Fish Plant Yields Returns For First Nation

The Lax Kw’alaams plant employs 225 locals, making it by far the largest employer in town

At the mouth of the Skeena, a processing plant wholly owned and operated by the Lax Kw’alaams band is helping a community grow

In a remote First Nations village about 40 miles south of the Alaska border, a recently refurbished seafood processing plant has become an economic engine for the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation. Known for it’s trout and Skeena River sockeye, the upstart fish-processing plant has become one of the leading canned and frozen food producers on the coast, a year after completing an $11-million refurbishment of a once-derelict factory.

The plant’s first season has outstripped pre-renovation projections: as of Wednesday payroll surpassed $1.5 million with 225 local band members working at the facility. Between the plant and the 150 villagers who work on Lax Kw’alaams fishing boat crews, seafood has come to employ nearly every employment-age community member in some form or another, says general manager Norm Black.

First built by the federal government in 1972, the plant was in and out of operation for its first few decades. While the fishery provided short-term employment for some band members, it sat empty for months each year and was never developed into a business, says Black.

In 2010, the Lax Kw’alaams band council decided it wanted to turn the building into an asset for the community, with the hopes of establishing a year-round, permanent export facility. One year in, its success has outstripped expectations, and the remote Tsimshian nation community, a short float plane ride from Prince Rupert, has become all too rare economic success story.

“Anybody that wants to work is working,” says Black, “and that’s had direct impacts into households in many ways.”

Lax Kw’alaams Mayor Garry Reece credits the Pacific Integrated Commerical Fisheries Initiative (PICFI) program, first implemented by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in 2007, for the success of the Lax Kwa’laams facility. The program provides coastal First Nations with access to communal fishing licenses, which are used directly by processional harvesters.

As with any business, success has been weighed by challenges in supply and demand. Dependent on the complex Skeena River ecosystem, supply can still be very volatile, says Black. The mysterious disappearance of the Skeena’s sockeye this year, was luckily made up for by a large pink salmon run, but the uncertainty left suppliers adjusting projections well into the season.  

Despite volatility, the plant has opened up new employment opportunities to community members, and the emphasis on the wild catch helped fuse the community’s values with a sustainable business.

“First Nations traditional law demands that we operate in a sustainable fashion,” says Black, “sustainability and fair trade are things we hear about a lot, but we try here to make them very real.”