What is Economic Opportunity Fishing?

Allison Hepworth - September 21, 2021

We didn’t know much about Economic Opportunity Fisheries before we began working closely with more Tseshaht and Hupacasath fishers this summer, but we learned so much this year and we’re eager to share it all with you!

Economic Opportunity fisheries are intended to enable Indigenous fishers to achieve economic self-sufficiency through licensed sales of their small-scale catch – specifically chinook and sockeye salmon from certain runs in BC. EO openings are distinct from FSC – the Indigenous right to fish for food, social, and ceremonial purposes. Fish caught under FSC licenses are not legal for sale and these fish are only to be consumed by community members. And both of these are also distinct from larger-scale commercial fishing. Many Indigenous fishers who have access to conventional commercial gear and commercial licenses fish commercially alongside their non-Indigenous peers as well. But where commercial gear and licenses can present a steep financial barrier to entry, EO fisheries use small skiffs, simple gear, and do not require costly licenses, so barriers to entry are greatly reduced. 

Every year, the DFO determines the total allowable catch (TAC) for a fishery, which is then further divided up between commercial, recreational, FSC, and economic opportunity fisheries. Nations negotiate with the DFO to determine how much of the TAC gets allocated to them.

For the Tseshaht and Hupacasath, two closely connected Nuu-chah-nulth nations located in the Alberni Valley, fishing has been a way of life since time immemorial. Families work together, with 2-3 family members on board each small aluminium skiff. In EO openings, the act of fishing is communal – folks from multiple generations pitch in both onboard vessels and on shore to help offload and transport fish. These are truly fishing families in the greatest sense! 

Because harvesters fishing EO openings aren’t allowed to use modern equipment (including hydraulics), every family member chips in to help hand-haul the net. Leaning over the gunnels, they heave the fish-laden nets on board their tiny aluminum skiffs.

And because some boats are so small that it’s dangerous to keep the weight of more than around 50 fish aboard these small vessels at one time, fishing families must continuously unload their catch and head back out to the fishing grounds multiple times during each opening. With chinook salmon openings happening at night – this is when chinook are most active and swimming nearer the surface – families are out on the water from 8pm to 3am. Between hauling the net, picking fish, and multiple offloads throughout the night, these physically taxing fisheries work best with all hands on deck! 

Many Tseshaht and Hupacasath fishers have put a lot of effort into building and growing their own business through fishing EO openings. But just like many other commercial fishers in BC, it’s hard to plan who they’ll sell their catch to ahead of time, let alone know how much they’ll be paid. Typically there are only one or two buyers on the fishing grounds for any given EO opening. “There’s not a lot of competition for price for our fish,” says multi-generational Tseshaht fisher, Jocelyn Dick. “I get it — we’re a big group of small boats, so it’s probably more work to buy from us than from the commercial fleet. So buyers usually pay us quite a bit less than the commercial guys.” And with EO chinook openings often finishing in the wee hours of the morning, you can imagine that it’s easiest for an exhausted family to simply sell their entire catch to whichever cash buyer is present at the offload station. “It’s really frustrating to work so hard all night and then find out the price is lower than we expected when we’re offloading,” Jocelyn said.

Jocelyn and her son, Erikk, just before a chinook EO opening in August!

That’s why we’ve been so excited to explain the Skipper Otto model to the new Tseshaht and Hupacasath fishing families we started working with this year. As our fishers have explained, we’re a real outlier in this industry. “Nobody starts out by asking us what price we think would be fair,” explains Hupacasath fisher Jeff Gallic. “We always feel like we’re in the dark and have no say in what we get paid. But Skipper Otto is totally different. You guys explain everything, plan it ahead of time, and we know that we’re getting paid well before we even untie from the dock.” Before each opening, we commit to buying a set number of fish from each harvester and to a price that everyone agrees is fair. “It makes a huge difference,” says Tseshaht fisher Natasha Marshall. “I know ahead of time it’s going to be worth it to gear up and head out fishing. It takes a lot of the stress out of it.”

To be fair, the system that conventional buyers operate under is a really tough one. They are at the mercy of a lot of distant global forces that they often can’t control. But we designed Skipper Otto to turn the whole system on its head. By connecting Canadian producers and consumers directly to one another, we can have really transparent conversations with fishers about what our costs are and what we can afford to pay them. The result is a system that’s fair for fishers, consumers, and everyone in between. It’s a system that is founded on long-term, meaningful relationships. And we can’t wait for you all to start building relationships with these fishing families, too. Be on the lookout for their chinook salmon in your orders this fall and winter!

Allison Hepworth - September 21, 2021

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What is Economic Opportunity Fishing?

Allison Hepworth - September 21, 2021

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