Corruption scandal in China depresses Nunavut turbot prices
“This has been an exceptionally good season, but the market is not so good”
The weather is cold, the ice on the bay is thick and the turbot beneath it are running.
Factor in nearly 100 hardworking fishermen, and the result is a record catch at the fish plant in Pangnirtung, where some 330,000 pounds of fish have been caught since Jan. 14, when the season began.
But a strange hiccup on the international turbot market has kept profits down.
“This has been an exceptionally good season, but the market is not so good,” said Michael Neumann, general manager at the fish plant, which is owned by Pangnirtung Fisheries Ltd..
One reason is that six months ago, China stopped buying turbot completely.
Turbot is not a traditional Chinese fish but over the past several years, the Chinese have adopted a taste for it, initially importing from countries like England and Germany.
More recently the Chinese have begun importing fish from Nunavut, which helped create excellent prices for last year’s bumper turbot crop.
But since last September, the turbot-hungry Chinese have been buying the fish from no one.
The reason, according to Neumann, is a scandal within the country that involved importers landing turbot in Vietnam. then bringing the fish into China without paying proper duties.
The Chinese government learned about the scam and, apparently, stopped importing turbot altogether.
“Probably someone didn’t pay their ‘extra money’,” Neumann said.
The Pangnirtung fish plant is selling its turbot to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, as in past years, but these countries don’t pay as well, about 50 cents per pound less than the Chinese.
“We’re hoping that after a few months the Chinese will resume buying,” said Neumann. “But they haven’t yet.”
Still, Neumann, who served as the plant’s manager from 2000-2007 and took over again from Don Cunningham last June, is enthusiastic about how the turbot season is going so far.
Fishermen started fishing this past Jan. 14, a full week earlier than last year, and hope to go until the first week of May.
And the 330,000 pounds of turbot that fisherman have caught so far is about double the amount caught last year, said Neumann.
The number of fishermen working the ice has also increased. Last year there were 62 licensed fishermen, but this year there are 95, including many younger fishermen who are making a go of it for the first time.
The fish plant is paying fishermen the same rate as last year: $1.30 per pound.
Another positive development came Friday afternoon, when Neumann signed an agreement with Nunavut’s Department of Economic Development and Transportation that provides funding for supplies for about 60 to 70 fishermen.
Neumann said he should know by the end of next week exactly how much funding will be available through this program.
For now, the fish plant is advancing supplies to many fishermen.
Other issues that plagued the plant last year seem to be under control. For example, last year’s catch was so big, the plant ran out of the packaging material used to package fish for shipment out.
“For now we are good on this packaging issue,” said Neumann. “We have been preparing for a good season. Super good, we don’t know, but we should be okay.”
Another positive development: the fish plant’s new dock, under construction for several years, will soon be finished.
“It’s like 90 percent ready,” said Neumann. “We’ll be putting the finishing touches down this spring, and it should be ready for summer.”