Put your money where your mouth is

In seaside cities like Halifax, it’s hard to buy fresh local fish. A new co-op is fixing that.
Sarah Elton
Put your money where your mouth is
Like a CSA program for a farm, Off The Hook has customers who invest at the start of the season, then get a share of each catch; Becky Cliche/ Suzanne Plunkett/Bloomberg/Getty Images/ Sadie Beaton

On a warm fall afternoon, a group gathered at the edge of a downtown Halifax parking lot, far from the smell of salt water, to buy fish out of a cooler. Despite the city’s proximity to the Atlantic, it is hard to buy freshly caught fish here. It takes six days for local fish to make it down the supply chain to the supermarket. Now, a group of five fishers has started an organization named Off The Hook in a rebuke to the way fish have been bought and sold in Atlantic Canada. They call it a community supported fishery—a nod to the local food movement’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) direct marketing programs, whereby farmers sell food directly to customers. As with a CSA, individuals join and pay a lump sum at the start of the season. They’re given their share of the catch each week. If there is no catch—as was the case one stormy week this summer—there’s no share. (The fishers did give out more fish later, though the contract says they don’t have to.)

This week, there was plenty to go around and each time a fish was pulled out of the cooler, people gasped at the size. There were foot-long haddock, hake and cod. Members who had bought a full share, for a cost of $60 a week, went home with up to five fish; those with half shares, priced at $30, packed two.

These fish are different from what you buy at the supermarket. To start, they don’t smell because they are usually 24 hours old and they’ve gone directly from the water to ice on the boat and then into a fish tote on a truck. They’ve also been caught differently. Today’s commercial fishery uses trawlers, large boats that drag a large net along the ocean floor sweeping up everything it comes across, an invasive method that contributed to the collapse of the cod fishery.

The co-operative uses a kinder technique called the bottom hook and line that doesn’t damage habitat. Just as fishermen have done for decades, they bait dozens of hooks attached to a line that sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where groundfish, such as haddock, live. The fishers leave the lines for 12 hours and use small boats to bring in the catch. Fewer and fewer people fish this way today because the catch is smaller and the revenues low—large trawlers work on economies of scale, earning their money by bringing in thousands of pounds of fish every day.

When it comes to selling, however, the fishers, one of them in his 30s, and dressed in hip outdoorsy clothes, are turning away from tradition. Ever since colonial times, the Maritime fishing industry has fed the long-distance market through the middleman, who buys the entire catch. By selling directly to the consumer, these fishers are reinventing the supply chain. This means they can earn more. Whereas the price paid for haddock by the middleman is 80 cents to a dollar, the fishers sell to the co-operative for $3 a pound. “We are trying to keep a fishery going so the next generation can have it,” says Off The Hook’s Orlie Dixon, who used to go out fishing with his dad when he was a boy.

The people picking up their catch that day were happy to pay the higher price. “In Europe, you go to the fishing village and you buy the fish there. You can’t do that in Nova Scotia,” said Andrea Chircop, one of the group’s 100 or so members. “I find it’s not clear where the fish is coming from in the grocery store,” said Julie Jordan, a post-doc at Dalhousie who was also picking up her fish.

A fishers’ co-operative in New England inspired the group and there is at least one more direct marketing program for fish, in B.C. The idea is spreading. People in Newfoundland are now interested and a lobster co-operative exists in Nova Scotia, too.

For customers, it’s not a question of a simple switch from the supermarket: there is a lot to learn. There are seasons for fish, as with vegetables, and you must adapt to what’s available—this summer there was ample haddock. Most people can’t identify species by sight anymore because they buy fillets and, when presented with a whole fish, don’t know what to do with it. So at a table, under an awning, a fisher gave a lesson in how to fillet. As people watched, they planned their meals: fish tacos, baked fish with lemon and herbs, fillets with caramelized onions and rice.