A P.E.I. company is getting ready to scale up production as word of its alternative bait spreads across North America, and a cut in the quota of traditional bait leaves fishermen looking for options.
Bait Masters started producing their bait sausages in the $1.4 million facility in Nine Mile Creek, P.E.I., in mid-April, but delays meant they missed the start of the spring lobster season.
Co-owners Mark Prevost and Wally MacPhee embarked on creating a new alternate bait five years ago, first testing out recipes in their own kitchens and barns.
They turned to the BioFoodTech Centre in Charlottetown to help them scale up to produce 10,000 units, using a mix of fish and other organic matters in a biodegradable casing.
Prevost said the COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder to spread word about the new bait.
"Because in this business, it's typically one on one. You're with the person, or you're on the boat, you're delivering and distributing," Prevost said.
"But now with COVID, we're mailing or shipping items, and it's hard to explain how to use the product because it's new. It's difficult."
In 2020, a UPEI researcher released his analysis based on field trials of the new bait in P.E.I. bays in the summer of 2019.
It found that the new bait sausage created by Bait Masters catches as many lobster as traditional baits, such as herring and mackerel.
Prevost said one of the selling points for the new bait is that the research also showed that it lasts longer, eroding more slowly in the trap.
He said the snow crab fishery, for example, is looking for this feature in bait, because those traps aren't pulled every day.
Prevost said the bait sausages are also made up of 75 per cent fish byproduct, using just 25 per cent whole mackerel, making it a more sustainable choice.
"We developed it before there was an issue with sustainability around mackerel and herring, the two most common baits, we just wanted a product that would erode slower," Prevost said.
"But now the cost of traditional baits have gone up so much that our bait has become more appealing to a lot of fishermen."
Prevost said the recent decrease in the mackerel quota announced by the federal Department of Fisheries has also increased interest in the bait sausages.
"Definitely a lot more phone calls and a lot more emails inquiring about it," Prevost said.
"One of our challenges is going to be to get it to the end user, people that are asking for a one or two cases, and because the market is so broad, all of Atlantic Canada, down the eastern seaboard to Maine, even out west in Vancouver and some European calls."
"We're just two guys, so there's going to be some logistics."
Using up waste
Co-owner Wally MacPhee said the new bait has also caught the attention of companies looking for ways to use up waste left over from other fish production
"One of the groups we're working with has a lot of byproduct from the fishery that they want to use up, and turn it into something more valuable," MacPhee said.
"We've had several recipes that they wanted us to try, so we could use some of the stuff that's currently just basically being thrown away."
MacPhee said most people using the new bait are still just trying it out, using some of the new bait in addition to their traditional bait.
"There's not too many people going out and just using our product. We were delayed getting going, we missed the start of the season, everybody had their bait already," MacPhee said.
"Most people are taking small amounts to try it, which is understandable. Of course, you want to make sure they like it. It's a traditional industry so to change over, it takes a little time."
Prevost said the production facility was built with a $600,000 loan from the Atlantic Fisheries Fund, with additional help from Finance PEI and private shareholders, many of them fishermen from Nine Mile Creek.
"We fell a little bit short because of COVID, people weren't ready to invest in a startup company right now," Prevost said, "especially an alternative bait company, because it's so new, it's different."
They have a lobster holding tank at the facility, which helps pay the bills, while they wait for the bait side of the business to ramp up.
Prevost said Bait Masters is hoping to be able to scale up production to hit its goal of two million units per year.
But for now, Prevost and MacPhee are putting in long hours, with the help of two other employees.
"We're ready, we have the equipment to produce between 31 and 40 units a minute," Prevost said.
"So we can do two million units. No problem."
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca
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