2023 – A Year in Review

Sonia - November 17, 2023

bc fishing industry bc salmon Canadian fisheries fishing families new fisherman

2023 was our 15th season as a Community Supported Fishery and a year filled with powerful impact and exciting new relationships, achievements, and recognitions. And in spite of ongoing crises, conflicts, and anxieties in the world, Skipper Otto continues to be a refuge for me, a community built on meaningful human connection and collaboration, reminding us that there is still so much goodness to celebrate, even in dark and uncertain times. After 15 years on this community-building journey of connecting fishing families and homecooks, I couldn’t be more proud of what your membership in this community has generated. When you became a Skipper Otto member this year, maybe you had no idea what impact your membership was about to have! So let’s take a minute together to look at some of the highlights of 2023 in our community!

1. Don’t just take our word for it! B Corp and Living Wage Certifications

Our members have trusted for years that we are working towards positive environmental and social impact but we finally put our efforts towards getting some third party recognition for it this year. Firstly, we are proud to announce we are now a Registered B Corp! The path to becoming one was long, thorough, rigorous, and we’re proud to say that  we came through with an exceptionally high score on their benchmarks and are so happy to  join the global community. 

In addition, this year we also became a certified Living Wage Employer who commits to all employees earning a Living Wage. Since we started Skipper Otto in 2008, we’ve been focused on paying living wages to seafood harvesters and, for many of those years, we’ve also tied our entry-level position salaries to the Living Wage. This year, we finally put in the time and effort to prove this to the Living Wage for Families program at the Vancity Community Foundation and are so proud to receive their stamp of approval.

Now you don’t just have to take our word for the work we do – rigorous third-party validators agree!

2. Helping BC Salmon become Ocean Wise Recommended Again

Speaking of certifications, as you probably know, we are a proud Ocean Wise partner and we carry almost exclusively Ocean Wise-Recommended products. That word “almost” arose because we disagreed with how Ocean Wise (and all global certification systems) lumped the hundreds of BC salmon runs into a singular category for evaluation leading to the loss of status for three out of five BC salmon species in 2019. Instead, we’ve been taking a more nuanced approach to what our fishing families catch and evaluating data on each run to determine if it meets the sustainability criteria of MSC, Seafood Watch, and Ocean Wise. And we are excited to hear that this year, our efforts have paid off in helping get BC salmon back onto the Ocean Wise recommended list! Ocean Wise has made supporting small-scale fisheries a big focus of its work this year and developed its own run-by-run assessment process for salmon fisheries in BC inspired by the work of our very own in-house scientist, Jeff Scott! Watch for news from Ocean Wise soon about which BC salmon will once again be Ocean Wise Recommended in 2024!

3. We’re on TV!

After a year and a half of interviews and filming, we were heavily featured in the CBC documentary “Fresh Catch” which aired live on CBC TV in August this year and continues to be available on CBC Gem. I was honoured to effectively narrate the documentary while it features BC independent fishing families and their challenges and successes in the industry. We were flattered by the shout-outs for Skipper Otto that are peppered throughout the film including one from salmon researcher and advocate, Alexandra Morton! (Truthfully, we are huge fans of hers and were very excited to hear her speak so kindly about us!)

4. Supporting Fishing Families New and Old

Our fishing families rely on us to be a great ally, providing stable, fair prices, prompt payment, and treating them with dignity and kindness. We continue to expand and deepen relationships with our longtime fishing families while adding new ones to our roster of independent fishers. We had our annual update from the Martinelli’s about their adventures fishing with their young son Rex aboard. We began a new relationship with Haida fisher, Dave Martynuik for halibut and Lee Gallagher for salmon. We advocated for our long-time halibut fisher, Doug Kostering against aggressive DFO enforcement actions. We shared spot prawning updates from the Collier and Le Nguyen families. We told the back story on Richie Shaw’s classic wooden boat (Richie is a little shy and prefers we talk about his boat rather than him!). We sourced more arctic char than ever from five Inuit fishers, including Tommy and Andrew Aiyout, Darryl Suisangnark, Laurent Kringayark and Joseph Kopak in Nunavut and continued to do scientific sampling on the fish in hopes of expanding commercial quota on some of those northern lakes. And we shared my own family’s personal stories including our sons, Oliver and Lyndon who joined us for fishing and other boat work. It was a great season of storytelling straight from the fishing grounds to our members!

5. Special Support for Port Alberni Fishers 

It was a challenging but successful year in Port Alberni and we continued strengthening our connections with the folks fishing salmon there. After each commercial salmon opening, our co-founder and my husband, Shaun Strobel, worked collectively with a small, diverse group of commercial fishers to offload our sockeye and chinook salmon. This year’s core offload group included longtime fishers Rick Dietterle and Dean MacDonald, Indigenous fisher and Port Alberni local, John Hassall, and experienced, female, Vietnamese fisher, Toan Thi La. Shaun and the team had extra challenges navigating the circuitous and treacherous Vancouver Island backroads to get fish to Vancouver after forest fires damaged the main road to Port Alberni early in the summer. 

In addition to the commercial openings out of Port Alberni, we also continued supporting folks fishing the Tseshaht Economic Opportunity Fisheries. We worked extensively with Les Sam all season long, but our sourcing from Natasha Gallic-Marshall and Willard Marshall was cut short when Willard suffered a heart attack while fishing early this summer. It was a very scary experience but thanks to the support of his doctors and the strong Tseshaht community, Willard is recovering well and we look forward to working with the Marshalls again in 2024.

6. What happened to Frozen Oysters and Hake?

While it’s been an incredible year, not everything has gone our way. Our experiment in 2022 with freezing whole oysters went great in terms of producing a new, high quality product, but we haven’t been able to restock them this year. That’s because shellfish harvester, Bretton Hills hasn’t been able to find a cost effective processing solution for freezing while also working with regulators to prove that they have a shelf life beyond three months. We continue to work with Bretton on processing solutions and when we’ve found solutions, we hope to carry her frozen oysters again.

We had plans in place to get whole frozen hake from Cary Williams this summer, but hake fishing ended up being almost non-existent in Canadian waters. Theories abound about why this is the case (including ocean temperature changes and the intensity of factory fishing boats), but we are waiting for more scientific research to explain why one of BC’s biggest volume fisheries barely caught any fish in 2023. We’ll continue to try to understand what’s happening to BC hake, and we’ll keep you posted as we find out more.

7. Gratitude for our incredible Team

I continue to be grateful to our amazing and dedicated team at Skipper Otto. Their backgrounds and diversity are amazing. From performing arts to science to teaching backgrounds – we all came to the seafood industry from myriad perspectives. The team is more than 50% female and a substantial percent of the team identifies as LGBTQ+; both stats that are rare in the BC fishing industry. And most importantly, the team has great rapport, is incredibly supportive of one another, and they are darn good at what they do. A real dream team!

8. Listening and Learning

As you may know from previous blog posts, I am a firm believer that social impact work must always start with active listening and learning. This year, I was privileged to continue listening and learning with Indigenous communities on many occasions including at the BC Young Fishermen’s Gathering, at a North-South knowledge exchange with Inuit youth from Ikaarvik, and at monthly Local Catch Canada meetings.

9. Policy Advocacy Work

We’ve been part of the Fisheries for Communities Coalition since its inception in 2015. It’s a grassroots movement working to ensure the many values of BC fisheries flow to the people on the water, on the dock, and in adjacent communities. This year, three other Skipper Otto staff joined me in Victoria to participate in the Fisheries for Communities Gathering which brought harvesters, Indigenous elders, scholars, businesses, and representatives from all levels of government together around our shared vision for community-based fisheries We helped create recommendations for government’s next steps and I moderated a reflection panel with MPs from the three major federal political parties who all went away with a renewed commitment to reforms in Pacific fisheries policy.

Later in the year, I was called upon to provide witness testimony in a House of Commons study into foreign and corporate ownership of licenses and quotas in Canadian fisheries. I shared the stories of our fishing families and the harmful impacts of corporate consolidation of license and quota ownership on them. It can be nerve-wracking to stand up and speak truth to power, but the MPs on the Standing Committee were curious, supportive, and compassionate to the plight of community-based fishers and I walked away feeling heard. My 15-year-old son, Oliver, attended the study in person with me and it was an incredible experience to share with him. We’re making good progress toward more just and equitable federal fisheries policies and I am hopeful that, under the leadership of the new Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier, we will see some real policy change in the year ahead.

10. Network Building and Paying it Forward

My background as a teacher came in handy with so much mentorship and speaking this year!

I was one of the inaugural mentors in Vancouver Island University’s Seafood Business Accelerator Program. Through that program, I continued working with two of our powerful female harvesters Bretton Hills and Natasha Marshall supporting the development of their own work; both helping Bretton realize her vision for a community shellfish processing facility on the Sunshine Coast, and helping Natasha write her MBA thesis on using the Skipper Otto model for distribution of First Nations community fish.

This year Chris, our COO, took the lead working with our friends in Taloyoak, Nunavut, who are building a cut-and-wrap facility to help distribute their traditionally harvested Inuit country meats to their community members. Chris is able to share a wealth of knowledge we have developed over the years around small scale, efficient processing and distribution and we’re hopeful the Taloyoak facility will be built and transported up to the community during the summer sea lift in 2024! It’s been so exciting to see the great work that all these folks are doing to build robust food systems in their communities and we’re humbled to play a small part in supporting them.

Chris and I also did a lot of mentorship this year through the Local Catch Network where we’ve been members since it was formed in 2011. The Local Catch Network is ​​a hub for knowledge exchange and innovation that supports and catalyzes local and community-based seafood systems. This year, we hosted a number of Local Catch Network members and shared the nuts and bolts of how we have been successful in building a stable and mature, 15-year old Community Supported Fishery, the oldest in the network! We’re excited to have spent time developing a more formal Advisory Services Program offering and, this fall, Local Catch was successful in its quest for funding to help us officially launch a two year mentorship program! We will onboard 4 other direct-seafood businesses to our year-long mentorship program in the year ahead and we’ll be excited to share their progress with you.

At the Local Catch Summit in 2022, we brought the largest contingent of Canadians ever to the event and that energy helped us spearhead Local Catch Canada this year! With the support of colleague Dr Hannah Harrison at Dalhousie University, I hosted monthly virtual meetings with a cross-sectoral network of fish harvesters, seafood businesses, Indigenous communities, NGOs, and academics from Canada’s west, north, south, and east coasts as well as Great Lakes fisheries. Our knowledge sharing network is focused on uniquely Canadian challenges, supporting livelihoods, and centering Indigenous knowledge systems, partnerships, values, and relationships needed to support small-scale seafood livelihoods, food systems, and food sovereignty in Canada. I’m excited to announce that we were successful in receiving a grant to build and grow this network for the next two years!

If you’ve read all this way, thank you for taking the time to reflect with me on many of the great things we accomplished together in 2023. Looking back on this list, I realize this summary is just a small sample of the powerful things we realized together this year. The Skipper Otto community is such a rare and special place where, just by shopping for incredible-quality seafood, our members are able to facilitate so much powerful impact. Even after 15 years, I’m just as fired up about this work as ever because this community never ceases to provide reasons to believe in the power and goodness of people unified around a shared vision for a better way. Thank you for being part of this community!

Written by: Sonia Strobel

Sonia - November 17, 2023

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2023 – A Year in Review

Sonia - November 17, 2023

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