SOURIS — A deal is on its way that will see local interests take over the mothballed Ocean Choice fish plant here and open the doors to new tenants, including a fish processing operation, by next year.
The Guardian has learned the Souris Harbour Authority will take over the former fish processing facility in eastern P.E.I. by the end of the month.
The transfer is expected to bring new “tenants”, including a fish processor that could employ up to 50 people by next spring.
“I understand we will finally be saying goodbye to OCI,” said Mayor David MacDonald when contacted by The Guardian on Friday. “Everything is on a holding pattern right now as far as making an official announcement.”
It was April, 2011, just a week before the lobster season opened, when Ocean Choice International, owned by Newfoundland interests, announced it was shutting down operations in Souris and putting the plant up for sale.
“I’m very happy about this coming change,’’ said MacDonald. “It means local ownership and some employment in the town again.”
MacDonald was mayor when OCI announced the closure three years ago, leaving the community in shock and 300 people out of work just days before the spring lobster season opened. The company had invested millions in the operation and had cornered the Island lobster market with its deal with the province that granted exclusive processing options.
“It won’t be a complete fish processing plant again because it’s too big, but I understand there will be more than one tenant using the facility,” said the mayor. “Believe me, the Harbour Authority is not buying this on speculation and tenants are ready to move in.”
The Ocean Choice freezers are currently the only part of the plant being used. The freezers are leased to Wyman’s for blueberry storage and Eastern Cold Storage — the largest freezer unit in the province and also operated by the Harbour Authority — is filled to capacity with millions of pounds of fish by-products and dehydrated potato products.
“We’re quite pleased and look forward to when government intends to make it official,’’ said MacDonald. “I don’t think there will any tears shed to see OCI tail lights heading out of town.”
There were past rumours that Asian interests were courting a takeover of the Souris plant that processed lobster, herring, crab and mackerel. Other industry officials said they welcomed the local takeover and the government support to be announced.
The plant was entirely owned by OCI and an Icelandic bank after the former provincial Conservative government provided no safeguards to ensure the province owned some of the assets. There was no fail safe clause in the turnover of the plant to ensure taxpayers didn’t lose out in case of a failure.
In 2004, the former Conservative government signed a deal that required the P.E.I. government to extend the same benefits to Ocean Choice that it would to any other fish processor on the Island. That deal stopped the province from issuing new lobster processing licences for 10 years as long as OCI, which operated other plants as well, made reasonable efforts to employ 600 people.