Casting a wide net

Miramichi First Nation uses co-operative to diversity commercial fishery

(Published in The Atlantic Co-operator, September/October 2012, Vol. 78, No. 5)

When the Eel Ground First Nation formulated a new five-year business plan for its commercial fishery in 2010, it decided on an innovative diversification strategy that had at its core the founding of a new co-operative.

The Natuaqanek Commercial Fishery Co-operative Ltd. has reinvented the relationships between the band, fishers and the community as a whole, creating a model the co-operative’s president says may be the first of its kind.

“A co-op creates that community atmosphere,” said president Stephen Ginnish. “It has the commercial fishers’ interest in hand and it can be either a profit or not-for-profit, depending on how you decide to divert revenues and invest back in the community.”

The co-operative, through the band council, obtains fishing licenses from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) each year and then assigns them to qualified captains, charging a royalty of five percent of the landed catch value.

The co-operative also purchases boats and equipment and provides them to the fishers on a rent-to-own basis, meaning the co-operative’s initial investment is repaid and reinvested.

“We’re probably the only First Nation that has that,” Ginnish said. “The dollars that are invested in various programs are then passed on through rental and lease fees to those captains who then gain a sense of ownership in fishing those vessels. We enter into agreements for a period of time, and once that full cost is recuperated, that vessel is turned over to that individual. That allows us to use those same dollars we were given, say, ten years previous, to purchase another vessel. So we’re getting more for that dollar. It’s coming back around full circle.”

Ginnish said before the creation of the co-operative, the band saw very little of the fishing proceeds but was responsible for maintenance of the vessels. While the royalty and rent-to-own systems created two new revenue streams to grow the industry, Ginnish knew there were many more opportunities to diversify. He undertook an ambitious five-year plan that will see the co-op expand into retail, fabrication and repair operations.

Eel Ground proved it was ahead of the curve when, in 2011, DFO announced the creation of a Commercial Fishery Diversification Fund, which encouraged First Nations communities to work toward the kind of diversification plans the Eel Ground co-operative had already begun a year earlier.

Phase one of the co-op’s plan saw the construction of the Eel Ground Retail Power Centre, a building that houses a fish market, seafood eatery, ice cream stand and craft shop. After securing $700,000 in funding from sources including DFO, Aboriginal Business Development Canada, the Community Economic Opportunity Program, the Miramichi Northern Fund, and the band itself, the co-op broke ground on construction in December 2011 and opened its doors in April 2012. The co-operative employs a staff of eight at the centre and another ten on a lobster fleet.

Ginnish said the centre is already outperforming expectations and the food has won rave reviews in the community.

“We’re already known as the best fish and chips on the river,” he said.

Expansion plans are already underway. Ginnish said a business plan and funding application has already been completed for the second phase of the project, which will see the construction of a gear and equipment shop at the same location this winter. Phase three involves the construction of a complete fabrication facility behind the Retail Power Centre, and is expected to be completed in three to five years.

“The complete facility will include what we have there now, but it will also include a gear shop that will supply gear, nets, buoys for recreational, commercial and social fishery,” he said. “And it includes the fabrication shop in the back to do the vessels, do the training, do the gear construction, vessel maintenance, rent the shop out to people who want to use the shop, and stuff like that. So we have five businesses in one.”

Ginnish said when the three phases of construction are completed and the facilities are fully operational, he expects the co-op will be employing 28 people.

From its founding in November 2010 to the opening of its Retail Power Centre in April 2012, the Natuaqanek Commercial Fishery Co-operative seems to have successfully reinvented a crucial community industry  in less than a year and half. But Ginnish said this is not an overnight success story.

“Fishers have had this on their minds a long time, how to make things better,” he said. “It wasn’t something that all of a sudden just materialized. It was talked about over years, but nobody would take the lead on it.”

With his commitment to diversification as a means to achieving self-sufficiency, Ginnish and his co-operative are bringing life to the old maxim – if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for life.

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