Young fisherman reels in big catch with Jerk Fish

New product development | Rural Manitoban seeks to increase his return on walleye caught in Lake Winnipeg

GIMLI, Man. — Manitoba fisherman Chris Dolman smelled an opportunity when a shipment of specialty fish bound for Gimli’s Icelandic Festival was confiscated at the port.

He decided to try dehydrating the walleye he catches and selling it to a community that loves its hardfiskur. The result was Jerk Fish, which is now available in peppered, seasoned and traditional flavours in grocery stores throughout the Manitoba Interlake.

“Everyone liked it and it went over well,” said Dalman, who is of Icelandic descent.

“The Icelandic like cod and are used to a pungent fish flavour.”

Demand has since outstripped supply for the one-person company, which uses Dalman’s double car garage in Arnes, Man., for processing and packaging.

He said smaller fish work best, noting how a freshly caught 340 gram fish dries down to 70 grams. He sells Jerk Fish to stores for $8.33, which then resell it for around $13.

During the warmer months, Dalman can be found in his small boat on Lake Winnipeg catching fish for about six hours a day. Once home, the day’s catch is processed for fresh fish markets or dried for Jerk Fish.

In the early days of the business, that meant 18 to 20 hour days and processing 100 bags a day.

“I’ve slowed down a bit,” said Dalman, who once travelled to multiple farmers’ markets each week but now focuses on his “hot spots” and selling to stores with strong hard fish sales.

Private fresh fish sales allow him to earn twice as much as wholesale, and adding value with Jerk Fish allows him to earn five times that amount, he said.

“If I had to buy this fish, it wouldn’t be worth it. The only reason it’s profitable to me is that I fish it,” he said.

Although a food product, fish does not qualify for grants available from Agriculture Canada.

Consequently, he turned to Community Futures East Interlake for $45,000 in loans to refurbish his garage, buy equipment, conduct product development and develop packaging and labels.

He would like to eventually sell to hunting and fishing stores or supply the Minnesota Vikings football stadium because of its association with the Icelandic culture.

He said Jerk Fish is a good fit with outdoor enthusiasts and travellers.

“It’s a quick easy snack, popular with truckers,” he said, citing its 80 percent protein content.

For now, he’s moving ahead cautiously.

“I don’t want to go too fast,” said Dalman.

He fell in love with fishing after working as a tree planter in British Columbia.

He worked as a fisherman’s helper for two years, as required, before getting his commercial fishing licence and gradually building up his fish quota to 18,000 pounds.

Dalman said it is difficult for an independent to break into commercial fishing in the family-dominated industry of the Interlake, where quotas now sell for as much as $5.50 per pound.

The phosphorus concerning sunbathers and cottage owners is a boon to fishermen like Dalman, who said the nutrient load is keeping fish numbers high.

He works at ice breaking, dredging and ice fishing in the winter to supplement his seasonal fishing income and support his two preschoolers and wife, Kyla.

MLA Peter Bjornson, Manitoba’s minister responsible for entrepreneurship, training and trade, has tasted the product, which resembles a toned down variety of the hard fish he grew up with as part of an Icelandic family in Gimli.

“It’s something we’ve been eating a version of for centuries as Icelandic people,” Bjornson said.

“The original hard fish is admittedly an acquired taste, but when you do what Chris has done, it’s a great product.”

Bjornson sees market potential in the health benefits.

“What he’s done with it is pretty innovative and it’s a matter of selling that product to the right market and finding that market and expanding that market,” he said.

Bjornson said there are few value-added fish products from Manitoba, but noted the potential is great for Manitoba’s commercial and recreational fishing industry, which has a net worth of $80 million annually. His department has appointed a trade specialist to look at markets for Manitoba fish outside of Canada.

He said provincial programs are available to entrepreneurs to assist with market and product development, commercialization and certification. Organizations such as the Canadian Youth Business Foundation also lend support.

There are also trade shows and food fairs, including Food Fight in Brandon, which is a showcase and competition held each spring for new Manitoba products.

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