300 pounds, he said.

The Fisheries Department stipulates that striped bass caught commercially must be 19 to 25 inches long (about 48 to 63 centimetres). Other sizes, up to 200 fish, can go to communal freezers for members of the community.

Ginnish said the fishery has been going well, but the weather can always change.

"If it gets really cold and it starts to ice up, then we've got to take our trap out and it's done for this year."

A sustainable story

Hana Nelson, owner of Afishionado Fishmongers, who's buying and distributing the striped bass from Eel Ground, said the fish is also being sold in Toronto, Montreal, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Nelson said product reception has been great.

"It's fully traceable back to where it's from," he said of the fish. "And it's a great story of the recovery of striped bass in the Miramichi.

"More and more the seafood world is catching up to the terrestrial world of agriculture because people want to have more connection to their food and the people behind their food."