Community Supported Fisheries reconnect consumers and fishing families to rebuild a sustainable seafood industry

By Sarah Hughes

IF THERE’S ONE THING I feel most conflicted about eating, it’s seafood. My biggest guilty pleasure is built on one of the most unsustainable food industries on our blue planet. Scummy fish farms, excessive by-catch, destructive bottom trawls, inhumane shrimp—the list goes on and on.

Luckily, for people like me, there is a new solution to the problem-ridden industry. Community Supported Fisheries, or CSFs for short, offer the best way of getting my fish fix and signal the dawn of a new era for seafood.

Much like their terrestrial counterparts, CSAs that offer fresh produce from farmers on a weekly to monthly basis, CSFs are based on the direct producer-to-consumer model. The middlemen that handle the packaging, processing, and shipping are scratched from the equation. The model ensures farmers and fishing folk receive a fair price for their work and provides the capital upfront. From there, the company (or sometimes co-op) can plan for costs before the season begins. For fishermen, this usually means acquiring a licence, buying gear, and maintaining their boats. Once the season kicks off—a date that varies for each type of fish or shellfish—the fishers catch their quota, return to the docks, and hand the product to the consumer within days of the harvest.

At least, that’s the simple way of looking at it.

I caught Skipper Otto’s owner Shaun Strobel, by chance when I walked down to Fishermen’s Wharf near Granville Island one rainy afternoon in Vancouver. He and a colleague were preparing to leave on a three-week herring-fishing trip the next day. Amidst the hustle of collecting nets and tackle, finishing off paperwork, and dropping off fish to neighbouring stores on the docks, Strobel welcomed me into the storage-space-turned-office, pulled out some folding beach chairs, and turned on two space heaters. Classic salt and pepper beard, navy crew neck sweater, and the nest of crow’s feet around his blue eyes typecast him as a fisherman. Strobel spoke fast and with his hands, running through the questions, with an anecdote to illustrate each fact.

Conceived in 2008, Skipper Otto’s CSF appeared on the scene the following year during one of the largest salmon crashes of the past decade. Luckily, Strobel’s old man, Otto Strobel, was fishing up North and caught a decent load of sockeye, which they offered to the first 40 members who had signed up. Seven years later, they have 1,500 members and counting, mostly in Metro Vancouver.

“We’re trying to set an example,” Strobel says. “As an education forum, it’s really working. I’m meeting people who have read more about fish, have watched Salmon Confidential, and are like ‘Okay, I won’t eat it if I don’t know who caught it! That’s it, I just don’t trust people.’ And they’re kind of right to. I mean it’s pretty shady out there. So in that way there are a lot of people getting fish who otherwise wouldn’t.”

A CSF membership varies from one company to another. At Skipper Otto’s, members can join at three different stages throughout the year and pay $100 for a share. If they want more than $100 worth, they can buy a share multiple times. The share is a credit and the dollar cost of seafood is subtracted when members pick up from the docks or drop locations. What members get for a $100 share depends on what they choose; if they select sidestripe shrimp and halibut, they won’t take home the same amount as if they chose ling cod fillets or pink salmon.

Skipper Otto’s works closely with different fishing businesses that catch a variety of seafood along the West Coast. Fishermen and families with decades of experience independently own all the boats and sell direct to Skipper Otto’s. The roster includes 15 salmon gillnetters, a halibut boat, a ling cod boat, a tuna boat, and a shrimping boat. Strobel pulled out the list on a long pad of yellow paper and showed me the names of the fishermen and women with their boat names, fishing methods, and catch regions. The relationship between Skipper Otto’s and the suppliers is tight but not tied down.

“We’ve helped line up start-up costs, or at least a licence or secure quotas,” Strobel says. If the fishers play fair and agree with the seafood pricing, Skipper Otto’s will happily keep working with them. Unlike with large industrial fishing operations, there are no binding contracts that paint small fishing ventures into corners by selling their catch at lower prices or tying them to loans for quotas.

“If you can do some side deals with some restaurants and make some extra money that’s the whole point: keep the people who are doing it right going.” Strobel raises his hands and shrugs. “We’re not changing the world here, but we’re helping the odd person.”

The Strobel family, Shaun, Sonia, and their two sons, on a deck surrounded by crab traps.
Photo: Sonia Strobel

SIREN SONG
According to Localcatch.org, there are about 75 Community Supported Fisheries in North America. Most operate in the U.S., with only five in Canada: two on the East Coast and three in B.C. Fish enthusiast Joshua Stoll founded Localcatch.org in 2011 to connect American consumers to local fishing businesses. Using the map and list, consumers can find a nearby CSF for a fish share.

From that list, I picked Siren Fish Co. based in Santa Rosa, California. Anna Larsen, the founder and now director of Siren, met with me in her office and launched into the story of her CSF.

A trained opera singer, Larsen switched gears when she tasted success in the musical world and realized the fast-paced L.A. lifestyle wasn’t for her. She moved back to Sonoma County, where her father ran a boat in neighbouring Marin County. She applied to every food-related gig under the sun and landed at North Coast Fisheries, a large distribution hub and processing plant, and was swept away by the multi-faceted world of the seafood industry. After attending Eat Retreat, a networking conference for all-things-food, Larsen met the editor of Edible San Francisco, who insisted she start a CSF. She agreed.

“Our first delivery was in 2011 and we did a six-week trial run because I did not want to lose my shirt,” Larsen says with a laugh. She ran Siren for two years while working her day job at North Coast. “The first year and half was really just me and I had a Honda Civic hatchback. Me and my little car and I had a tarp and coolers and I would be the one sitting in Mission Pie handing out the fish. I did that till I was too pregnant to lift up the coolers.”

Siren grew to 1,300 members over the next six years and now has up to 50 drop locations. Working at North Coast gave Larsen a leg up in the business. She could contact her preferred fishers through North Coast’s database (those using sustainable hook-and-line methods, for example) and use the processing plant for a premium.

“Had I gone independently, like hired my own packers and got my own facility, it’s hard to know which way that would have gone,” Larsen says. “My margin would have possibly been better but there’s a lot that can go wrong with that. There’s a lot more overhead, there’s a lot of issues that can come up.”

DISTRIBUTION WOES
The biggest obstacle Larsen has faced while running Siren Fish Co. is distribution—as it is for many CSFs.

After years of buying her vegetables and meat from local CSAs, going to different places for artisan bread and probably organic wines (she lives in California, after all), Larsen had her first child. With that came a light bulb moment.

“Coming up for air, it made me realize how inconvenient it was to have to go to a separate place just for my fish,” Larsen says. “I didn’t have the bandwidth and it gave me a better understanding of how inconvenient the distribution part of the model is.”

For many people (see: middle-to-high income single folks without children) picking up fish from a drop point isn’t a big deal. Many of Siren’s members are fish savvy and the superior quality, sustainability, and story of the fish trump the inconvenience. But for those who can’t schedule around a seafood pick-up time, something’s got to give. Otherwise, they’ll buy their fish from the grocery store.

For the three months after her son was born, Larsen imagined a different plan. She partnered with Tara Firma Farms, a local farm in Petaluma that runs a meat and poultry CSA, and started sending out 200 weekly home deliveries of fresh fish. This only covers a portion of her members. The rest of the shipments go out frozen through another distributer once a month.

“I think it’s important to be experimental when there’s an obvious problem and there’s not an obvious solution,” says Larsen. She will keep the drop locations that members have stuck with for over five years, but she wants to nail down a solid distribution plan to cut costs and emissions.

As a newer seafood model, it’s no surprise CSF companies such as Siren Fish Co. run into problems with distribution and packaging. Many CSFs have different methods of handling deliveries and, depending on the size of the company, it can take years to smooth out the kinks. Sonia Strobel, Shaun’s wife and Skipper Otto co-founder, manages its 16 drop locations in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, along with shipments to Kelowna, Fort St. John, Penticton, and 10 out-of-province locations.

A Skipper Otto boat in the Vancouver harbour with highrises in the background.
Photo: Sarah Hughes

TAKE THE HELM
If you live on Vancouver Island and can’t wait to join a local CSF, you’re in luck. Cowichan Bay’s Michelle Rose CSF offers monthly shares of salmon, crab, and prawns (and at times, octopus) to members on the south Island. Owner and operator Guy Johnston sells off the fishermen’s wharves in Cowichan Bay and Sidney.

Johnston started his CSF in the early 2000s as a fallback option when his conventional fishing business was floundering. Farmer friends suggested he try the CSA model, and when he did it took off. “I was astounded that people sent me money without ever seeing me before and on a promise that I’d have salmon for them four months later,” he says.

Johnston keeps his CSF small and local, with about 150 members on the Island. With only one boat, the Michelle Rose, he and his crew venture up B.C.’s coast to Alaska to troll for salmon. They use hook-and-line for fish and trapping for prawns, two low-impact methods that earn green ratings in the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program.

Acutely aware of how our changing climate affects fish stocks—he’s noticed fish patterns and migration routes changing first-hand—Johnston has modified his boat to reduce fuel costs and CO2 emissions. Simply not sending fish around the globe for processing and packaging also helps.

The fishing industry is notorious for having the most undignified transportation system in any food trade. Conventional modes send fish flying (literally) from one country to another to be processed and packaged. Then the fish return to the grocery counters of our local supermarkets. They often become something they’re not via mislabelling. When you buy a pack of white fish fillets, you’re playing Russian roulette with what the species it might be.

As acclaimed chef Anthony Bourdain wrote years ago in his book Kitchen Confidential, it’s never wise to order fish on a Monday at a restaurant. Why? The fish sitting on the bed of ice has probably been in and out of freezers since the Thursday or Friday prior. Jumping between handlers and freezers causes fish to lose its quality. If you want “fresh” fish as a fancy meal out, order it on Tuesday, when the chef has reordered the load for the week.

You will probably never buy a truly fresh fish from a supermarket or even a CSF. The freshest you will get is something you catch with your own rod, net, or hands. But CSFs are still the way to maximize the freshness of any seafood you buy.

“Traditionally, what gets frozen in the seafood business is the stuff that is about to go bad,” says Larsen of industrial seafood. “[They] freeze it so [they] don’t make a total loss.”

She adds: “The experience of eating something that’s been frozen on the day it was caught is entirely different and, if it’s done correctly, that should be the case.”

Johnston says that the fish landed on his boat goes in the freezer within hours, at -40°C, which preserves quality to near freshness. “If you fish Haida Gwaii, it’s going to be frozen product. It’s too complicated to get a fresh product down to Vancouver Island. So I think people understand that frozen is a reality and I think frozen product is really high quality.”

What CSFs like Siren, Michelle Rose, and Skipper Otto’s offer is a world beyond the concerns of frozen fish. They work closely with the people in the boats, and have re-sparked a dying connection that links seafood lovers to the seafarers who ply our oceans.

“One thing about running a CSF,” Johnston says, “is you give a real face of the fishing industry to the general public. Most people don’t know fishermen anymore.”

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IF THE FUTURE of fish and our oceans seem dire, that’s because it is. But if you’re like me, and still crave the melt-in-your-mouth sweetness of pan-seared tuna, or a plate of grilled octopus, choosing to support local fishers who apply sustainable practices to their catch is one way of curbing the guilt and creating positive change. At least, it’s better than going vegetarian.

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