Eastern Fish Markets Limited

Making it in a sink or swim industry in eastern Canada
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Forrest Lancaster

Situated along the Rocky Bay in the Hamilton Sound on the northeastern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador is the small community of Carmanville, home to Eastern Fish Markets Limited (EFM). The locally owned company has been a Carmanville name since 1980, supporting both retailers and wholesalers with fresh seafood, such as lobster, crab, codfish, mackerel and eel.

After nearly 34 years in the fishing business, Wayne Wheaton, president and CEO of EFM has seen his fair share of trials and tribulations in an industry that’s not always easy to stay afloat in. As a local school teacher for many years, Wheaton saw an opportunity to enter the fishing business in 1980 with his brother.

“The opportunity was a gas bar, mechanical service station that had been operated through a business development loan, who allowed us to rent the property on a six month trial basis,” explains Wheaton. “At the end of the term we were to assume the mortgage or clear out. My first duty was to approach the Bank of Nova Scotia and secure a $4,000 loan to operate. In late December 1980 the tanks were filled with gasoline, a fully certified mechanic was hired and we were in business.”

The business attracted local fishermen who had planted the seed for more service, a wider supply of fish gear and a willingness to support a local company in the supply of raw material namely lobster, salmon and dried squid.

By the end of April 1981 the decision had been taken to assume the mortgage from BDC, operate the service station and start a local fish buying company. Product Traders Limited was born in May 1981 and subsequently renamed Eastern Fish Markets Limited in January 1986.

The brothers started buying seafood and dried squid was EFM’s first hot commodity. “By the following spring, we started to move into more species and salmon and lobster were popular,” recalls Wheaton. “We worked with a local company in the lobster trade, but by the next spring, my brother was no longer interested and he moved along to do other things.”

Making it alone

A year into running EFM, Wheaton quickly found the fishing industry presented a slew of challenges. “The gasoline side of the business was still paying the bills but I soon ran into purchasing issues in our second season,” he shares. “With my brother gone, I was doing it all on my own while still teaching.”

In the second season there was a major issue with purchasing lobster. “Lobster need a certain salt content to survive and with lots of run-off from melting snow and huge rainfall that season our local agency said it wouldn’t sell us the quantity we needed because they’d taken a tremendous hit due to the fresh water,” recounts Wheaton. “I had to make some decisions rather quickly and three days later I had found a new supplier and fallen in good graces with the local bank manager.”

Standing alone with the EFM mortgage, Wheaton persevered, practicing fair business that soon made EFM a well-known local business. “Traditionally in Newfoundland, especially in the fish business, you look after and service your clientele and buy everything they have to offer, so that’s what I did,” he says.

Growing pains and big decisions

A decade later and EFM grew to encompass more species, including ground fish. “Lobster was still going strong and fresh salmon was selling rapidly into the Montreal markets,” recalls Wheaton. “It was decision time again. “I needed to decide if I was going to keep doing it solo or hire professional help and management. In 1990, I decided my love for the business was equally strong as my love for teaching so I quit teaching and I’ve been running EFM ever since.”

As the sole decision maker of his own business, Wheaton encountered more challenges and EFM took its first taxable loss in 1992. “There was a closure in the Atlantic salmon fishery, which was 30 percent of our business at the time and squid began to peter out because the stocks weren’t high enough,” he tells. “Codfish was also shut down in 1992 and we took a huge loss in the gear, equipment, upgrades and infrastructure we’d put in place to support cod.”

 

But Wheaton has never been one to sit by while change happens; instead he sought to change EFM’s operations to better reflect the changes in the industry. “The buyout and closure of the ground fish industry caused many to leave fishing completely, but in 1999, we built our own dock and facility, increasing our coverage to live lobster, herring, crabs, eels and pelagics,” he shares. “It was a total overhaul for EFM. While we’re still smaller than most, we’ve come a long ways, growing significantly from where we started in 1980.”

The catch of the day

Currently, EFM looking to grow and make improvements in its live species business: “Clients drive everything we do and right now fresh fish is the order of the day,” reveals Wheaton. “We’ve moved well beyond the dried and salted, frozen or cold-stored days, the next step is fresh caught and live.”

EFM is adding new state-of-the-art, temperature-controlled tanks to hold live lobsters through November. “We’d also like to have more live species such as eels through the offseason,” adds Wheaton. “We’re also moving into our own retail brand coming up in 2015.”

“The industry has changed drastically over the last 34 years so we’re doing our best to harness new trends and continue to bring the important fishing tradition from Newfoundland to Canada and the world’s expanding seafood protein markets,” he continues.

Wheaton says the one constant in the sink-or-swim fishing industry is change and over the years by learning to embrace it and adapt to demand, Eastern Fish Markets Limited has remained a steady success.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Electric Motor and Pump (Pioneer Enterprises)
Summerville Fisheries Ltd.