I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed on CTV about how our fishing families are handling the recent changes in the industry due to COVID-19, and while it is always great to see coverage of the issues that impact our fishing families, sound bites don’t really get into the nuance and detail, so I thought we would delve deeper here. You can view the original story here.
Skipper Otto members enjoying the benefits of hyper-traceable, quality Canadian sustainable seafood is a pretty simple story to wrap one’s head around. But the equally important part of what Skipper Otto does is its impact on BC fishing families.
To fully understand that, it requires a little perspective (pardon some of the technical language)!
BC Fishing Industry Barriers
The BC fishing industry has barriers to independent fishermen that heavily favour consolidated ownership of access to what should be “the commons” – the BC fishing grounds. Some of the barriers are going to require changes to regulations to address. For example, quotas that can be owned by non-fishermen (like stocks on the stock market) have created a speculative market that has driven their cost out of reach for most fishermen, especially new ones. The net effect, is that the actual fishermen lease out these quotas, meaning that the lions share of any profits go to the non-fishing quota holder.
Problems like this are why we are actively involved in advocating for change and why we are eager to see parliament make the changes that they, themselves, have now identified.
But some of the biggest problems for our BC fishermen are simply the “regular” practices of the industrial buyers of seafood on the coast. And it is shocking and sad how the practices are intentionally designed to push risk back onto the fishermen and their families.
As an example, a small independent fisherman will spend their own money (or line of credit) to buy and/or maintain a boat and all their gear (nets, hooks, freezers, video monitoring gear, etc); pay for their annual licences, quotas, logbooks; and then stock up on fuel, bait and ice. When a fisherman then comes in with a catch, a buyer agrees to take the fish off their hands but does not commit to either a price or tell the fisherman when they will be paid! They may get a down payment but the fact that they do not know what price they are being paid means there is no option to seek out a better price – especially since most other buyers won’t set a price either.
A Simple Upfront Price
One of the simplest things that Skipper Otto does is set an upfront price with our fishermen and then pay them in full when the catch is delivered. It is shocking that this simple practice, is a major disruption to the traditional industry and one of the big things that sets us apart. This is only possible because our members pre-pay for their shares – ahead of the fishing season. This commitment to our fishing families is what truly makes our company different and one reason why fishermen really appreciate working with us.
Companies play other games to obscure the price they pay a fisherman, such as setting prices that vary by weight of fish (even for the same species). For example, a fisherman will be paid one price for fish over 5 lbs each and another price for fish that are under 5lbs each. While this may sound kind of logical, there are a few problems: one is that it costs the same to catch a 4lb fish as it does to catch a 6lb fish. The other problem is in who actually weighs the fish. Since the fishermen are not weighing fish individually, the buyer gets to decide what the actual breakdown of fish weights/prices are.
Another game processors play is offering extra quota to fishermen – with a catch. If fishing is going well, the only way to get more is to sell your catch to a processor who will then lease you their quota. But in order to get access to the additional quota, both batches need to be delivered to that processor at a price that will once again not be set until long after the fishing season is finished.
Global Supply Chain Hoops
In some of these cases, I don’t even blame the buyers or the processors that interact with the fishermen – these middle-men are trying to jump through the myriad hoops of a global supply chain whose rules and expectations would surprise a seafood-loving consumer. For example – a grocery retail chain might insist on a large order with a set price before the season even starts or a foreign buyer may only want one particular size of spot prawn but not the other sizes that are caught alongside them. It really reinforces how our members’ agreement to eat with the ecosystem makes the lives of fishermen easier too. Skipper Otto does not penalize (or invent reasons to penalize) a fisherman for seasonal variations like tuna loins being a different size from one year to the next or a tub of shrimp tails containing inconsistent sizes or switching to more abundant coho salmon in a year where sockeye is scarce.
Traditional Supply Chain
Skipper Otto’s Direct Link
Another big difference with Skipper Otto, is that we know who our end consumer is.
The Impacts of COVID-19
When COVID-19 hit North America in mid-March, which was also the start of the halibut season, lots of industrial buyers lost their restaurant markets and the overseas market became unclear. The prices paid to fishermen for halibut dropped dramatically. And yet – the prices in retail stores did not budge – they remained as high as ever. In our case, we have continued to pay our fishermen fair prices while our fillets are priced competitively for members – without using a crisis to push risk back onto the fishing families.
With us, our fishermen always get a bigger share of the market price.
This is what makes Skipper Otto different for fishermen. It happens because Skipper Otto members value traceable seafood and trust us to act differently. We are honoured by that trust and will stick to our values even in days when things seem scary and uncertain.
We are truly all in this together.
Chris - April 17, 2020
Skipper Otto Supports BC Fishing Families
Chris - April 17, 2020