Seems Fishy: Regulation Problems in Local Seafood Trade Needlessly Stunting Its Potential

Under existing provincial regulations, chefs and consumers cannot enjoy a direct buying relationship with fishers

fisher 2Not that long ago, the story of this province’s seafood wasn’t a happy one. Today things are improving: cod is beginning to recover, other fisheries are going strong and staying sustainable, and the province’s food culture is more exciting than it’s ever been.

But even as this province’s food culture attracts events like Terroir Symposium’s Best Practice Culinary Mission – which convened in St. John’s in May – holes that hamper some of this progress remain in our policies and practices. Many of the Terroir participants, who came from around the world, were surprised to learn that local fish isn’t that easily found here: the vast majority of the fish caught off our province’s shores is exported.

Under existing provincial regulations, chefs and consumers cannot enjoy a direct buying relationship with fishers

One major problem in the eyes of many Terroir participants, who came from all over the world, is that under existing provincial regulations, chefs and consumers cannot enjoy a direct buying relationship with fishers. That direct connection is incredibly important, said Roderick Sloan, a Norwegian chef and sea urchin fisherman who supplies Noma and other top restaurants in Europe. The chefs he works with are among the world’s best, Sloan said, and they demand top quality and freshness for their seafood. Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishers could provide that same high-end product to local chefs, but regulation won’t allow it.

The best product is the local product, Sloan said, adding that when producers can’t sell locally, quality, price, taxes, and marketing are lost. Having a strong local brand tied to the product coming from a very specific place, like Champagne from France’s Champagne region, can raise the price of a product too. Naturally, the brand of local fish in Newfoundland could be strong, and strong enough to encourage young people to work in the fishery.

Chefs in Vancouver can have a direct relationship, said Chefs for Oceans founder Ned Bell, and he sees the positive effects daily in his work as the executive chef of the Four Seasons in Vancouver. He can purchase directly from local fishers, and happily pays a premium for that privilege. As a chef he can promote that the seafood used in his kitchen is local and in season. “I think that creates a value chain and a premium on the product,” said Bell.

For example, while Terroir was happening in Newfoundland, Vancouver was celebrating its annual Spot Prawn Festival. It’s an example of the importance of seasonality and local food – and it could be celebrated in Newfoundland with snow crabs, or northern cod, or lobsters.

Mark Emil Tholstrup Hermansen, head of development with MAD Symposium, pointed to the Nordic food scene as an example of what could happen for Newfoundland and Labrador. The food scene taking off in Denmark really empowered smaller producers, Hermansen said. Chefs created a demand for local products and work directly with producers like fishers. Hermansen’s time in Newfoundland convinced him that the same can happen here. “If the right decisions are made, it’ll happen quickly.”

Moves to increase awareness of what Newfoundland and Labrador seafood has to offer are underway. Panelists pointed to initiatives like the tags attached to Atlantic halibut and the claws of locally caught lobsters, indicating exactly which fisher caught them and where. “I think their story is so much more interesting than Captain Highliner’s,” said FFAW president Keith Sullivan at the panel. And farmed seafood in the province has sustainable certifications: Newfoundland and Labrador was the first jurisdiction in North America to get organic certification for farmed mussels, for example.

In addition to fighting to buy it directly from fishers and serve it to diners in their restaurants, chefs in this province are working to showcase the seafood from our waters to the rest of the province.

In addition to fighting to buy it directly from fishers and serve it to diners in their restaurants, chefs in this province are working to showcase the seafood from our waters to the rest of the province. Roary MacPherson, executive chef of Sheraton St. John’s, pointed to the From this Rock culinary tour, which will hit a dozen communities in the province this year. “It’s fabulous to see chefs take a lead role,” said Kristie Jameson, executive director of the Food Security Network of Newfoundland and Labrador. Jameson also pointed out that on top of being an industry, fish is also food, and along with tourism, food culture, and exciting new restaurants, local food is vitally important to a sustainable and secure food system in the province.

This August, a “Great Fish For Change” event will bring healthily prepared local seafood to communities around the province, in an effort to encourage local consumption and to reintroduce our seafood resources to the diet of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

That community focus can extend to our reimagining of what the fishery means as an industry as well. The work happening with Shorefast on Fogo Island is one example of what can be accomplished in the industry with a community focus, where fishers have control over their means of production and can sell directly to consumers and chefs.

“I think that there’s such a big potential for really making this issue into a case for the entire world,” said Hermansen of the rebuilding of the province’s fishery after cod’s collapse. “I really think that you can
build a whole new economy here.”

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