Arctic char from Nunavut finds a market in Thunder Bay, Ont.

A company from Thunder Bay, Ont., is working with fishermen in Naujaat, Nunavut on a project to sell wild-caught Arctic char in northwestern Ontario, while developing a sustainable fishery near their home community.

Eat the Fish is part of a project called Lake to Plate, and co-owner Paul Drombolis says the partners in the effort include the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Laval University and Project Nunavut. The Arctic char is caught in a lake nearly 2,000 kilometers north of Thunder Bay. It’s flash frozen on sight, and then shipped south.

“If you could imagine drawing a line straight north of Thunder Bay, through Hudson’s Bay up towards the Northwest Passage, it’s on the coastline up there,” said Drombolis. “But a lot of their food — food that isn’t hunted or fished off the land — is flown in by cargo planes from Winnipeg. Those planes deliver food and then they leave the communities empty.”

Harvesters in Naujaat have an agreement where they get a discounted rate to send the fish south on those empty planes, when they fly back to Winnipeg, Drombolis explained. From there, it’s driven by truck from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay.

A harvester in Naujaat, Nunavut, harvests Arctic char. The fish is essential to Inuit culture, and is now being shipped south to Thunder Bay, Ont., about 2,000 kilometers away. (Submitted by Paul Drombolis)

Arctic char is an essential part of Inuit culture, often eaten raw, frozen or boiled in Nunavut. It’s common for people in Nunavut to ship char to relatives and friends living in southern Canada, but it’s relatively rare to find it in grocery stores or restaurants in the South.

Dromblis said he got the idea to bring Arctic char to Thunder Bay after seeing a piece on the CBC News about the fish being flown to Winnipeg during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and supplied to Inuit living in the city.

Drombolis was intrigued and wanted to investigate whether he could extend the supply line all the way to Thunder Bay.

“I started scouring the Internet and came across an organization called Project Nunavut,” he said. “And their goal is to connect Inuit fishermen with markets in the South.”

Lake to Plate

On its website, Project Nunavut notes Inuit are the world’s foremost experts on harvesting, preparing, and consuming Arctic char. It says a program called Lake to Plate promotes Inuit expertise by empowering Inuit fishermen to sell their Arctic char to seafood lovers across Canada. The program supports Arctic char that is wild, hand caught, sustainably fished, and delicious.

Sheila Flaherty is an Inuk chef in Iqaluit, and is known for her expertise with Arctic char and other traditional Inuit food.

Flaherty said she was pleased to see that some of the char being caught in Nunavut has been getting to market in Thunder Bay. She said Arctic char is one of the best fish to eat and will taste different depending on where they are caught.

Arctic char hangs drying in the sun in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. Arctic char is a staple of the diet in Nunavut and tastes different depending on where it is caught. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Flaherty said she enjoys eating char in a variety of ways, including frozen, but there are some popular options that might surprise people.

“Many Inuit like to pan fry it in Montreal Steak Spice,” she said. “I was asked one time what I thought about Montreal steak spice [on char]? And I’m like well, you know, the Inuit put it on pretty much anything. It’s kind of like the Frank’s Hot Sauce.”

For his part, Drombolis said Eat the Fish is happy to help Inuit fishermen make a sustainable income off the land for themselves, their families, and their communities while bringing a unique product to northwestern Ontario.

“So I just let the fisherman know how much fish I’m gonna need for that particular week and then they go out and catch it,” he said. “Which is one of the most amazing parts of the project.”