Reeling in Big Value from our Small-Scale Fisheries

by Sadie Beaton

Let’s say Alen Newell traps a nice load of shrimp just a mile offshore in Chedabucto Bay. A shrimp trapper out of Canso, Nova Scotia, it is not much of a stretch. Catching amazing quality seafood with a low impact gear is what he does.

As he reels in his shrimp traps, he carefully sorts the catch and puts it on ice. ‘A real beauty of a catch’, he might think to himself, admiring the pink gems shimmering in the early spring sun.

Ooh pretty.

Ooh pretty.

So far this is a fine fish tale. But once Alen ties up at the wharf, the plot twists. Because when he hits land with his gorgeous haul, there’s only one buyer on hand. And it is a refrigerated eighteen wheeler headed straight to the commodity market in Boston.

Alen would love to sell to a local restaurant or small retailer who would appreciate the quality of his catch, pay a fair price and pass along something of the shrimp trappers’ story to their customers. And he knows that there is healthy demand throughout Nova Scotia and regional markets for his premium trap-caught shrimp. But part of what’s missing from this story is a way for fishermen like Alen to connect with these markets – something the Ecology Action Centre has been calling a regional seafood value chain.

As the big wheels pull out, Alen watches some of Atlantic Canada’s best, freshest, sustainably caught seafood head for distant markets, where it will be mixed up with beat-up trawler shrimp and sold as a faceless, story-less commodity.

Demand for traceable, sustainable seafood has exploded in recent years. But because buyers and retailers have tended to focus on third-party eco-certification and sustainability ranking programs, fishermen – the people actually catching this ‘sustainable seafood’ – have often been left out of the picture. This also means that there has been less effort made to create new channels to bring our existing sustainable seafood supply to market.

Atlantic Canada’s small-scale fishermen are already catching excellent quality sustainable seafood, and have great stories to tell. Tired of not being recognized for their superior catch and being left out to dry with low prices, fishermen are starting to work together to help turn this fish tale around.

Last October, the Ecology Action Centre hosted a two-day workshop in Halifax called ‘Creating a Sustainable Value Chain for Atlantic Canada’s Small-scale Fisheries.’ Fishermen, processors and distributors gathered with market specialists for two days to explore ways for independent small-scale fishermen across Atlantic Canada to help build better access to markets that fairly value the quality, sustainability and story behind their catch, while supporting owner-operator fishermen and their communities.

Discussions at the workshop led to broad agreement on several recommendations, which have been compiled and recently released in a report called Small Scale, Big Value: Creating a Value Chain to Support Atlantic Canada’s Sustainable Fisheries. Here’s the low-down:

  • New Markets. First of all, participants agreed that new marketing approaches are vital. If the goal is to protect and improve the livelihoods of Atlantic Canada’s small-scale fishermen, we need to escape the commodity curse and focus on marketing the quality and story of the seafood. At the same time, fishermen need to connect to targeted markets that recognize – and are willing to pay a premium for – high quality, responsibly harvested products.  Identified market targets included farmer’s markets, chef-operated restaurants, specialty retailers in other parts of Canada, and institutional buyers including universities and health care providers.
  • New Relationships. Small-scale fisheries are simply getting squeezed out of commodity markets as vertically integrated companies using high volume-low value fishing methods increasingly control market levers like price and quota access. While recognizing that there have often been tensions between fishermen and the buyers, processors, and distributors along the seafood supply chain, everyone agreed that is time to forge new and innovative relationships, from fee-for-service arrangements between fishermen and processors to regional branding partnerships.
  • Building links.  Atlantic Canada simply doesn’t have a regional distribution network for seafood, leaving small-scale fishermen stuck when it comes to getting their products to the regional markets that demand them.Participants agreed it would be worthwhile to explore the idea of a regional “seafood hub” that uses online tools to market and manage products, along with third-party transportation services to consolidate and distribute seafood.
  • Values-based branding. The group agreed that current seafood sustainability certification standards fail to capture the full range of values represented by Atlantic Canada’s small-scale, community-based fisheries. However, the idea of a regional branding scheme was discussed. Common values that the participants were interested in incorporating into a regional brand included fair prices for fishermen, maintaining independent owner-operators, supporting sustainable fishing practices, safe working conditions, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility.
  • Sharing Stories.  Finally, there was general consensus that small-scale fishermen could do a better job sharing their success stories, both with other fishing communities and the public at large. Appreciating how busy most fishermen are, the idea of partnering with NGOs like the Ecology Action Centre was suggested as a way to help spread the good word about innovative projects and marketing successes coming out of Atlantic Canada’s small-scale fisheries.

Results from the marketing workshop also reflect the spirit of the recently released Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Action For Nova Scotians Report from the Commission on Building Our New Economy. It is increasingly clear that Atlantic Canadians need to build more value, think in different ways and breath new life into vital rural industries like our independent fisheries.

Fresh shrimp, fair price

Fresh shrimp, fair price

Momentum is building. Small-scale fishermen in Atlantic Canada are increasingly working together – no small feat in itself. And rather than be crushed by the commodity curse, fishermen are taking the initiative to build new collaborations and approaches towards a shared vision for our independent fisheries.  As shellfish farmer Phil Docker from ShanDaph Oysters said, “Small-scale branding is crucial. There is a need to ensure that the smaller, personal story of the individual owner-operators is told and promoted.”

It’s a long road down to Canso. And there’s still so much work to be done. But it is getting easier to imagine a world where Alen’s carefully handled  trap caught shrimp can be found for sale at a price that reflects the value of his catch, whether at the Wolfville Farmer’s Market, the display case of a Toronto specialty retailer, or a swanky restaurant plate in Old Montreal.

An overview of the report is available online, along with the full document and an accompanying press release.

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2 thoughts on “Reeling in Big Value from our Small-Scale Fisheries

  1. Over here on the North West coast of Scotland I am fortunate to combine my fishing with creels for langoustine and working front of house at the Applecross Inn. People love the story, how they are caught sustainably, locally, and cooked fresh and well. We try to sell as many locally as we can only using the European market when the catch is not synchronised with the tourist trade. Great blogs.

    • That IS a great story! People seem to really appreciate being able to follow their seafood from sea to table – and getting to know the people who get it there! Keep up the good work 🙂

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