Eat the Fish – bringing local fish to Thunder Bay
Posted on: February 9, 2021

Paul Drombolis is born and raised Thunder Bay. He has been fishing since he can remember and he is the owner of Eat the Fish, a local Thunder Bay business that works to make local fish available to the citizens of Thunder Bay. Eat the Fish has been operating for four years. The company was founded on the idea of making local fish more available. They work directly with local fishermen located on Lake Superior, Lake Nipigon, Lake of the Woods, and even one in Nunavut. Local fish is typically sent to the states or southern Ontario for processing, but Eat the Fish works with local fishermen to sell species that aren’t necessarily their primary catch.

Photo by Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy

I asked Paul about the fishermen and the majority of them have fishing as their main source of income. The Nunavut fishers who bring in wild arctic char, are only seasonal though. During the summer they cannot travel across the landscape, and in the depths of winter, the temperatures are unbearable cold. That results in a small window where the land is covered by ice and the temperatures are bearable. All the fishermen on Lake Superior are full-time fishermen, they are out on their boats every day from when the ice thaws to when the ice forms. Their main species is whitefish which is typically sent away from the local Thunder Bay community. Paul provides another income source for these fishermen that allow the people of Thunder Bay to eat local fish.

The number of fish the fishermen catch is determined by a quota set by the government of Ontario. Their daily catch varies depending on their effort. The maximum catch would fall at the set quota. The primary fish they are after is whitefish and they may catch a few hundred pounds or more in a day. Eat the fish is small business, their big seller is Lake Trout. Due to the small scale of Eat the Fish and the unique consumer market of Thunder Bay, Eat the Fish is able to pay a better price than they might get from other buyers allowing the fish to stay local. Eat the fish offers a unique partnership for the fishermen because they can provide an extra income source by purchasing some of the secondary fish that aren’t as marketable to other buyers.

Eat the Fish makes an effort to bring in different types of fish. They bring in underutilized fish such as Burbot, which is an interesting looking fish, with different filleting techniques, but is really tasty. Burbot is typically bycatch especially in the winter months, but Eat the Fish offers an income stream for this different, but delicious species. Lake Herring is another type of fish that they bring in that is not well known from a consumer standpoint. There can be a challenge to convince the consumer to try a new fish, which is why Eat the Fish works to consistently have the fish so more people can try it and allow for another income outlet for the fishermen.

Eat the fish offers fillets and whole fish. It comes down to what the customer wants. They have a machine that combs the fin bones out of trout and whitefish. Their main outlet for sales prior to Covid-19 was the Thunder Bay Country Market. Due to lockdown restrictions the markets traffic has been lighter, but Superior Seasons is a great tool for people wanting to purchase local goods but follow lockdown protocols. Different farm vendors from around the Thunder Bay area are sold on Superior Seasons which allows people to shop online and opt for either delivery or pick up for the local goods.

Eat the Fish has many community partners such as local restaurants like the Tomlin, Bight, and many others. These restaurants have offered the people of Thunder Bay a chance to try to the fish. Many people come to the market looking for the delicious lake trout they tried at the Tomlin to see if they can recreate the taste-bud dancing meal. Eat the fish works with local schools as well. They will go into a school and teach the kids how to properly fillet and prepare a whole fish. Roots to Harvest is another partner. Roots to Harvest has created a cookbook based off of local foods and foraged foods within the Thunder Bay. The cookbook includes recipes such as Herring recipes and lake trout chowder that turn common foods found in Thunder Bay into delicious culinary affairs. They’ve done a great job partnering with us to get more people interested in consuming fish in a healthy way.

This warm winter and late ice cover lead to the conversation on the impact of ice-cover on the fishing business. For open-water fishermen the delayed ice cover allowed them to fish later in the season than normal, but for fishermen on Lake Nipigon who switch the ice fishing in the winter, the limited ice cover up until recently meant that commercial ice fishing was delayed. We talked about how the ice cover has changed over time. Lake Superior fishermen used to commercially ice fish on Superior, but now the ice cover is limited which makes ice fishing on the largest lake by surface area in the world a non-existent career.

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