A worker in a blue overcoat, yellow rubber gloves, hairnet and white hardhat places turbot fish onto a conveyor belt that drops them into a whirring machine. The machine spits out separate piles of skins and bones. A conveyor belt exits the machine carrying filets. Eight other workers, all wearing the same overcoats and hardhats line either side of the conveyor belt. With knives they further clean the fish and place them back on the conveyor belt to be packed into crates labeled “Baffin Turbot Filets.” The fish in these boxes will be shipped to southern markets via cargo plane.
Pangnirtung fish plant manager James Williams tells Global Warming 101 expedition member Elizabeth Andre that the fish on the conveyor belt came not from the local ice fisherman, but from off-shore ships owned and operated by southern companies. The fish are flown in on crates, processed and flown out again.
Ice conditions have been deteriorating every year and this year they are the worst in recorded history. Normally the turbot ice fisherman start fishing by the end of January or beginning of February. Fish plant employee Olepika Noah, a woman in her fifties, remembers when her first child was born; they crossed the ice of Cumberland Sound in November of that year. This year, however, the first fisherman didn’t venture out onto the ice until the second week of March.
Fish plant employee Oleepa Akulukjuk tells Elizabeth that many fishermen are afraid of going out onto the ice because it is thin and cracked. Several fishermen have lost all their gear and barely escaped with their lives when the ice broke up around them.
Of the nearly fifty turbot fisherman in Pangnirtung, only three or four are fishing this year. Fish plant employee Rita David explains that even if fisherman were not afraid of going out onto the ice, the area covered by ice is simply not large enough for all the fisherman to spread out their lines without the lines getting tangled.
For the ice-fisherman who now find themselves out of work, the economic options are bleak. They can either try to find temporary jobs or they can rely on government assistance. Either way, they are not doing what they love.
Some local residents leave the local culture to seek work on the off-shore ships of the southern cash economy. These are generally not the same people, however, who would be ice-fishing. The skills needed are different and prospective workers must take a course in Iqaluit to qualify for jobs on the off-shore ships.
James shows Elizabeth a crate of turbot taken by ice fisherman. He explains that the ice fish is more delicious and high-quality meat than the fish brought in from the ships. Not only is it more fresh, but the meat is pure white as contrasted with the more reddish meat of the ship-caught fish. The off-shore ships trawl a weighted net across the bottom and then raise the loaded net to the surface. The fish get crushed and their flesh damaged. In contrast, the fish caught through the ice are raised to the surface on a long line and transported in small crates.
Ice-caught fish command higher prices and are in high demand. Rita says this year many people have been calling from the south trying to buy ice-caught fish, but there are simply not enough.
The weather over the next month will determine whether ice-fishermen are able to bring in more turbot. If the weather gets colder, the ice fishing season may last a while longer. Oleepa recalls last year, however, when a warm February rain-storm melted the ice. The increasingly unpredictable weather makes ice fishing an increasingly-unstable economic venture.