All Tied Up: why truly local & sustainable seafood is eluding Nova Scotia’s tourists

by Justin Cantafio and Dave Adler.

It’s that time of year again, and while an endless barrage of snowstorms had many of us doubting its actual existence, spring has indeed finally sprung here in Nova Scotia. As the weather warms and the sun shines, spring also marks the beginning of the tourist season, when people from near and far make their way to our province en masse.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis/Wikimedia Commons

So what draws so many people to Nova Scotia year after year? From our gorgeous white sand beaches, to quaint coastal villages, or to freshly shucked oysters on the Halifax waterfront – the answer’s almost always related to the sea. We are a province whose existence relies on the ocean, and we are a province founded on fishing. We have a rich and vibrant fishing heritage in Nova Scotia, and fishing continues to be the economic backbone of many of our coastal communities. Small fishing vessels bob peacefully tied to piers ringed by multicolored fish shacks in countless communities – a picturesque scene that adorns so many postcards and magazine covers. It’s no wonder that tourists flock here in droves seeking to experience authentic Maritime culture, and of course, to eat fresh, locally caught seafood.

A postcard-worthy scene. Photo by Jillian Adler

A postcard-worthy scene. Photo by Jillian Adler

But all too often, visitors to our province are left asking the same question: where can we find the fresh seafood that the boats on the postcards presumably catch? As Nova Scotia’s residents can attest, finding local seafood in Nova Scotia is harder than you’d think. Much of our seafood – even things as iconic as cod and haddock – may have been caught off the coast of Nova Scotia, but then frozen at sea, shipped as far as China, thawed, processed, re-frozen, and shipped back across the globe before it ends up on our menus or at the seafood counter in the local grocery store.  It turns out that when a tourist buys seafood in Nova Scotia, that product has likely traveled much further than they have. Such is the unfortunate result of unchecked globalized trade and the commodification of a natural resource and the very fishermen who harvest it. Traceability, transparency and, ultimately, value are lost in the shuffle.

Further confounding the situation is the scarcity of environmentally sustainable seafood options available to tourists. Even in the off-chance that customers know that their seafood may have been caught off the coast of Shelburne and processed in Yarmouth, they’ll be hard pressed to know who their fishermen actually are, or how their seafood was caught and what kind of impact it may have on the environment. And they’ll be completely unable to know if their fishermen received a fair price for their catch.

Visitors to Nova Scotia ultimately have no way of knowing if their seafood has been captured sustainably. They won’t know if the seafood they’re eating was processed locally, contributing to regional jobs. They won’t know if their seafood was harvested by a small-scale, owner operator fishing vessel, using low-impact fishing gear. And they won’t know if their purchase contributes to sustaining the livelihood of individuals fishing with less efficient yet more sustainable fishing methods, or whether their purchase contributes to padding the pockets of distant shareholders of a vertically integrated corporation.

Observant visitors to our shores this summer will notice a common sight – fishing boats tied up to piers. There’s a reason so many small fishing vessels are perpetually moored: they are effectively out of business. Small-scale fisheries can’t compete with the big vertically integrated fishing fleets if there aren’t provisions in place for traceability, transparency, and price differentiation based on how seafood is caught, rewarding those who are doing things right. And while fishing boats tied up in the harbour make for pretty postcards, they are nothing to celebrate. These fishing boats, and the people who work on them, should be out fishing.

Photo by Verne Equinox/Wikimedia Commons


As Nova Scotians, we need to be celebrating our fishing heritage. We should celebrate the diversity of local options right here, maximizing the value of the resource here first before shipping our products around the world. Our province’s Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act calls for 20% of local food dollars to be spent on local food by 2020. The Ivany Report states that our government needs to recognize “the rights of local communities to receive direct benefits from ongoing resource extraction activities”. If this is the case, productive steps must be taken to ensure that the value of our fisheries resource is optimized within Nova Scotia, and that its value benefits our coastal communities first and foremost.

There are some signs of hope.  There is more and more evidence that consumers – both visitors and residents, are seeking out and demanding sustainable seafood. Chefs too are demanding access to local fisheries, and they’re banding together with programs such as the Taste of Nova Scotia’s Chowder Trail to celebrate Nova Scotia’s local fisheries.

With the surge in consumer demand that has driven the local food movement finally crossing over to seafood, we are hopeful that more of our small-scale fisheries will be supported by local demand. And that tourists visiting our shores this summer will be treated to the sight of an active fishing village, rather than the scene on the post cards – of our boats all tied up.

Justin Cantafio is Sustainable Fisheries Campaigner at the Ecology Action Centre, along with Dave Adler who is Community Supported Fisheries Coordinator.


3 thoughts on “All Tied Up: why truly local & sustainable seafood is eluding Nova Scotia’s tourists

  1. This is a fascinating commentary . As a fella who has been on a five year quest for truly outstanding fish and chips in Nova Scotia , I completely get where the authors are coming from . We do not put our best seafood foot forward in this province more often than not ….

    I have one standard response to issues such as those raised by the authors :
    It is Freaking Complicated . I draw a substantial distinction between the ‘artistic’ model of seafood generally , all thru the distribution chain , and the ‘ business model ‘ …. clearly who among us would not want to provide or consume fresh local sustainable reasonably priced seafood ? It is a joy to consume , and tells the coastal story of our province more effectively than practically anything else . It is a goal we should strive for in the seafood sector to the greatest extent we possibly can . That is the artistic model I refer to and it is hugely important no question about it …

    The business model ? Now that is a horse of a different colour . Local establishments are featuring twice frozen haddock from China because , last I checked , it was $ 3 /lb cheaper . Most patrons hardly know the difference any more, and they can achieve a price point that families find affordable . On the seafood counter right now , scallops and halibut are $ 16 – 21 /lb . Affordability of quality seafood is becoming a substantial issue, even more so in a difficult economy .
    The cheapest offering is farm raised feedlot salmon and trout, but they may contain ISA and their operational model is hugely damaging to wild fisheries and the environment . So the cost might be right , but everything else about this option clearly is not …

    It is encouraging , that day by day , more consumers recognize the value and taste experience of the premium local sustainably caught seafood options . Better yet , to some degree , they are prepared to pay for them . But make no mistake, we surely still have a long way to go …..

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