Are you going on a fishing trip in British Columbia this summer? If you catch a big salmon and have it sent home (frozen, smoked or in a can) it will likely go through St. Jean's Cannery in Nanaimo, one of the few places that fresh salmon and tuna is still packed by hand, preserving all of the flavour, healthy fats and nutritional value. Here's how it's done, one delicious can at a time!
UPDATE: St. Jean's Cannery is Canada's only major producer of Ocean Wise canned fish, and the last major tuna cannery in North America.
Since this story was originally published, the family-owned cannery was sold to the local First Nation's Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood Development Corporation, which carries on their sustainable seafood canning traditions.
Words and Photos by CINDA CHAVICH
(NANAIMO, BC) - It’s a small can, a little rusty around the edges, with the word “Smudgies” on the faded label – a small can that’s on display inside what may be the largest fish can in the world.
The latter is actually a mini-museum devoted to the history of St. Jean’s Cannery & Smokehouse in Nanaimo – a building that looks like an oversized can of salmon, sitting in the parking lot, next to the country’s only tuna cannery.
And the former is the first product that founder Armand St. Jean ever put into a can.
“Armand started smoking oysters in a shed in his backyard and sold Smudgies in the bars,” customer service manager Lance Weber tells me, describing how the company’s namesake peddled his tasty home-smoked snacks to patrons in local pubs in the 1950s, first in plastic bags, then in jars, and finally in tins.
“He bought his first canning equipment in 1961, and the rest is history.”
It’s the history of a fish canning company that’s remained afloat despite the collapse of the local canning industry. And it’s a history that illustrates how a small business can thrive by paying attention to local demand and finding its niche in a unique product – the way local sports fishers get their wild Pacific salmon and tuna canned, and the last source of old-fashioned canned and smoked fish for local consumers.
LOCAL, SUSTAINABLE, ARTISAN CANNED FISH
While 150 salmon canneries once dotted the BC coast, most were closed by the late 1990s and, today, nearly all of the canned tuna we buy is caught using unsustainable methods like FAD’s (fish aggregating devices) and processed in large canneries in Thailand and the Philippines. St. Jean’s Cannery has survived by bucking that trend, still buying only wild Pacific salmon and hook-and-line caught, BC Albacore tuna, and raw-packing it by hand, the old-fashioned way. It’s the country’s only major producer of Ocean Wise canned fish, and the last major tuna cannery in North America.
“On the salmon side, we’re the only hand-packer, for sure,” says Weber, “and we’re the only one still doing raw pack tuna in Canada.”
This local success story hinges on the late Armand St. Jean’s ability to roll with the punches as the BC canning industry evolved over the last 50 years.
The former professional wrestler opened his small cannery on Vancouver Island more than half a century ago. He came west from Quebec in the 1940s and worked at a variety of jobs – as a fruit picker, a bouncer, a bartender, a laundryman and a carpenter – before finding his true calling in canned fish. And while it was his home-smoked oysters (still a popular product) that launched the family’s small-scale canning and smoking business, the company’s ongoing success has come with diversification into custom canning, online retailing, and serving the local sport fishing industry.
Today St. Jean’s has found a new niche as consumer demand grows for local, sustainable foods. It’s producing artisan canned fish, something that’s rare in today's largely industrialized marketplace — salmon and especially tuna that’s packed raw and then cooked just once in the can. Only raw, wild BC salmon and Albacore tuna makes its way into a St. Jean’s can, 100 per cent fish, with nothing added.
They’ve built a following for their eco-friendly tuna, a product that Greenpeace has twice named the most sustainable canned tuna on the market. And because the Albacore is young and line-caught in the deep waters off the BC coast, it’s not only an Ocean Wise choice, it’s low in mercury contamination — the only canned tuna with no restrictions on consumption.
A SMALL BUSINESS SURVIVAL STORY
St. Jean’s Cannery has had challenges over the years, but creativity, and a little luck, kept it chugging along, says Weber. A grocery store contract to supply oyster soup and clam chowder gave the cannery its first boost in the early years. When that business dried up, Armand St. Jean saw an opportunity in the BC sport fishery, canning the catch of wild salmon for local fishers and coastal fishing lodges, to augment his retail business.
In 1980s, when Armand retired, his son Gerard left his engineering career in Vancouver to run the cannery.
“Times were tough and the business was struggling,” says Weber, “but an order for 20,000 cans of salmon for Expo ’86 provided an influx of capital to save the cannery again.”
Since then, St. Jean’s has remained innovative and expanded its offerings according to market demand, creating canned soup bases, mustards and jellies, canned chanterelle mushrooms, even a popular corporate gift basket business.
Retail sales - through their own St. Jean’s stores and other grocers - account for half of the business, but processing sports fish remains a big generator of revenue.
The year I visited the operation, St. Jean’s handled more than 14,000 sport fish orders during the four-month summer fishing season — smoking, canning and freezing 250,000 pounds of wild, BC salmon, tuna and halibut, and shipping it to individuals around the world.
Co-packing for other artisan brands also became part of their business, with brands like Estevan Tuna and The Fishery processed in the St. Jean’s plant. Raincoast Trading was a longtime St. Jean’s client, too — its largest commercial canning account. But in 2013 Gerard St. Jean virtually doubled his company’s sales by acquiring Raincoast Trading, its marketing team, and its North American distribution network, including such giant retailers as Walmart and Whole Foods.
WALKING THE LINE
I’ve toured fish packing plants in other parts of the world, but a peek behind the scenes at St. Jean’s is inspiring.
Whether they’re receiving and tagging bins of frozen salmon from fishing lodges, filleting a pile of glistening Albacore tuna or silvery salmon, loading the smokers with trays of oysters, or packing fresh, raw fish into cans, this is a true hands-on operation. In high season, 100-plus staff bustle around the squeaky clean plant, and every fish is carefully accounted for throughout it’s processing journey, whether it’s destined to become a cold-smoked loin, a hot smoked nugget, a flash-frozen fillet, or a tasty tin of artisan fish.
Every sport fish travels through the plant along with its documentation on a plastic-laminated form — detailing its origin, owner, processing requirements and final destination — from the filleting table to the backroom where colorful labels are affixed by hand.
“The salmon and tuna is raw packed, by hand, in the can before its sealed and cooked in the retort canners – we’re the only company doing that,” says Weber as we watch workers filling individual cans with just-filleted fish.
Raw packing means the fish is “cooked once in the can,” with all of its healthy Omega-3 oils and tasty juices intact, which makes this some of the best canned fish you can buy, for both flavour and nutrition. Most of the canned tuna we buy at the supermarket is precooked in industrial ovens, all of its natural juices and oils rendered out, then packed by machine with water or oil added, before being cooked a second time in the canning process.
The St. Jean's canning process is the old-fashioned artisan way — how west coast fishing families and sports fishers once canned their own salmon and tuna at home, but using tins rather than jars, and a large high pressure steam canner.
The oysters smoked at St. Jean’s are only harvested from local BC waters in January and February, adds Weber, when the waters are coldest and there’s no chance of getting an oyster with an “algae-green” centre.
“The shucked oysters are smoked over natural hardwood smoke and hand-packed in the cans with nothing added,” he adds. It’s the same system for the hot- and cold-smoked salmon and tuna — some that’s vacuum packed and frozen as smoky nuggets, and some that’s canned.
St. Jean’s has also been a longtime local employer in Nanaimo, another sustainable aspect of the business.
Today, Hy is expertly filleting salmon while his wife Q is standing at her station in the next room, carefully filling each tin with raw fish and weighing it on an electronic scale. The Vietnamese-Canadian couple has been with the company for 17 years, a story that’s not uncommon at St. Jean’s, says production manager Nirmal Sandhu.
“Many of these women have been packing for us for 10 years or more,” says Sandhu as we inspect the tables that quickly fill with glistening cans of fresh fish. “We can pack 20,000 cans a day with 15 people.”
From here the hand-packed cans head onto the canning line — the only automated part of the process — where a pinch of sea salt is added and the machine presses the lid in place. Each can also gets a stamp, detailing the contents and the date.
“We can do 70 cans a minute,” says Sandhu, noting big industrial canning lines will process 800 in the same time.
The sealed tins are then stacked into massive steel baskets and lowered into the retort canners, where they’re processed under pressure to cook and preserve the contents. The official shelf life is five years, but an uncompromised can of salmon or tuna can last much longer.
A COASTAL CANNING TRADITION
My first encounter with St. Jean’s Cannery was after a fishing trip to the West Coast Fishing Club in Haida Gwaii. I’d caught a couple of fat coho and a big spring salmon during my four days with an expert guide and, as one of St. Jean’s clients, the lodge offered me a choice of convenient processing options.
Shortly after I arrived home my fish arrived, just as I had specified — some of it canned, some of it smoked, and some of it perfectly vacuum packed and flash frozen.
While I marveled at the efficiency of this service, it wasn’t until I had a chance to tour their Nanaimo cannery that I fully appreciated the complexity of the business. It’s a marvel of organization and a testament to the care this small company takes with every fish that arrives at its door.
“We pioneered this system in Canada,” says Weber surveying massive freezer where hundreds of boxes of frozen sport fish await processing. “This is the end product of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.We’re legally required to insure you get your own fish back and we guarantee it.”
In a world of cheap, industrial canned fish, we’re lucky to have an artisan cannery like St. Jean’s still operating so close to home. It may not be the cheapest canned fish on the shelf, but the St. Jean’s and Raincoast Trading brands are preserving coastal canning traditions in style, while walking the sustainable talk.
If that doesn’t convince you, just taste it.
This story was originally published by EAT magazine.