COLUMN | Covid-19: A positive change for independent fishers? [Fishing for a Living]

Gillnetter Fruto da Unio arrives at the auction in Peniche, Portugal with owner, Capt. Nelson Rato. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

Today I had an email from a Canadian fisherman who was lamenting, “how the IVQ system was rammed down everyone’s throat, claiming to be the best thing since sliced bread.”

He went on to say that for some boats the observer program is making more than the vessel. At some point he ran into financial difficulties and sold his quota but kept the boat.

He thought the boat was security but now he can’t afford to buy back into the fishery. Looking around he was not optimistic: “Another 10 years the fleet will be so old and in dire need of huge repairs. All those steel boats built in the late 70s and 80s. I can promise you most of the fish holds must be close to rusting through not to mention the lazarette and bilges…”

At the same time my screen fills with dire pronouncements for fisheries around the world suffering due to the interruption of the Chinese and other favoured markets due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Over the same decades that most western fisheries have introduced some version of transferable catch shares, the Asian markets have been growing steadily. Life for the corporate fishing companies has seen growth in profits through bulk export of high-end crab, lobster, and fin fish. Many have shut down canning lines in favour of shipping frozen fish to be canned in low labour cost countries. Quotas, originally assigned to small independent boats, have been consolidated on large seiners, long-liners and trawlers, some with onboard factories.

The scenario differs from nation to nation and fishery to fishery. Most nations that joined the transferable quota bandwagon still have an independent fleet that is suffering. In some cases, a few large corporate boats, with hired skippers and crews, have replaced a dozen smaller independents. Most winds are fair winds for someone. In fisheries they have been corporate fair.

Factory trawler Irvinga
Factory trawler Irvinga

Covid-19 caused changes in world trade patterns may well increase the demand for locally caught fish that does not cross borders. Corporate supply chains have become so convoluted that block chain technologies are being suggested to track the product through various handlers.

At the same time, quality refrigeration on both fishing boats and distribution trucks have become ever more efficient. In the west, eating habits are turning from meat and potatoes to fish and vegetables. As the population ages and develops a more sophisticated pallet, this is likely to increase. The demand for quality, healthy seafood will grow.

Unfortunately, the corporate owned fisheries prefer to amalgamate as much quota or fishing power as possible. The catches are marketed in large lots to other corporations and may travel across oceans from the coast where they were caught. I have been told by a partner in one of the largest seafood companies that very small margins can make great profits if there is enough volume.

Now, thanks to the shutdown of much of the global fish market by the Covid-l9 virus, the global supply chains are breaking, often in several links at once. This affords an opportunity for more local markets.

The missing component in many cases is a means of getting the fish from the boat to the local market be it household or restaurant. Boats selling at the dock can work for some, but not for the volume of most catches or the convenience of most consumers.

For modern trade, the development, with government help, of infrastructure from roads and bridges, to air and seaports, is essential. Fifty or more years ago, such an infrastructure existed for seafood. Frozen halibut crossed the continent by rail. Fish mongers could walk the local fishermen’s wharf where small buyers worked on long term relations of trust to put fresh fish into the monger or restaurateurs’ hands.

In cities like Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles much of that infrastructure is gone or become a touristy “Cannery Row”. Modern fisheries management continues to put more of the catch in the holds of large factory trawlers or onboard ocean-crossing reefer ships.

The writer Drew Cherry, in the seafood journal Intrafish, predicts continued consolidation as a result of the Covid-19 virus crisis. “Vertical integration will be a necessity, not an option”.

From left: Selling fish directly to the consumer, as this gillnet fisherman is doing here on the Fraser River waterfront, allows independent fishermen to get a better price and the consumer to get excellent fresh fish; Dylon Knutson with Loki Fish Sales, sells product from his family’s Alaskan fishery at U of Washington farmers’ market in Seattle; The family cans some of its catch as seen here with this custom canned product next to Jonah Kuntson’s gillnetter Loki. Photos: Alan Haig-Brown

That is one direction for the industry, but there are options. An auction, sponsored by and regulated by the government, can sell fish in small lots or multiples of small lots. This allows the small business entrepreneur to gain access to fish that is denied under much of the current corporate high-volume marketing.

Quality and affordable cold storage warehouses, accessible to fishermen, could help spread out the market for seasonal fish. Much research on business development shows that it is the small flexible entrepreneur who develops new markets and new business models, when given an appropriate environment by government.

If an auction, similar to those in Portugal, is developed by government, then independent, owner-operator vessels will deliver their boxed fish in small lots.

Buyers can buy a few pounds or a ton of fish. They pay the auction on the spot and the fisherman is paid by the auction without having to wait for the buyer’s check to clear. Since all fish pass through the auction there is no advantage to a vertically integrated processor to own the boats or quota as they have no assurance of getting the catch.

Large, shore-based processors can bid with mom and pop fishmongers. Fresh fish is loaded into large and small reefer trucks and delivered to restaurants and markets in the immediate area or hundreds of miles inland.

There would still be a role for canners, but not to support shipping fish across oceans and national borders. Smaller canning lines would handle local catches and supply local outlets. Similarly, frozen and packaged fillets and other processed seafood will likely be in demand by consumers newly aware of the dangers of contamination and overly long supply chains.

Sashimi-grade tuna can be caught and delivered locally to consumers with ever growing and broadening tastes. With the help of knowledgeable fishmongers and seafood restaurants, diners, at home or in the restaurant, can learn the joys of properly prepared local black cod.

We will still need a regulated fishery. A TAC and quotas may be the best management in some fisheries. Fishermen will fish quota that is priced to a level that can be paid for by an owner-operator fisherman. The fisherman that I quoted above, and others like him, may be able to afford to buy quota when it is no longer hoarded by armchair fishermen or vertically integrated seafood corporations. In time, he may even replace that rusting and unsafe boat.

Alan Haig-Brown

Alan Roderick Haig-Brown is a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. He specialises in commercial marine and commercial fishing writing and photography. He is a regular contributor to a number of marine publications.