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Generational Business: From one island to another, fishing is in this family’s blood

Manitoulin Island’s Purvis Fisheries has been operational for more than 100 years

Each summer, scores of vacationers flock to Manitoulin Island searching out the pristine waters of northern Lake Huron as a balm to the frantic pace of the city.

For the Purvis family, those same waters have supported and nourished their livelihood for well over 100 years.

Operating out of Burnt Island harbour on the southern coast of Manitoulin’s far west end, Purvis Fisheries plies Huron’s depths, primarily fishing for whitefish and lake trout, which are then shipped to customers in Ontario and the U.S.

Family-owned and operated, George and Irene Purvis head up the enterprise, as president and vice-president, respectively. They’re supported by their children – the fifth generation of the family to run the company – Denise Purvis Sheppard, who looks after sales and marketing, and Drew Purvis, who captains a boat and oversees maintenance.

Purvis Sheppard recalled that their involvement in the business began right from childhood, working alongside their parents during the summer months while school was out.

“We always worked in the business,” she said. “We worked here right from when we were young kids.”

Once they were teenagers, the siblings caught the entrepreneurial bug and ventured out on their own, buying fish from the family company and selling it from a truck at various locations around the island, including local restaurants and the farmers market.

“Up to that point in time, the fish went out whole to send to New York and Chicago and into Toronto, but we didn’t do any local trade like we do now,” Sheppard said.

“So that developed out of when we were kids, because we’d spend all day standing at a table selling fish.”

By the time the pair went away to school – both Denise and Drew pursued business degrees – fresh fish sales were so popular locally that the company had to hire employees to keep it going, and eventually established a dockside plant to process their catch fresh off the boats.

After seven years attending school and working in southern Ontario, Purvis Sheppard returned in the mid-’90s weary of the fast pace and longing for the solace offered by island life.

“I’d been living all over southern Ontario and I just liked it better here,” said Purvis Sheppard.

“I always wanted to leave (the island), and I did the city life for a while, but I think I didn’t want to live in the city anymore.”

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Maybe it was the family legacy calling to her.

Fishing has long been a tradition for the Purvis family, tracing back to its ancestors in Arbroath, Scotland, a small fishing port on the island’s east coast known for the ‘Arbroath smokie,’ a type of smoked haddock prepared using traditional methods that date back to the late 1800s.

In 1851, William Purvis and his two brothers left their hometown to make their fortune abroad.

After landing in Quebec, the brothers headed west, eventually settling in the southern Ontario port of Kincardine, where William found work first in policing and then in politics, before being appointed as the first lighthouse keeper at Great Duck Island, constructed in 1876.

Situated off the southwestern coast of Manitoulin Island – and just 20 kilometres (13 miles) from Purvis’ current operation – the lighthouse is an important navigational marker to help boaters avoid the reefs around the Duck Islands.

While serving as lightkeeper, William began fishing commercially from a Mackinaw sailboat – a light, large cargo boat favoured by fur traders – and later constructed a purpose-built steam tug.

By 1902, William and his five sons were fishing together under the Purvis Brothers name, and the business has now been passed down through five successive generations of the family.

Today, from its base at Burnt Island, Purvis fisheries operates two 75-foot gill net tugs and two 45-foot trap net boats between March and January.

During the summer months, when Manitoulin’s restaurants are filled with hungry visitors, the company can barely keep up with local demand.

Eateries across the island do a brisk business, and twice-a-week product is transported via the Chi-Cheemaun ferry south to Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula.

“The summer’s crazy here,” Purvis Sheppard chuckled. “I don’t know how so many people could eat fish.”

But, year-round, the bulk of their catch still gets shipped south to New York and Chicago.

Though they’ve had some success promoting their smoked fish products in southern Ontario, lake trout has been a tough sell to Torontonians.

Buyers representing big supermarket chains refuse to purchase it, Purvis Sheppard said, and so it rarely ends up on grocery store shelves as an option for consumers.

Even the flourishing local food movement hasn’t helped drive sales, despite the fact that lake trout is a natural product, caught wild from Lake Huron, while the salmon is a farmed fish, she noted.

“People just know ocean fish… so it’s hard to get them retrained,” she said. “If you sat the trout right beside the salmon, they’d buy the salmon because they’ve cooked salmon before.”

The Purvis operation remains a relatively small one – the company employs between 15 and 20 people depending on the season – and finding employees is “always a battle,” Purvis Sheppard said.

In a year when the fishing’s good, she’ll have no problem recruiting a boat’s crew, but in the leaner years, workers will move on to find other work at the season’s close, and she’s left to fill the ranks again the following year.

Despite the challenges of a boom-and-bust industry, the business keeps going.

Since Purvis Sheppard and her brother took over, they’ve introduced measures to modernize the operation, including new machinery and processes, and she has sat on industry panels to help advise the federal government on the future of the sector.

Though there hasn’t been much serious talk about a succession plan for the company, the sixth generation of the family is already starting to make their mark.

This past summer, Purvis Sheppard’s daughter, Avery, opened up Purvis Fish and Chips, a small takeout restaurant in Gore Bay.

Along with freshly caught fish and mounds of French fries, visitors to the restaurant are treated to a gallery of historical images adorning the walls, which serves as a de-facto museum celebrating the company’s longevity.

“We just keep plugging away on different things to help the company make money,” Purvis Sheppard said.

At 139 years and counting, the legacy continues.

This article is one in a series focused on the rich histories, journeys and long-term successes of generational businesses in Northern Ontario.