Prince Rupert’s largest cannery closing; 500 jobs in jeopardy

AP Photo/Klas Stople

The Mayor of Prince Rupert says 500 jobs in his city could be eliminated after Canfisco announced they would be ending their salmon canning operation at the historic Oceanside Plant.

“Our town was founded on fishing. We used to be the canning capital of B.C. There has been that decline, but I don’t think we anticipated this happening,” said Mayor Lee Brain.

“It’s a sad day for the town.”

In a letter to the plant’s union on Nov. 12, Canfisco, which is owned by the Jim Pattison Group, announced they would “continue landing and processing salmon at our Oceanside and Seal Cove plants.”

But they say while there’s still a market for fresh fish, the demand for canned salmon continues to decline, and a large cannery no longer makes economic sense.

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“It’s been branded as a restructuring, so they’re not planning on closing the two operations, but they will release many employees as a result,” says Brain, who is pledging to work with the company to save as many jobs as possible.

“From what I’ve heard, this could impact up to 500 jobs.”

In many ways, the closure marks the definitive end of an era where salmon canning was the most important industry on British Columbia’s central and north coasts, with the Prince Rupert area at its centre.

When British Columbia joined Canada, there were small canneries up and down the coast, but over the decades globalization and industry consolidation eliminated most of them.

But the Oceanside Plant, originally built in 1950 by Canfisco (and rebuilt years later after a fire), became the most important cannery outside of Steveston in the latter half of the 20th century, handling over 400,000 cases in some years.

This year, the number was around 40,000, and while the industry is a shadow of what it once was, the plant employed more than 600 people in 2014.

Brain says retraining is inevitable for many of the employees, but it won’t come easy.

“Some jobs are easily trainable, and some jobs require specific skills. You talk about LNG, it’s difficult to train the person on the ground to work in LNG versus a cannery.”

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Prince Rupert has seen declining population over the last four years, and many in the community are hopeful the TransCanada natural gas pipeline—and the many proposed LNG terminals—will offer a new economic chapter as the cannery industry fades away.

“When your identity as a community in the last 100 years has been around salmon, these types of hits are difficult,” says Brain.

“We’re diversifying with the other pieces that are emerging now, which is positive, but we don’t want to lose the fishing part as much as possible. But unfortunately, these things happen.”

The union says they’re not sure yet how the closure will proceed, and exactly how many workers will be without work next summer as a result.

However, they’re holding an emergency meeting at 10:30 Friday morning to discuss the closure. Brain will be there, along with North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice, a former Prince Rupert councillor.

“Today is a sad day for Prince Rupert. The loss of these cannery jobs is a significant blow to the community. My thoughts are with the many families who are worried about their future in light of today’s announcement,” says Rice.

“We need to work together at this difficult time.”

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