Saskatoon

Northern Sask. fish processing plant closes 4 years after opening

Wollaston Lake Fishery, a company that employed 25 people in the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation and Prince Albert, has shut down operations less than four years after celebrating the grand opening of its fish processing plant.

Corporation that owned the plant cites high transportation costs for closure

A closed sign hangs on the front door of the now-closed Northern Wild Fishery store in Prince Albert. (Ray Funk)

One of northern Saskatchewan's only fish processing plants has shut down.

Wollaston Lake Fishery operated a plant in Wollaston Lake and a store in Prince Albert called Northern Wild Fishery.

The company ceased operations earlier this week.

The end result is 25 jobs lost — 20 at the plant in Wollaston Lake and five more at the store in Prince Albert.

Most of the people affected are members of the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation.

Future employees of the now-closed Wollaston Lake Fishery fish processing plant in Wollaston Lake celebrate the end of training during an open house for the community on August 17, 2015. (Ray Funk)

Lack of all-weather road hurt company

Anne Robillard is the CEO of the First Nation's economic development arm, Hatchet Lake Development Limited Partnership, which owns the company.

She said without an all-weather road to Wollaston Lake, transportation costs were too high.

"Getting the fish into the community and out of the community by barge, plane, ice road has proved to be too big of a barrier for a perishable product such as our fish," she said.

She said when a decision was made in 2014 to establish the processing plant, both the province and the federal government were committed to build an all-weather road to Wollaston Lake.

"And our road still hasn't happened," she said.

In April, a Ministry of Highways spokesperson told CBC there's a three-phase plan to build a road, but that the province is waiting to strike an agreement with the federal government.

Community proud of employment record

Robillard said the plant's years of employing local residents was a source of community pride, adding another success story was when frozen fillets produced by the company won the Best New Product of the Year Award at the Retail Council of Canada Grand Prix this past May.

In the fall of 2015 federal and provincial officials descended on Wollaston Lake for a community celebration of a long-awaited fish processing plant in northern Saskatchewan.

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's website, the plant is still one of only two fish processing facilities in the province's north approved to be able to export fish.

Tyler Morin is the CEO of the Sakitawak Development Corporation, which owns the north's only other business with a CFIA-certified plant, the Ile a la Crosse Fish Company.

Morin said northerners rely on industries like commercial fishing during hard economic times and a lot of the northern economy is based on fishing.

The inside of the Northern Wild Fishery store in Prince Albert now sits empty following its closure this past week. (Ray Funk)

He said its a tough loss when northern Saskatchewan is still reeling from the closure of major uranium mines in the region.

"So then what other industry is best to access if you're unemployed because of that reason than the fishing industry?"

While he said the Ile a la Crosse Fish Company doesn't have the same transportation challenges that Wollaston Lake Fishery faced, he said his company had a "tough year" in its first full year of operations last year.

"I mean, the industry, and in general, it is quite a tough industry to make it in," he said.

He said both processing plants have been supplying product to Federated Co-op Ltd. (FCL), with primarily walleye and northern pike coming from the Ile a la Crosse facility and mainly lake trout and whitefish originating from the Wollaston Lake plant.

Hope for Wollaston Lake fishers

Morin said the Ile a la Crosse Fish Company was in talks with FCL to take over Wollaston Lake Fishery's contract.

He said his company will explore buying product from the fishers in Wollaston Lake.

"We're going to look at every way to capitalize on making this work," he said. "We want to support the whole region and give opportunities to those local fishermen."

With files from Bryan Eneas

About the Author

Kelly Provost is a newsreader and reporter with CBC News in Saskatoon. Email him at kelly.provost@cbc.ca.

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