From Nunavut to San Francisco: Cambridge Bay company puts Arctic char on your dinner plate

If you don't know what to look for, Kitikmeot Foods can be hard to find. The sign on the outside of the long blue building is faded almost to the point of being illegible, and all its exterior doors are unmarked. 

Yet inside this nondescript building in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a small team of staff will process 38,000 kilograms of Arctic char this year, for both local and international markets.

Karen McColl/CBC

On one day in November, six employees wearing aprons, gloves and hair nets work in a large, relatively bare room with white walls. 

They are preparing raw "piffy" char, an Inuit delicacy that will be soaked in brine and hung to dry.

Stephane Lacasse, general manager of Kitikmeot Foods, which is owned by the Nunavut Development Corporation, says all of the work is done in batches. Today they are processing piffy, tomorrow they could be packaging it. 

"We're too small for [a] big assembly line," Lacasse explains, joking, "We're not Maple Leaf [Foods]." 

I'll have the Arctic char, please

Perhaps more important than the plant's size, is the demand for its product. Char processed here ends up on dinner tables from Yellowknife to Toronto and San Francisco to Boston.

Lacasse says during the summer and fall harvesting seasons, they sell fresh char to a fish monger in San Francisco that distributes it to high-end restaurants across the U.S. and Canada.

That fish, up to 3,600 kilograms annually, gets flown out immediately. Year-round, the company also sells smoked, filleted and candied char to grocery stores in the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut and to restaurants in the North.

Karen McColl/CBC

Lacasse says last summer's char averaged two to five kilograms each. They are harvested from five rivers outside of Cambridge Bay, accessible only by float plane or boat.

Local fishermen from Cambridge Bay, a community of about 1,600 people on Victoria Island, are hired and use fish nets and weirs depending on the location. Lacasse says quotas are set by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 

"We are sustainable," he says, adding that Kitikmeot Foods works with Ocean Wise, a global conservation organization that rates the sustainability of seafood products.

On its website, Ocean Wise gives char fished from the Cambridge Bay region an average rating of 3.5 out of 5, which falls into its "Best Choice" category in its consumer Seafood Watch guide. 

Storing 30,000 kilograms of char

Jonathan Pinto/CBC

Lacasse walks to the furthest area of the plant, where the fish arrive by truck. Today it's empty, contrary to a day in mid-July or August when harvest is in full swing and fish are being unloaded en masse.

During peak season, Kitikmeot Foods employs up to 14 plant workers, plus fishermen.

Lacasse points out various coolers and freezers.

A tempering room keeps the fish cool while they are waiting to be cleaned. Then they go to the –45 C "blast freezer" where they are frozen as quickly as possible to maintain their quality. Another freezer, the size of a two-car garage, is for storage. It's kept at about –20 C. 

Throughout the year, staff whittle away at 10-kilogram bags of char in the storage freezer. After they finish this batch of piffy, they might do a batch of cold smoked (raw), hot smoked (cooked), jerkied or candied char, depending on demand. 

"Everything is done by hand. We figure out what we need and we supply our customers from there," says Lacasse. 

Karen McColl/CBC