Nunavut-based marine training helps grow Inuit fishing crews
“This is going to be my career, for sure"
Nunavut has more then 40 per cent of Canada’s coastline, but very few marine crew members who take to Arctic waters are actually from the territory — or even Inuit.
The Nunavut Fisheries and Marine Training Consortium wants to change that, starting with the territory’s fishing industry.
Since its launch in 2005, the consortium, which trains Nunavummiut in all aspects of ships’ operations, has closed in on its ultimate goal of achieving all-Inuit crews on Nunavut-owned fishing vessels.
“If you go back four years, you might have seen one or two, maybe three Inuit on a crew list of 27,” says Elizabeth Cayen, executive director of the Nunavut Fisheries and Marine Training Consortium, or “NFMTC.”
Inuit crew members have since grown and can now occupy half of a ship’s roster.
“Now it’s not unusual to see anywhere between 10 to 15, in a crew of 27,” says Cayen.
“Part of it is obviously the training. But people are really starting to understand what the fishing industry is all about, and the benefits that it can give them.”
Nunavut’s fishing industry is still in its infancy. Just six trawlers from the territory ply the waters of the Davis Strait, off the east coast of Baffin Island.
Because Nunavut lacks a port or large-scale harbour, all vessels are stationed in Newfoundland and offload their catch in that province, or in Nuuk, Greenland.
“Fishing is not meant for everyone,” says Johnny Itulu of Iqaluit, one of the consortium’s most advanced students. “If it was easy, everybody would do it.”
Lengthy travel and three-week tours out at sea, with shifts on deck as long as 18 hours require some getting used to for trainee fishermen, he says. And he was no exception.
“I’d say getting along with other crew members is the number-one priority — working as a team.”
Itulu, 28, has progressed through most of the courses offered since the training program first started as the “Nunavut Fishery Training Consortium.”
“This is going to be my career, for sure,” he says.
From its humble beginning, focusing on fisheries training, the Nunavut fisheries program has since grown to cover the entire marine industry including cruise ships, research, sealift and the Canadian Coast Guard.
“Fishing is just part of it,” Cayen says. “It’s basically being a crew member of a boat.”
For his part, Itulu says he is sticking to the fishing industry, and determined to become Nunavut’s first Inuk ship’s captain.
After nine years of progress, from pre-sea training to regular work on ocean-going vessels in the summer season, the Iqaluit resident is halfway there. His next step is to complete a “Fishing masters III” certification.
Once done with his tour of duty at sea this summer, Itulu will return to the classroom in November.
“I’ll learn all about the weather, meteorology, and general seamanship,” as well as on-board and ship-to-shore communications, he says. He’ll then put the learning to practice when he heads back to sea in the spring, with a firms that fishes for turbot in Davis Strait.
Commercial fishing opportunities in the strait, and Baffin Bay to the north, have increased in stages.
Last fall, Fisheries and Oceans Canada increased Nunavut’s share of the turbot quota in an area known as 0A, covering a northern section of Davis Strait and Canada’s half of Baffin Bay, by 1,500 tonnes, for a total of 8,000. Nunavut owns all of the quota in 0A.
Nunavut’s allocation for 0B, just south of 0A, will remain at 2,850 tonnes from a 7,000 total — which amounts to a 42 per cent share. The territory has access to about 73 per cent of the turbot resource in its eastern-most waters.
“We’d like to have it all,” says Cayen, who is also administrator of the association that holds the quota for Nunavut — known as the Nunavut Offshore Allocation Holders Association.
“It would make sense to me that Nunavut, being the closest territory [or province], should have that,” she says.
The Government of Nunavut has lobbied for 85 to 90 per cent of the 0B quota allocation.
More than 100 Inuit have been part of the crews working to catch the quota this fishing season.
The promise of high pay, ranging from $80,000 to $120,000 for a six- to seven-month season in an industry that is expected to grow, has attracted interest and more applicants to the consortium’s courses, Cayen says.
All students start with a pre-training course, which usually draws 40 to 50 applications from around the territory for just 12 seats.
In 2013-2014, the consortium took on 288 participants in 35 courses, says Cayen. Some 91 to 95 per cent of trainees typically complete their courses.
More than 700 Nunavummiut have received some training at the NFMTC, according to the GN.
As the fishing industry grows in small steps, the consortium hopes to direct trainees toward other marine opportunities as well.
“We’re at a good spot in terms of fishing,” Cayen says. “For the marine industry itself, we could probably train more.”
Even though Nunavut’s infant fisheries industry can take on more Inuit employees, the consortium is mindful that there is an “upper limit” to the number of jobs available, “and it takes time to move up the ranks,” says Cayen.
“There are a couple of guys who have expressed interest in the coast guard, so we’re looking to see if we can get them there too,” she adds. “And we would like to see more on the sealift vessels as well.”
Itulu, who is serving aboard the 110-foot-long trawler Arluk II in the Davis Strait this season, says he will stick with fisheries for now.
“I’d say it pays the most amount of money,” he said, adding that he prefers the hard work in the open seas and variety of duties on the job.
His responsibilities onboard have covered almost everything from hauling lines and preparing fish for packing, to watching over the bridge.
On a mild summer’s day, back home in Iqaluit for a 10-day break, Itulu says he looks forward to getting back to work for another three-week shift out of Nuuk.
“After a few days here, I miss working,” he says. “For half the year I’m gone to work, and I love it.”
Every season at sea brings him closer to his ultimate goal of achieving a “Class I” marine certification, which could allow him to become a ship’s captain.
“Hopefully by 2020 I’ll have my Class I,” he says. “That means I can work on any type of boat. It can be the coast guard, cruise ship, tugboats — anything.”