To help the hard-hit fish and seafood-processing industry – reeling, like so many others, from the COVID-19 pandemic – the federal government is giving nearly $1.5 million in loans to four Chatham-Kent businesses.
Windsor–Tecumseh MP Irek Kusmierczyk, speaking on behalf of Economic Development Minister Mélanie Joly, said during Wednesday’s announcement the money will come from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario ‘s Regional Relief and Recovery Fund.
“I’m here to recognize an industry that has been part of Chatham-Kent’s history, culture and economy for a very long time,” Kusmierczyk said. “Chatham-Kent is known as home to the world’s largest freshwater commercial fishing port and is one of Ontario’s key fish and seafood-processing regions.”
More than 80 per cent of the province’s commercial fishing occurs in Lake Erie, accounting for nearly 800 direct and indirect jobs, with an economic impact of more than $194 million.
The new money will go towards the companies’ fixed operating expenses, COVID-19 safety measures, utilities, insurance and employee wages.
“We are aware that a common challenge for many employers in this area is attracting and retaining a skilled labour force,” Kusmierczyk said.
John Neate, president and CEO for Great Lakes Food Company, one of the loan recipients, said COVID-19 has had a “significant negative impact” on harvesters and processors.
However, he expects the funding will make a difference and help create jobs, despite the downturn.
“We operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so there’s lots of coming and going,” Neate said after the announcement. “We need to make sure that our employees are safe.
“Secondly, we received some working capital support, which has enabled us to accelerate some expansion plans that we had.”
Jay Aird, chief financial officer for John O’s Foods, another loan recipient, said the industry is a key driver in the regional economy, with its products ending up on tables around the world.
“We’ve had to change how we do things. Really rethink the business model,” he said. “I also want to mention our employees, who worked incredibly hard, really when no playbook existed.”
In a media release, Joly said fish and seafood-processing businesses are the “heart of many rural, coastal communities” in Canada.
“They create jobs and help grow the economy,” she said. “These four investments will help the sector adapt to meet current COVID-19 safety measures, bounce back from the pandemic and play a leading role in our economic recovery. We will get through this crisis together.”
- A&A Marine Foods, a family-owned Blenheim business specializing in the processing, packing and cold storage of freshwater fish for wholesale and retail sales in Canada and the U.S., will receive $500,000. During the pandemic, demand from the food service industry significantly decreased, forcing the company to temporarily close its operations and pivot to grow its presence in Canada. (30-plus employees)
- Great Lakes Food Company, a Chatham-based harvester and processor of freshwater rainbow smelt from Lake Erie, is receiving $362,000. The business experienced a drop in demand from its largest clients, including buffets, bars and restaurants in the U.S. and Japan. (38 employees)
- John O’s Foods Inc., a Wheatley processor and wholesaler of fresh and frozen freshwater fish, is receiving $195,000. It’s the second largest producer of lake fish in Ontario, serving U.S. and Canadian markets. (70 employees)
- Presteve Foods Ltd., a Wheatley harvester, processor and distributor of wholesale freshwater fish and seafood from all five Great Lakes and other North American inland lakes, is receiving $400,000. Given their restaurant clients, the company experienced a 66 per cent drop in sales, and was forced to temporarily shut down production for one month at the start of the pandemic last year. (138 employees)