Protecting and Valuing Fish as Our Only Public Food Source

by Susanna Fuller. 

The bi-annual assembly of Food Secure Canada brought over 600 people together in Halifax, Nova Scotia on November 13-16 to share experience, determine policy agendas and identify new ways forward to achieve food security for Canadians. The conference was entitled “Waves of Change” and made a monumental effort to incorporate fisheries into the food security discussion. The opening plenary included Kerry Prosper, a Mi’kmaq elder from Paq’tnkek Mi’kmaq First Nations in Nova Scotia, Debbie Reimer from Kids Action in the Annapolis Valley, Maude Barlow from the Council of Canadians and Susanna Fuller, from the Ecology Action Centre.

The question posed to panelists was simple “How do we make sustainable food available to all”? The answers of course, are not so simple. Below is the text from Susanna Fuller’s response:



First, I am here because Dave Decker could not be – he works for the Fish Food and Allied Workers Union in Newfoundland. His work in improving the livelihoods of fishermen is extremely important for Atlantic Canada – and I want to acknowledge the amount of work we all need to do to ensure that fisheries, fishermen and their representatives become more engaged in the work of food advocacy. So I am here to represent that perspective. I am not sure how fishermen would feel about an environmentalist representing them, but we’ll go with it for now.

There are two really important things about fish in Canada. The first is that according to the Fisheries Act, which was the first law passed in Canada after the British North America Act, is that fish are publicly owned and to be managed by the government of Canada for the public good. And when I talk about fish – I am referring to wild fish, that the oceans produce.

The second is that fish is the only protein that is produced in the wild and also continues to be considered a commodity. Wild protein on land is generally considered a delicacy – we don’t talk about deer stocks, or moose stocks – while fish is generally exported from Canada, exported from communities. We need to change our language around how we talk about this wild food and take much more pride in our exports.

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In listening to the opening remarks this morning, I realized that there is a third very important aspect of wild fish – they are all organic. There is much talk of organic farming and its benefits, and I think we often fail to remember that fish are produced by the ocean, and depend on a clean environment to grow and reproduce.

These are special things – and things that we who care about food and the environment should not take for granted.

We have a complicated relationship to fish in Canada. While the existence of phenomenal amounts of cod off our coasts was arguably what lead to colonization, and I want to acknowledge that we are having this discussion on unceded Mi’kmaq territory, that fish, that amazing amount of fish, was taken to other places to feed people. When new residents came to Canada to work in the fishery, they were more or less indentured servants to the fish merchants for several decades. This set up a bit of a feudal system and also, I believe resulted in a cultural lack of pride in our fisheries.

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Has anyone tried to find a lobster roll in Halifax? Our largest lobster fishery recently started, and menus should be littered with lobster rolls but they are not (although there has been an improvement in recent years with the advent of lobster poutine). Despite fishing directly employing 10,000 people in Atlantic Canada, we fail to celebrate our fisheries in the way that others do. In Lisbon Portugal, the baccalao is everywhere – in their iconography, their art, architecture and still in restaurants. Even in Maine, there is a pride in coastal fisheries, “Maine Lobster” is celebrated and fishermen can sell a variety of seafood directly from their boats, and it is hard to find a town without a fish shack.

Our fish are vitally important to our health, and our oceans are vitally important to our fish. We are facing unprecedented changes in climate and this includes the impacts of ocean acidification, which can prevent shellfish (lobster, scallops, clams, etc) from developing their shells. It also prevents phytoplankton – specifically calcareaous diatoms from developing their shells. This is the terrestrial equivalent of our plants not being able to build fibre.

We are facing unprecedented cuts to public science, which results in an inability for the Government of Canada to manage our fish. We are also facing privatization of the fisheries, which concentrates the wealth – rather than distributes it as a public resource and as a result, fewer and fewer people are entering the fishery because it is too expensive to do so.

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Finally, we need to commit to more sustainable fisheries practices so that we can ensure that we have this source of protein into the future. Fish are the only public food we have – and it is up to Canadians to start to become more active and engaged on seafood.

When you buy fish, ask who caught it, how was it caught, and where was it caught. We need every Canadian to help decommodify fish and fishermen and start realizing the incredible value it brings to our health and our communities, before it is too late.

Susanna has been an active member of the Ecology Action Centre for well over a decade, becoming the Marine Coordinator in 2006. An Cape Breton Islander through and through, she finds solace both in the frenetic bustle of downtown Manhattan and the serenity of small coastal communities like Ramea, Newfoundland.

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