Reviving a fishing tradition
Surrounded by precipitous cliffs on the shores of the Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada a Native family on the First Nations Chippewas of Nawash reservation is sustained by fish from the same waters that once provided for their ancestors.
From the clear blue waters of the bay, an inlet of Lake Huron, Andrew Akiwenzie fishes four days a week for lake whitefish, lake trout, sturgeon, rainbow trout and salmon.
With the help of his wife, Natasha, and their three growing sons, Andrew runs Akiwenzie Fish & More, a company they started about seven years ago. The days he isn’t fishing he drives about four hours to the city of Toronto to sell fresh and smoked fish at farmer’s markets.
For more than 10,000 years, fish has played an integral role in the diets of people around the Great Lakes. Since the growing season is so short and the soil is poor, fish was always a staple in the local Objibwa people’s diets.
However, fishing is not the mainstay of the culture it once was.
“If a supermarket closed most people on the reservation wouldn’t even be able to feed themselves,” Andrew lamented.
Only about 100 of the roughly 600 who live on the reservation continue to fish, some commercially and others for personal consumption.
Although Andrew is a commercial fisherman, he goes to great lengths to fish in a respectful and sustainable manner; guided by the principles of his ancestors who never took more than they needed, Andrew fishes with only two, 300 yard long nets in a 23-foot open steel boat. He lays his nets strategically and tries to only take larger fish, leaving smaller ones to continue the cycle of life.
“It’s important not to overfish in one area,” he explained. He has a few favorite spots, one near the old lighthouse and others tucked around the two islands in front of his house, Hay Island and White Cloud.
Natasha makes bets with him about where to lay the nets. “He is usually right though, he always knows where to get the fish,” she laughed.
While Andrew is in charge of the fishing, scaling and cutting, Natasha’s nimble fingers are responsible for pin boning about 1,500 pounds of fish each week.
As her hands, armed with hardware tweezers, flew over the fresh filets she said, “People at the markets always ask me what my favorite fish is, I tell them catfish because they don’t have any bones.”
Unfortunately for Natasha, they don’t get much catfish. The majority of the catch is divided between whitefish and lake trout, both freshwater fish that prefer cool, deep waters.
Whitefish, atikameg in Ojibwa, is a member of the salmon family and has a white flesh with a delicate flavor. Lake trout, namegos, on the other hand, is a much stronger flavored fish.
In addition to selling fresh fish, they also smoke their catch, a traditional method for preserving fish in the region.
They transformed two tall bakery ovens into custom smokers. With cast iron pots filled with maple or apple wood chips and propane fueled flame they smoke the fish for six to eight hours. The maple or apple wood chips lend a subtle flavor to the fish and sells like hotcakes at the farmer’s markets, gloated Andrew.
Their secret recipe lies in the care they take in each piece. First, they hand select the best fish to sell fresh and then marinate the rest for a day in a home-concocted brine recipe made of hot water, brown sugar and sea salt. Then they baste the fish with maple syrup made from maple trees around their home or bought at local markets. Over the years they have also created tandoori, cajun and honey and garlic smoked flavors.
Due to their exposure at the farmer’s markets in Toronto, they have access to high quality fresh ingredients for their bastes. They use organic garlic, a local honey and hand selected spice blends.
Andrew was born on the reservation, but during his life moved around many times, searching for himself and a good life. For many years he lived in Sarnia, nicknamed the “chemical valley,” working with chemicals and dangerous equipment, things he probably should have never done for his own safety.
Yet Andrew was always drawn back to the waters of the bay. He now considers himself fortunate to be living off the land like his ancestors once did.
“I thank the fish everyday for giving their lives for me and my family.”