THUNDER BAY -- For some, starting their own business is a dream of many years come true, while for others, it is a long winding road that led them to unexpected places.
Brent Forsyth had gone to school to study GIS (geographic information systems; “mapping, cartography, data analysis,” he explains) and he started working with First Nations communities in the region.
Through conversations with locals there, he found out that commercial fishing, which had previously provided people with a livelihood was almost nonexistent now and the idea of connecting those fisheries with hungry customers was born.
Forsyth founded Canadian Freshwater Fish with co-owner Jordan Shannon last year, aiming to source sustainably caught fish from the surrounding region.
Walleye (also called pickerel) is by far the most popular local fish here; almost everything they get is snapped up locally. Whitefish, on the other hand, doesn’t enjoy the same kind of popularity and most of it is sold out of town, in places such as Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. “I’d love to see it become more popular,” says Forsyth. “It’s a really good fish, but for whatever reason, it’s just not as popular as walleye.”
Lake trout is also a popular choice and available year-round, unlike walleye, which is not available in the winter. There is also crappie and perch; both not nearly as well-known as walleye. Canadian Freshwater Fish sells the vast majority of their fish filleted; they have a machine that removes the scales, and another that can remove the spine and rib bones much faster than by hand.
“Our fillet machine says it’ll do 40 fish a minute, but you can’t really work fast enough to put that many fish in. It takes about a second and a half to do one fish,” explains Forsyth. They also have a large smoker and sell smoked fish.
Their processing facility on Simpson street employs two people full time and four part time, depending on how busy they are. The owners didn’t intend to sell fish directly to the public, but people regularly walked up to the door looking for fish, so they opened their office up for retail.
Currently, there is only a blackboard with prices, but they are working on getting in a display case, fridge and freezer. Around town, there are about half a dozen shops where you can find their products - mostly small local businesses such as George’s Market, the Maltese and Renco Foods.
The fish come from the Lake of the Woods and Lake Superior (“mostly towards Black Bay”) and are caught using gill nets. Due to logistical difficulties, they are not yet able to buy fish from remote northern communities, but they still hope to be able to do that some day.
Another aspect of the business that Forsyth would love to see a change in is what he can’t sell - the skin, the bones and the head. While a good portion of whitefish is flesh, walleye produces more waste.
He tried drying walleye skin to sell as dog treats, but he felt pulled in too many directions and decided to focus on the core of his business for now. “I’d love to see somebody use the waste - for fertilizer, pet food, compost, whatever. I hate seeing it go to the dump.”