Exploring the Future of Fishing and Seafood in B.C.

By Cinda Chavich

On World Fisheries Day, a group of chefs and young fishermen gathered in Victoria to convince provincial MLAs to revive B.C.’s local fishing scene — and the food scene that goes with it.

Rich McBride, a fishmonger at Finest at Sea Ocean Products.

When I arrived in Victoria several years ago, I had one culinary goal in mind — to cook and eat more fresh B.C. fish.

My food writer fantasy went something like this: Wake up in the morning, stroll down to the dock, chat with a local fisherman (a term even the many women working in the industry prefer) about the catch of the day and take home some glistening specimen — whether it’s salmon or halibut, prawns, oysters, cod or anchovies — to toss into a hot pan or onto the grill for supper.

Needless to say, I’ve yet to find that dock or meet that fisherman because, for the most part, that scenario no longer really exists on Vancouver Island or in most communities along the B.C. coast.

There are many reasons why this has happened, but the owner-operators I spoke with say it’s because regulations around licensing and quotas have conspired to push smaller-scale, independent fishermen out of the business over the last 30 years. Add consolidation of markets, processors and farmed fish that keeps the price (especially for salmon) low, and today’s fishing families struggle to make a living.

Unless you’re a fisherman or a policy wonk, diving into the murky waters of fisheries management can be pretty boring stuff. But before you glaze over like a salmon frozen at sea, hear me out. You need to understand how the whole messy business works to see why the current system favours big processors and corporate owners over smaller operators and young fishermen and what that means to the fish you’ll find on your plate in the future.

Who Owns What?

Though there are many issues at play, the biggest is access to fish — that is, who owns and controls the fishing licenses and quotas, the right to go out and catch fish in any given fishery. Those rights were gifted to working fishermen in the 1970s and 80s as a way to monitor stocks and control harvests. But over the years, as fishermen retired, the quotas went to the highest bidders. 

Today, most fishing families can’t afford to buy quota and must lease the right to fish, often from the fish processors who also set the price for their catch. It’s been described as a modern-day feudal system. Fishermen get just a small portion of the value of the catch (as little as 20 per cent). The lion’s share goes to the quota owners. 

That’s forced many off the water. There are now only 5,000 fishermen in B.C., compared with 20,000 a generation ago, which is one reason why it’s so difficult to buy fish from a local fisherman.

Melissa Collier from the BC Young Fishermen’s Network fishing for spot prawns.

Young fishermen say the inequality of the situation may soon end the owner-operated fishing businesses and our direct access to B.C. fish forever, in essence privatizing a natural resource, selling it to international interests and threatening future local food security and coastal culture.   

It’s why the coastal towns that once relied on commercial fishing have slowly morphed into the kind of places where people move to build homes overlooking the ocean, but where they can’t buy fish for their tables. 

Making Waves

The good news is that a new generation of fishermen has organized Save Our BC Fisheries (SOBCF), a loose coalition of independent fish harvesters,
non-governmental organizations, fish retailers and chefs, working to highlight the problems and push for solutions. Last year, young fishermen travelled to Ottawa to testify before the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans as it considered changes to the Fisheries Act. 

And it seems like the committee was listening. It tabled a report in 2019 recommending sweeping changes to B.C.’s fishing regulations to create a “more equitable sharing of risks and benefits,” wrestling valuable fishing licenses and quotas away from corporate owners and armchair fishermen and returning them to those who fish. Fishermen are hopeful that the new fisheries minister will adopt the committee’s 20 recommendations immediately.

At a recent event for MLAs in Victoria, chefs cooked up B.C. fish and young fishermen spoke, urging B.C. politicians to press their federal counterparts for new licensing, quota banks, succession planning and mentorship programs, to restore local access to local fish, and make fishing communities viable again in B.C.

A cornerstone of the solution is “fleet separation” — a system that’s already in place in Atlantic Canada and Alaska — which requires that anyone who owns quotas and licenses must be on a boat, fishing. In the Maritimes, a fleet separation policy has reduced costs for fishermen and dramatically increased their incomes to levels that sustain both fishing families and fishing communities. 

It won’t be easy to get quotas back from corporate interests and investors and into the hands of fishermen. But advocates say it could be accomplished within three to five years and would be a game changer for small owner-operators today and in the future.

How You Can Help

Those of us who love to eat fish can do our part to support local fishermen. Make your opinions known to local politicians — and vote with your wallet. Both saveourbcfisheries.info and the national Slow Fish program offer information and calls to action.

The young fishermen I spoke with urged diners and shoppers to always ask where the fish they’re buying comes from — who caught it, when and where. 

Try to adopt the 52/12 rule — resolve to eat local fish once a week, and every month try something you’ve never tried before. And learn a few mother recipes that work well with whatever local fish is
in season, which helps to sustain both fishermen
and fish. 

 Whether it’s a simple rub, sauce, chowder, stew, fish cake or pie, fish is fast to cook, delicious and nutritious. I recently had a chance to try some sole from our Pacific waters, and I also discovered a Vancouver Island fishery for lovely pink swimming scallops, caught by a fishing family near Comox. The ocean around the Island is teeming with herring and anchovies, and there is local ling cod, skate, hake, octopus, clams, oysters and sweet humpback shrimp to discover.

If you shop at small fishmongers like Finest at Sea in Victoria or Oak Bay Seafood, they can tell you exactly where and when the fish they are selling was harvested, often even including information about the fisherman and the boat.

Or connect directly with a local fisherman through a Community Supported Fishery (CSF), paying upfront for a portion of the seafood landed in a given season. The Michelle Rose CSF, run by Guy Johnston out of Cowichan Bay, offers buyers a share of its prawns, shrimp and salmon catch for an annual preseason payment. Shellfish are delivered in early summer, salmon in late summer; both are sushi-standard seafood that are sustainably fished and frozen at sea. There’s often bycatch too, including ling cod, octopus and rockfish.

Johnston, who has been fishing for more than 40 years, says the CSF has literally allowed him to stay afloat.

“A community-supported fishery is one way for me, as an independent fisherman, to remain viable, feed my family and reduce the carbon footprint of my catch,” he says. 

The money stays in the local community, and buying from a small owner-operator is better for the environment, he says, because “it is the smaller, long-term, independent fishermen who care most about ocean stewardship and maintaining a healthy and sustainable fishery.”

The Vancouver-based Skipper Otto CSF is a larger program, originally started in 2008 by Shaun and Sonia Strobel to sell Shaun’s father Otto’s catch directly to consumers. 

Now there are 30 independent fishermen fishing under the Skipper Otto banner, serving 2,800 members. Simply sign up and buy a share, then use your credit to shop from their online store as the catch is landed, with monthly deliveries to pick-up points in participating retail stores across the country. 

“You’re getting total traceability — the fisherman’s face, bio, name of boat, how the fish was caught — plus absolute premium quality,” says Sonia of the wild Ocean Wise seafood she sells, all harvested from small-scale boats in B.C. “Not to say you can’t find cheaper fish, but you’re not paying an enormous premium either.”

The value of a CSF goes both ways — consumers get top quality, traceable, B.C. fish, while fishermen get a fair price and the satisfaction of seeing their own fish sold to appreciative buyers. The value stays with fishers and their communities, so they support other fishing-related businesses and keep the coastal culture alive. 

Calmer Waters

The complex web of fisheries licensing issues may be tempting to ignore, but consumers do so at their peril. Untangling the lines will be difficult. Not everyone wants these regulatory reforms, but without them the business of fishing in Canadian waters will surely continue to be concentrated in larger corporate and global hands.

Young fishermen say if small owner-operator fishers disappear on the West Coast, so will our access to our favourite fish and generations of local knowledge. They point out that much of the catch already goes to processors offshore, and as this continues, there will be less B.C. fish for your plate.

“We want to share our own experiences, working as fishermen,” adds Chelsey Ellis, a member of the BC Young Fishermen’s Network. “We want legislators to hear the message from small-scale fishermen — helping us succeed, and thinking into the future to see how we can pass the business onto our kids, and how that benefits fishing communities and the entire culture of our coast.” 

I don’t pretend to understand all of the intricacies of our complex Canadian fisheries policies, but many people I spoke to say it boils down to this: fisheries management in B.C. is not meeting the needs of fishers, with too much of the profit of harvesting our local seafood going to big corporations, fish processors and offshore entities. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to fisheries regulation, but those that do it best create opportunities for small owner-operators to thrive. 

I’m looking forward to a time when I can meet my local fisherman and when the economic benefits of harvesting this Canadian resource goes to the people doing the hard work of fishing.

This article is from the March/April 2020 issue of YAM.