“Customers come from all over to buy our famous hand-breaded whitefish, hand-cut French fried potatoes, and creamy coleslaw,” said James Agawa. “We’re open from the May long weekend to mid-September and we’ve been very happy with the response from the public.” For those looking for non-fish options, there are burgers and other items on the menu. Customers can purchase their smoked fish and fresh fillets at this location too.
The fish and chip stand is just one part of the Agawa Fishery enterprise. Before getting into the industry, “I fell in love with the life,” says James. “The fresh air, being my own boss, what’s not to love? I started at 14 years old working for Jim McDonald and Ferroclad Fishery at Mamainse Harbour on Lake Superior. I learned a lot about the fishing industry at Ferroclad and from Jim.”
James told me that he bought his first boat in 1990 and founded Agawa Fisheries soon after. He’s now been commercial fishing for over thirty years and along with his wife Marlene and their children, have worked hard to build it into a thriving family business.
For many years James and his crew navigated the waters in search of fish on their boat the Coranet. Recently, they purchased the Clark, a bigger commercial fishing boat that is better able to navigate the rough waters and has allowed them to increase their capacity, but James explained he still uses the Coranet when needed. Both are docked at Mamainse Harbour.
What kinds of fish do they search for? “Ninety-five percent of our market is whitefish–the rest is lake trout,” said James. “We use gill nets to catch the two to three-pound or larger fish, while the smaller ones can swim through the net and keep growing. The fish stock is healthy and the markets are up and down, but we have seen changes in the lake over the years, including a warming trend in Lake Superior and Huron’s water temperature and an increase in storm frequency and severity.”
“We work seven days per week during the season, and our season runs from May to December. We’re able to fish fairly close to home and we pay close attention to the marine reports which are much better than they used to be, but we don’t go out if a storm is coming in.”
With each fresh catch, Agawa Fisheries is able to process the fish at their new state-of-the-art processing plant. “Our new filet machine can do an average of 1,500 - 2,000 lbs of dressed fish in a week. With our new smoker, we can smoke the fish at consistent temperatures, no matter where they are placed inside. Before we had it, we needed to continuously reposition the fish in order to get it smoked just right.”
How is Agawa Fishery different from others? “We take pride in going the extra mile.” says both James and Marlene, “We were the first fishery to remove the tiny pin bones from our fish. That is now standard in the industry. Our customers appreciate our attention to detail.”
Products supplied by Agawa Fishery include fresh, smoked, and frozen fish. They also make white fish pepperettes from what was once the waste or left-over meat after processing. The pepperettes have been a big hit with their customers. “Our frozen fish is vacuumed-packed, which means our fish is now available year-round.”
Marlene is responsible for not only keeping the books for the business but also distribution. She personally delivers out to over thirty different retailers and restaurants in Wawa, Goulais River, Batchawana, St. Joseph Island, Thessalon, and all over Sault Ste. Marie including at the Mill Market. Agawa Fisheries also distributes into Michigan and Illinois. “There is a high demand for our whole fish in the U.S.”
In addition to James and Marlene, Agawa Fishery employs eighteen people with fifteen year-round employees. Their staff includes the crew on the boat, in the processing plant, and at the fish and chip stand.
James told me that “Agawa Fishery prides itself in being in the forefront and setting the bar in offering a quality product.” Like his grandfather who fished all over the north shore along with his Dad, James’ heart is in fishing. The Agawa’s pride and love for the fishing industry were very much evident when talking with them. As for future plans?” James says. “Stay tuned. We have exciting news coming soon!”