Commercial fishing is a complicated business on Canada's west coast but Sonia Strobel of Skipper Otto is working to connect consumers directly with small scale fishing families, ensuring fishers get fair and stable prices for their catch.
By CINDA CHAVICH
The thick coral fillets of wild arctic char are the earliest fish to arrive at Skipper Otto for the 2022 season.
The fish comes all the way from Nunavut, pulled from frozen lakes by Inuit families using nets suspended beneath the thick blue ice, then driven by snowmobile to the community of Naujaat, where it’s flown to Winnipeg and trucked onward to Vancouver, eventually to land on Canadian plates.
This is the first connection Skipper Otto has made with fishermen outside BC, and the first indigenous fishery to join forces with this unique enterprise, dedicated to keeping small independent fishing alive and selling fish directly from fishers to consumers.
Sonia Strobel started Skipper Otto with her husband Shaun, to help Shaun’s father, Otto, get a fair price for his fish. They created the first Community Supported Fishery (CSF) in 2008, inspired by farm-based Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). But unlike the typical weekly vegetable box, CSF members pay upfront at the beginning of the season, then use their credits to shop for seafood as it’s landed by Skipper Otto’s harvesters.
Because the fish is sold before it’s caught, the model removes the uncertainty faced by these fishermen — they know the price they will be paid for the fish they catch, and that there is a guaranteed market for their fish.
Skipper Otto began with a handful of small-scale BC fishers and has expanded to include 40 fishing families and 7,700 members, distributing a wide variety of local fish and shellfish from salmon and halibut, to hake, prawns, mussels, oysters and wild BC pink scallops across the country. The members-only online store lists what’s available to buy before their monthly distribution dates. Most of the product is sold frozen, shipped to partner grocers in several cities for pick up, but Vancouver customers can also get fresh seafood at Skipper Otto’s False Creek wharf “home port”.
It’s a way to put a face on your fish and send dollars directly to Canadian fish harvesters, or as Strobel likes to say, “helping communities build resilient food systems.”
FROM SALES TO SAVIORS
There’s no doubt this CSF model offers benefits to both producers and consumers with shorter, traceable supply chains, reduced waste and a focus on seasonal, conscious consumption of sustainably-caught seafood.
But in the process of building Skipper Otto, Strobel has become the de facto voice for many small, independent fishing families in BC, addressing issues from licensing and quotas to government regulations that often favour large corporate and offshore fishing companies over smaller owner-operators.
The latest cause to cross her path involves the BC spot prawn fishery, threatened by a sudden decision by DFO (the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans) to ban the long-time practice of tailing and freezing spot prawns at sea in the 24-ounce plastic tubs typically used for a pound of prawns.
Strobel realized the ban would devastate the local spot prawn industry, prevent small harvesters from selling prawns directly to Canadian customers and effectively destroy some family businesses entirely, many that rely heavily on the income from this valuable fishery.
She convened a Spot Prawn Task Force to address the issue, organized petitions and lobbied the federal government, resulting in a reprieve for prawn fishermen in 2021.
The problem resurfaced just before Christmas last year, with another untenable proposed change to tubbing regulations from DFO. But Strobel sprung into action again, noting the proposed much smaller containers would "require more labour, fuel, plastic and other costs for fishers, driving up the cost of prawn tails to the public and driving many harvesters to abandon selling their prawns into domestic markets.”
And after another round of petitions, letter writing and meetings with politicians, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray announced in January that “tubbing and freezing prawns at sea in our typical one-pound containers will be permitted for this season and beyond."
Strobel says she didn’t set out to become a spokesperson for fishers, but her work as co-founder and CEO of Skipper Otto naturally led her into the advocacy trenches as their CSF model evolved.
says. “But it’s also connected to the Skipper Otto theory of change, which is that we can’t produce a just and equitable seafood system if government doesn’t deliver on its promises to support coastal communities and good middle-class jobs.
“If Skipper Otto is going to do what it’s going to do, it has to have an advocate who is going to create the pressures where needed, to bring about policies that will support this just and equitable seafood system we are creating.”
To that end, Strobel used the pandemic to launch a project she’s dubbed “a year of active listening.” She wanted to hear from more marginalized corners of the fishing community and understand Indigenous/non-Indigenous fishing relations.
That discussion can be a thorny one among fishers, especially with dwindling fish populations, limited quotas and large-scale closures, whether the topic is west coast salmon or east coast lobster. Strobel says she embarked on her quest to understand the issues from both sides, after watching the violent confrontations between Mi’kmaq and non-indigenous commercial fishermen unfold in Nova Scotia last year.
“As we were watching, actually horrified watching the violence and destruction of property, people started asking us, is there a parallel on this coast?” she recalls. “Are there indigenous/non-indigenous conflicts in fishing on this coast? Could that happen here?”
Unable to answer that question herself, Strobel began a process of talking to as many different people as possible.
“I started by reaching out to harvesters who had worked on the east coast, I wanted to hear their opinions, hear their experience fishing on that coast,” she says, “and dug a little deeper as to what were their experiences on this coast, for indigenous and non-indigenous harvesters working together.”
“I spent months listening, doing interviews, and just realized there was just so much more to learn, there was just so much to listen to.”
Her active listening involved connecting with the five groups in her own fishing “community” — fishing families, members, governments, the Skipper Otto team, and other shoreside businesses, along with academics, regulators, community leaders, and Indigenous elders. The basic idea, she says, is that “real social change can happen when people come together with a shared objective.”
“We designed Skipper Otto to confront entrenched problems in the seafood system,” writes Stobel in an online post. “We knew that our greatest strength lay in the personal, meaningful relationships we’d built in our community, and that we had an important role to play in building bridges between diverse groups of people.”
“Through the work of active listening, we realized that, although members of our community come from diverse backgrounds with different perspectives, we share the common objective of building a just and equitable seafood system.”
Along the way, Strobel also gained valuable perspective and skills related to conflict resolution.
“I was really surprised, actually delighted, how much people wanted to talk — and wanted to be heard,” she says. “Of course, we all want to feel heard, ultimately, and often conflict arises because people don’t feel heard in the first place.”
“We spend so much time, in our culture especially, talking and not listening,” she adds. “We fight so hard to make our opinion known, instead of stopping to listen and really put in that effort to understand an opposing position first.”
She heard from many people who felt marginalized in fishing and brought many new people into the CSF. There are now 10 new Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nation fishing families from Port Alberni selling their Economic Opportunity fish through Skipper Otto, and eight Vietnamese Canadian fishers joining the roster of BC harvesters.
“This is what we do at Skippper Otto, we actively listen, and we actively look for ways to innovate and to bring about justice and equity and new opportunities,” she says, “to connect people in really meaningful ways, and to repair relationships that are typically broken apart by the industrial systems that we live under.”
Beyond the indigenous fishing families on the BC coast, Strobel has forged new connections to Inuit fishermen in the North. Skipper Otto partnered with an Iqaluit-based social enterprise called Project Nunavut and its Lake to Plate project, designed to help fishermen from Naujaat sell their wild-caught Arctic char to southern Canadian customers for fair prices. The goal is to create sustainable incomes for fishing families and maintain their traditional way of life.
Strobel has introduced her Canadian customers to Inuit ice fishers Darryl Siusangnark and Simon Qamanirq, and the nuances of the lake-caught Arctic char they pull from frozen northern lakes.
This is a unique fishery as the char is not caught in nets while migrating from the ocean and into the rivers but rather in the remote arctic lakes that are their final destination. The fish freeze instantly as they hit the -40°F ambient air. And, according to these Inuit harvesters, the fish from each lake has a unique taste, a sweet slightly briny fish, rich with natural oils and reminiscent of salmon in colour.
Like the other fishermen in the Skipper Otto roster, there’s a story behind their catch, introducing consumers to the people, their traditions, and their communities.
“By selling their fish to southern consumers at fair prices, Inuit fishermen are able to make a living doing what they love,” says Strobel, “using knowledge passed down from their elders to thrive on the land and provide for their families and communities.”
EXPANDING THE MODEL
The beauty of the CFA model is that, like CSA’s, it cuts out several layers of the supply chain, allowing consumers to know exactly where their fish is coming from, when it was caught and by whom. Skipper Otto literally puts a face on your fish — every package arrives bearing a photo of the fisherman or woman who caught the fish, and details about where and when it was landed.
Their comprehensive website is easy to navigate for shoppers and filled with information and insights, from recipes to Strobel’s ongoing blog, profiling fishing families and highlighting the issues they face.
But Skipper Otto is the first, and one of the only successful CSF operations in the country, in part because there is little information and technology to support this style of producer-to-consumer retail system.
That is, until now. This year, Skipper Otto received a BC Agritech grant to build a unique software platform to help connect food producers and consumers using the Skipper Otto model. Strobel says they will roll out the software in early 2022, “to proliferate our model for building innovative, just, and equitable food systems throughout Canada and around the world.”
The software was created by developers in Vancouver, based on the system the Strobels created for Skipper Otto, but with much more efficiency and ease of use. Strobel says the “buy down” model can be used by other seafood and meat producing groups who want to grow direct sales.
“We’ve had great talks with folks in local BC farms and ranches, CSFs in the US, Inuit hunters in Nunavut, as well as folks in Europe, Nicaragua, and beyond about how our model and our software might help them innovate food security solutions in their communities,” she says.
One of the first organizations they’ve chosen to “on board” with the new software is the Hunter & Trapper Association of Taloyoak (formerly Spence Bay) in Nunavut, which is working to provide wild harvested “country food” to the community’s 1,100 residents.
“They won a $500,000 innovation prize this year to help them develop a more efficient way to share traditionally harvested meat within their community — so that’s caribou and whale and musk ox and things like that,” says Strobel, explaining that the prize will fund a small processing facility to cut and package the locally harvested food, while the software system will let community members “prepay into a pot to help fund those hunters and fishers, to go out and harvest these culturally relevant meats.”
TO INFINITY AND BEYOND
Skipper Otto is growing exponentially — the number of members more than doubled in 2021, with pick-up spots as diverse as Victoria and Edmonton to Canmore, AB, and Estevan, SK. As the membership grows, Skipper Otto can buy a larger share of their harvesters’ catch, improving wages and working conditions for fishing families of all kinds.
The price for this direct-to-consumer Canadian seafood is not low — you may find better bargains from large scale fishing companies, wholesalers and supermarkets — but because the supply chain is short, more of the money you spend ends up with the fishermen.
When your Skipper Otto order arrives, each package of seafood is labelled with the face of the local harvester. It builds a new bridge to the local food system, and confidence in the power of your food dollars to affect for social change. And thanks to this Vancouver company, it may be a game changer for the future of local food.
“The goal is not to grow Skipper Otto to be the biggest fish company in the world,” says Strobel. “The goal is to proliferate the model in other communities so that people can be connected to their local producers, wherever they are.”