PEI

P.E.I. tuna processing plant opens up new markets, bigger profits

A tuna buyer in North Lake, P.E.I., has just opened what he calls Canada's first federally-approved bluefin tuna processing facility, One Tuna Inc.

'We're receiving calls daily from China, Korea, Europe, hotels, restaurants, casinos'

The processing facility has two super freezers, that freeze to minus-87 C, so they can super freeze smaller pieces to send directly to customers around the world. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

A tuna buyer in North Lake, P.E.I., has just opened what he says is Canada's first federally-approved bluefin tuna processing facility. 

The cut house, as it's called, uses traditional Japanese knives to process the tuna.

Jason Tompkins has been in the tuna business for 18 years, the last six as a buyer in North Lake.

He said it was time to find a new way to sell tuna from Prince Edward Island.

Tompkins says there are more than 10 different cuts of tuna, like beef, each with a different value. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

"Over the last few years, we've seen a decline in the price back to the boats," Tompkins said. 

"Japan has been oversaturated, a lot of different countries now are fishing tuna and there's so many fish that we've seen a big drop in price." 

To be able to do it here in little old North Lake, create some jobs and try and get a better price back to the boat, I think everyone's for that.—Jason Tompkins, One Tuna 

Last year, Tompkins said, the price was around $3,500 a fish, averaging around $10 per pound.

"If you go back maybe 30 years, before tuna farming, before mass production, when you caught a tuna, it meant a new truck," Tompkins said. 

"Guys were getting anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 per fish.

"It's a big drop, from a new truck to half a used snowmobile."

New markets

Tompkins says being federally certified means his company can now sell P.E.I. tuna into new markets. 

"We can send them to China, Korea, the Middle East, Europe, previous to this we were only able to sell them to Canada, the United States and Japan," Tompkins said.

"Bluefin is a luxury item so we're seeing the explosion of sushi restaurants everywhere."

Tompkins says he expects to see more bluefin tuna in August, but for now, he's been processing smaller, yellowfin tuna from Nova Scotia. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

Tompkins is also hoping to market bluefin tuna from P.E.I. in a different way.

"There's demand for this wild, rod and reel caught, artisanal bluefin," Tompkins said.

"To be able to bring the story of P.E.I., no nets, no bycatch, to some new markets, we're hoping for great things."

The company will be spreading the word by including a customized information sheet with each shipment of P.E.I. bluefin tuna.

The cut house, as it's also called, uses traditional Japaneses knives to process the tuna. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

Smaller portions

Tompkins says the new processing facility in North Lake will allow him to provide smaller portions of tuna, rather than an entire fish.

"Canadian bluefin, they're anywhere from about 300 pounds up to about 1,100 pounds, that's 6,000 or 8,000 servings of sushi," Tompkins said.

"It's a tremendous amount of meat for one restaurant to take, so part of what we're doing here is we're able now to break those fish down into manageable size pieces, maybe 10 pounds, 20 pounds." 

Tompkins says a lot of fish that's used in sushi is actually frozen first. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

The facility cost $300,000 to build, with another $100,000 for equipment.

"To be able to do it here in little old North Lake, the first of its kind in Canada, create some jobs and try and get a better price back to the boat," Tompkins said. 

"I think everyone's for that."

The company will be spreading the word by including a customized information sheet with each shipment of P.E.I. bluefin tuna.

"It's going to open up a lot of new markets, what we're doing now isn't working," said Lucas Lesperance, of Naufrage, P.E.I.

"We're getting a lot of fish that we're not really getting paid for what we should be, so I think this is just going to be a good idea."

Certification challenges

Tompkins admits the federal certification was a challenge because, he said, there was no rule book.

"If we were looking at lobster or beef or chicken those rules were established a long time ago," Tompkins said.

"Where we were the very first company to ever request bluefin certification in Canada. Both myself and CFIA really had to sit down and write a whole new set of rules." 

Tompkins can cut a 300 or 400 pound tuna in 45 minutes to an hour. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

Tompkins says there are more than 10 different cuts of tuna, like beef, each with a different value.

"The back loin would be more of like your hamburger, there's less fat and fat is taste so they're looking for fat when they have sushi," Tompkins said.

"Where the belly would be like the Kobe beef of the ocean."

Tompkins hopes the new facility will mean more jobs in North Lake, P.E.I., as well as better prices for local tuna fishermen. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

With the One Tuna plant, Tompkins will be able to take the fish apart and freeze each section individually and maximize the profit on each cut. 

"Being able to maximize the profit on each individual cut really allows us to do our best to get the most back to the fishermen," Tompkins said. 

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About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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