The People on Cannery Row
By Goody Niosi
“I had an engineering company in Vancouver and I came over here to help my dad sell the business. He was getting old at the time and wanted to get out of it. I worked with him for six months and decided to keep it.”
And so Gerard St. Jean stepped into the family business in 1978 and went from engineering design in the forestry business to canning and smoking salmon, trout, tuna, Alaskan Black Cod, clams and mushrooms. “We produce a product that we’re proud of,” Gerard explains, “that’s one of the reasons I stayed in it.”
He goes on, “We’re high profile because we do gift packs; we have a mail order business and do fish for sport fishermen. We smoke and we pack…we do all kinds of things. We cold pack and we can four pound tins for institutions and companies back east. We do a lot of commercial work. In fact, we’re sending out two containers of salmon to Japan this week.”
St. Jean’s Cannery, in the south end of Nanaimo, occupies a unique niche in the canning market. There are only five or six major companies that can a lot of salmon; that means 600 cans a minute on an automated system. “We’re a hand-packing operation,” Gerard says. “We speciality pack. We run around 60 cans a minute. There are smaller canneries but we have a little niche where we fit in. Other than the smaller canneries, we are the only custom cannery on the Island. We pack for a high end store in Japan and other speciality markets.”
A large part of St. Jean’s business is mushrooms, specifically wild chanterelles. The company ships the chanterelles to Europe: Germany, Switzerland, France, Sweden–about a hundred tons a year–and pine mushrooms to Japan. “Mushrooms happened in a big way in British Columbia in the late 70s and we got into them in ’81,” Gerard says. “We have stations from Oregon all the way up to Alaska; the stations are places that families or anyone who picks mushrooms can sell to. The mushrooms are brought into the stations, collected and shipped to Nanaimo.”
Another major part of St. Jean’s business comes from sport fishermen and most of those fish come in from the fishing camps from the Queen Charlottes, Campbell River and Ucluelet. St. Jean’s trucks go up and down the Island, picking up the fish; those trucks also make three trips a week to the Vancouver airport and pick up the fish dropped off there for processing. Most fish used to be canned but with so many processing options available now, canning is not necessarily the most popular way to go. Now a sport fisherman can have his catch smoked, lox style or barbecue style. They can choose sweet Indian candy, plain canned, smoked and canned, filleted, steaked and frozen and know that their product will be shipped overnight by Fedex.
Gerard explains that this has been a tough year and it doesn’t worry him one bit. “I expect to see it come back up,” he says. “Over the last years as the big fish have been coming back from Alaska past the Queen Charlottes, both the sport and commercial fishermen have been targeting the big trophy fish. Less of them have been coming back. What the government wanted to do this year was make sure the fish got back up the rivers so they cut back how many fish you could keep. Everybody in our business realized that was true. Unfortunately there was so much negative publicity, fishermen got the idea you couldn’t keep any salmon. That wasn’t true. It was just the spring salmon that you couldn’t keep. The inside of the gulf wasn’t shut off: it was wide open. There was good fishing in Campbell River. But you have to cut back sometimes. You have to then restock the fish.”
Gerard’s father started the business in 1963 in the back of his house. Now the company employs between 35 and 50 people with a payroll close to $600-thousand a year. During the summer months, the busy season, St. Jean’s employs college students for jobs like putting labels on the cans; labels that read, “This one didn’t get away.”
A sport fisherman comes in the front door and heaps his catch on the scale. The fish are given a tag, “Just like at a dry-cleaner’s,” Gerard says. That number is written on the cans and all the cans are sorted by number. The customer gets back the fish he caught–guaranteed.
Eight to 10 thousand pounds of fish come through the cannery every day. The average weight of a sport fish that comes in is about 40 to 50 pounds. Gerard has seen sixty and seventy pound salmon come in. A 50 pounder will yield about 85 cans.
A new product for St. Jean’s is canned Albacore Tuna. “Most tuna is cooked off the bone,” Gerard says. “The natural juices are all poured out and then they add water or oil. You’ll see the labels on the cans read “Tuna in water” or “Tuna in oil.” We filled it fresh off the bone and pack it without water or oil. I think that once you taste it, you’ll stay with it.”
This intrepid correspondent felt obliged to put Gerard’s claim to the taste test. I took home a can of tuna. I opened it with the trademark easy-lift top. I forked the white meat onto a slice of fresh sourdough bread. The meat is very firm; there is no oil, no water, only solid tuna. I take a large bite. It seems fine. Just to be sure, I take another bite. I decide on further investigation. I devour the slice…then I eat the rest of the tin. No doubt. My taste buds are ruined for any other canned tuna. Long live St. Jean’s!