Hooking the public

Guest contribution by Robin Rivers

On the shores of Vancouver Island’s Baynes Sound, farming the land as well as the sea has been common practice for generations. Much like their brothers and sisters in Atlantic Canada, those who made their livelihood from the ocean rarely saw locals seeking out what they had to offer. (Other than their families, who quietly ate oysters for dinner as a part of daily life.)

Their shellfish harvest became a commodity and landed in far-off places, served up in restaurants and sold in specialty shops. It was canned and shipped away. Oysters weren’t seen as part of the local food chain even though local economies depended on them to thrive.

The power of small-scale is in its personal connection to customers.

The power of small-scale is in its personal connection to customers.

In the last decade – and particularly the last few years – as the local food movement has blossomed across North America, small-scale fishermen and shellfish farmers East and West are faced with a similar dilemma.

Local food systems don’t really know where fisheries fit.

As a local food advocate, educator and marketer focused on community development, I’ve spent a fair bit of one-on-one time getting to know the folks who grow our food on the land. I’ve listened and created tools for them to share their stories and their product with the community around them.

It’s an experience filled with ease and excitement. In the last few years all of that work I did marketing and promoting food producers on the West Coast led to incorporating shellfish farmers, herring and salmon fishermen into that marketing and promotional food chain, becoming an intricate part of how people ate every day.

All of that began with strengthening their sense of community.

I say that knowing community is an ambiguous term. There’s always been a strong bond and sense of community among fishermen on both coasts. To suggest that this somehow lacks would be nothing short of offensive. What I mean is the bond between our small-scale fisheries and the people who buy and eat fish at home.

The charm of small-scale fisheries is the history and special touches that make them unique.

The charm of small-scale fisheries includes their history and the special touches that make them unique.

Where can you get fish in Nova Scotia? And how does the public know what look for to make sure they are supporting the guy down the road?

When we first moved here just about a year ago, there weren’t many people who could share that answer with me. I could get local fish at lots of restaurants. But, we eat most of it at home and there was no way I was buying seafood from Thailand at the grocery store when I could see fishing boats out my bedroom window. I just had no idea who these fishermen were and where I could find their catch.

It was then that I discovered Off The Hook Community Supported Fishery, which led me to “meet” some local small-scale fishing families. I couldn’t help but love them once I knew their faces through blogs and other media, followed their Twitter feeds and could walk up and say hi when running into them around town. From here, we quickly knew what to start looking for and where to find local fish – fresh or ready to eat.

I remember the first time I sat and talked with Joline d’Entremont from Evan’s Fresh Seafood in Dartmouth. She wowed me with her family’s story – generations of fishermen bringing local deliciousness in so we could eat it for lunch every day. I quickly learned that one of my dearest friends – who lives in Vancouver – grew up with her family in Pubnico.

Nova Scotia fish for lunch.

Nova Scotia fish for lunch.

I was hooked because I now had a “history” with them and knew every time we dropped $20 on fish there we supported their family, their business and small-scale fisheries in Nova Scotia. They became a very intricate part of our family’s local food chain.

Every time Joline, her sister or her husband steps out from behind their seafood counter they help build community for small-scale fisheries across the province.

Farming and fisheries may still have their different perceptions – as is evident when I attend community meetings about local food and the conversation rarely turns to seafood sustainability, the barriers to bringing local food to market and to scalable supply. These are all things that both small-scale farming and fisheries face daily, and will take more than a blog, a Twitter account and sharing stories to resolve.

There is a lot of work ahead for policy makers, advocates and institutional professionals. However, I have seen both personally and professionally how the heart-filled act of reaching out to the public can bring about a systemic change in perception, access and demand for local seafood on any given dinner table.

It begins with that dinner-table conversation, that personal experience that draws people in and keeps them connected.

There’s lots of talk about the 100-Mile diet, buying local, fostering sustainability and equitable eating.

Trade, treaties and policy, yes, they are critical pieces to making small-scale food possible and profitable. But, small-scale fisheries must begin to foster their own sustainability by investing a bit of themselves personally in their community. The heart of any business giving customers a profound sense of place and connection.

Educating people about small-scale fisheries means customers loyalty through relationships.

Educating people about small-scale fisheries means customers loyalty through relationships.

Robin Rivers is a marketer, writer and local food advocate. Her work with local food producers on Vancouver Island, B.C. lead her to create and produce the region’s only month-long food festival from 2009-2011. She now leads the team at Mherge Media Group that develops and produces national initiatives with a core focus on food sustainability and literacy.

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