Guest Contribution by Dave Adler, Off the Hook CSF
I live in a tiny fishing village just south of Halifax. 204 people live here. There were 207, until Jody and his family moved up the road. Jody, like the rest of his family, is a fisherman. Or he was a fisherman. Now- like everyone one else in the village, he no longer fishes. In the spring (after lobster season) he ties up his boat or puts it up on skids alongside the others. Why? The price of fish is too low. While expenses like fuel and bait have increased over the years, the price that fishermen are paid for their catch has stayed the same. Fishermen like Jody are forced to accept whatever price their buyer gives them, and like any other business, if the expenses exceed revenue day after day the enterprise can’t last. The fishing village, like dozens in the area, has effectively gone out of business. The economic implications are clear. The social impacts are as worrisome.
The same story is playing itself out in every fishing community around the Maritimes. Small owner-operated vessels that fish with bottom longline often fish alongside large trawlers which bring in an enormous volume of fish each trip. Trawlers drag a large, weighted net over the bottom, causing indiscriminate damage to the ocean floor. Longliners lay a string of baited hooks along the bottom and wait for the fish to bite. While it is a much less efficient way to fish, long lining is far more environmentally benign than trawling. In fact, out of all of the commercial fishing methods used in Canada, bottom trawling ranks the highest in terms of ecological impact.
The sheer volume landed by trawlers and their direct access to international markets drives the market price of groundfish like haddock down so low that the longliners can’t break even. Despite the fact that line-caught fish is universally considered better quality (because of shorter trips and better handling practices), most buyers in Nova Scotia don’t differentiate between fish based on how it was caught. Price is loosely based on auction houses in Boston and Portland. The result? A supply chain that favours large, vertically integrated firms that own trawlers, quota, processing plants, and transportation infrastructure, leaving traditional fishing communities in the lurch.
At the same time, consumers are finding it increasingly difficult to find fresh, local, sustainably harvested fish. Much of the groundfish available in Nova Scotia’s restaurants and retailers- while it may have been landed in the region- has been sent to China for processing, and then sent back. In most of the farmers’ markets around the province, fresh fish is not available. Our fish enters the international commodity market the moment it leaves the water. We have lost our regional value chain for seafood.
So the problem is two-fold: fishing families who fish sustainably can’t get a fair price for their catch, and consumers can’t access sustainably harvested fish. There is an obvious disconnect between local supply and local demand. In 2010, a group of longline fishing families from the Digby area of Nova Scotia, with support from the Ecology Action Centre based in Halifax, launched Off the Hook to help provide a solution. Off the Hook is a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) that directly connects consumers to the people who catch their fish. Like a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), people sign up at the beginning of a season for weekly shares of fish. The benefit to consumers is they gain access to fresh, delicious, sustainably harvested fish and the people who catch it. The benefit to the fishing families is that not only do they get a connection to the people who eat their fish, but they get to set a price for their catch that makes sustainable fishing viable. It makes a lot of sense, and has given the Off the Hook fishermen the incentive to keep fishing.
As the word spreads about Off the Hook, and more people sign up to support their local fishing communities, hopefully fishermen like Jody can get back on the water, and more villages like this one can get back in business.
To sign up for the fall season of Off the Hook, go to www.offthehookcsf.ca. Off the Hook delivers weekly to the following communities: Halifax (Brewery Market and Ecology Action Centre), Wolfville, Truro, Bedford, Dartmouth, Tatamagouche, Tantallon, Lower Prospect, Musquodoboit Harbour, and the Islands (Digby Neck).