Catching seafood up with the local and sustainable food movement

Justin Cantafio_Blog Author_En Susanna Fuller_Blog Author_ENGuest post by Justin Cantafio, Sustainable Fisheries Campaigner and Susanna Fuller, Marine Conservation Coordinator at Ecology Action Centre.
Consumer preferences and buying habits can be instrumental in sharping food systems. Over the past two decades, two seemingly deviating consumer trends have taken hold. On one hand, our growing on-demand society seeks convenient and easily identifiable foods, with discerning consumers looking to third-party certifications and eco-labels to inform them on health and sustainability claims. On the other hand, consumers are increasingly turning to food to slow down and reconnect to family and friends, community, and food producers.
Luckily, the latter trend of whole foods direct from producer has begun to inform the desire for convenient and quick food. Gradually, trends that start off in local chalkboard menu restaurants and farmers markets have been finding their way into institutions and supermarkets. And while an erosion of values often occurs in the globalized commodity marketplace of big box stores, broadline food service providers, and restaurant chains, the result of both trends is that consumers are increasingly scrutinizing where their food came from, who produced it, and how it was produced.

Two young fishers working a weir—an ancient low-impact fishing method—on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.

Two young fishers working a weir—an ancient low-impact fishing method—on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.

From the silver platter to the hospital dinner tray, local and sustainable foods are growing in popularity. Yet while universities and elementary school cafeterias are proclaiming their menus replete with local poultry or organic salad greens, more often than not, outside of catch of the day labels – a fish is still a fish— and a wild protein luxury we often take for granted.
Much of the seafood world remains mired by facelessness and most fishers continue to suffer from the commodity curse. Seafood is arguably more commodified than most of our major food staples. Part of this is due to the volumes that are caught at sea and must be processed and sold in quick succession to ensure economic viability of the fishing operation. Almost 40% of wild-captured fish is traded globally, while only 16% of wheat and 7% of rice make their way to global markets. Canada exports between 65%- 85% of its seafood, often re-importing it as processed fish products.
As mentioned by Eric Enno Tamm in a previous blog in this series, we live in a day and age where it is becoming harder and harder to know what species of seafood you are eating, let along how and where it was caught, or still harder, who caught it. When value chains lack transparency, value can be lost to our fishers, their families, and coastal communities. This incentivizes low volume, high value fishing, while maintaining seafood as commodity and often excluded from the good food movement.
The more that consumers start asking where their food dollars go, the more unacceptable it becomes for food to not have a story or a face. And this increasing level of consumer scrutiny can be leveraged for good. Thankfully for our fishermen and coastal communities, seafood certainly can, and finally is starting to catch up with the local and sustainable food movement. This may be just in time, as global fish stocks decline, and a concerted effort is needed to ensure fish into the future, for coastal community food security and sustainable economies. There are many groups across North America, including the Ecology Action Centre (EAC), that are actively working to shift seafood consumption behaviours and call attention to the environmental, social and economic sustainability of the last wild global protein source.

The Ecology Action Centre envisions a world where ocean conservation goes hand-in-hand with thriving coastal communities and sustainable livelihoods.

We work to bring back the connection between consumers and their fishermen or coastal communities in a day and age of overfishing and commodification. We work at all ends of the spectrum, promoting conservation from the deep seas to the high seas, from advocating for marine protected areas and species-specific protection, to our markets-based work connecting consumers to their fishermen, and retailers to sustainable seafood supplies.

A small-scale owner-operated fishing vessel rigged with bottom longlines to catch groundfish such as haddock.

A small-scale owner-operated fishing vessel rigged with bottom longlines to catch groundfish such as haddock.

We’ve noticed first-hand how purchasing power can be leveraged when consumers start to pay attention to where our food dollars go, acknowledging the economic, social, and cultural role of food to our communities and our health. We’ve worked to emulate that success in a variety of ways, including helping to establish Off the Hook, Atlantic Canada’s first Community Supported Fishery. At Off the Hook’s peak, we served fully traceable seafood caught by small-scale fishermen using hook and lines to over 300 households in Nova Scotia every week during the fishing season.
The success of Off the Hook has been just one of many positive shifts in consumer demand for sustainable seafood in our region. Through support of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s Institutional Food Fund, we’ve worked with institutional leaders in Nova Scotia, working with hospitals and universities to help shift their seafood supply from the global commodity market to local community-based fishers. Just a few weeks ago, Dalhousie University, Atlantic Canada’s largest, approached the Ecology Action Centre to ask how they can shift 50% of their seafood served in all of their cafeterias for the 2016 fall semester. As with the terrestrial local food movement, there is the challenge of balancing of celebrating the small scale and the economic pressures to scale up.
Eggs can come from free-range, free-run, organic, or conventional chickens. Tomatoes may come from Mexico, may or may not have been sprayed, may have been grown in a greenhouse, or could even be a heirloom heritage variety. And a fish isn’t just a fish. Who fishes and how they fish matters. The EAC is looking forward to continuing our work to promote small-scale sustainable fisheries, to shift market trends, and create consumer awareness of the importance of applying scrutiny to all of our food choices. As we continue to deconstruct the effects of commodification, seafood can and will be part of the local and sustainable food movement.

What is your comfort food?

Susana likes a good cup of creamy seafood chowder from JB’s Restaurant in Barrington Passage, Nova Scotia.
Justin likes a tin of mackerel, most days and pretty much anywhere.

Who should we be watching for inspiration, ideas, vision about the future of food?

The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance has been doing some fantastic work with healthcare facilities, working with Health Care Without Harm and helping hospitals in New England to source local and sustainable seafood from community-based fishers.
SlowFish has done an excellent job of highlighting the importance of taking social and cultural issues into account when considering the sustainability of seafood.
Local Catch is a group of Community Supported Fisheries from across North America and beyond. One of their current tasks is to determine how to encapsulate the values of CSFs so that they may be scaled up beyond the local food scene and into the larger scale—bringing the values of local and sustainable into the commodity marketplace without losing their values.


About the authors:

Susanna D. Fuller is a Senior Marine Conservation Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre. She works across the science – policy – economics interface to achieve sustainable fisheries, vibrant coastal communities and healthy oceans in Canadian and international waters. She samples chowder and crab cakes as often as possible.
Justin Cantafio is Sustainable Fisheries Campaigner at the Ecology Action Centre. He has a background in environmental ecology, and holds a Master of Resource and Environmental Management from Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies in Halifax. His interests include sustainable food production and distribution, with a focus on food security and localization. He has an extensive research portfolio and has co-produced an educational documentary film. Now excitedly with the EAC, he is applying his skills and passions to promoting sustainable fisheries. Outside of work Justin enjoys ice hockey, running, yoga, good food, camp fires and exploring community.
This blog is part of the Future of Food series. We wanted to know: what will food in the future look like? Where are we going, where do we want to be going, and what can we do to change the course? Over the next six months, we are handing the microphone over to 12 leading food thinkers in Canada to help answer these important questions.
Click here to view other posts in the series.