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How COVID-19 can catalyze a shift towards a more localized, transparent seafood industry

April 22, 2020
By: 
Emily De Sousa
MA Geography Student
University of Guelph
2019 CSPC Youth Science Policy Award of Excellence Winner

Do you know where your fish comes from?

It may come as a shock to learn that the majority of Canadian seafood is exported and the small percentage of the catch that does stay in the country is mostly destined for restaurants. With COVID-19 cutting off access to major export markets, and restaurants across the country remaining closed for the foreseeable future, fishermen from coast to coast are finding themselves with hundreds of pounds of fresh catch, and nowhere to sell it.

Canadian fisheries have already been pushed to the brink over the years due to climate change, industrialization, and globalization. Now, COVID-19 is exposing more cracks in the seafood supply chain.

The globalized seafood industry that encourages Canadians to eat farmed shrimp from Asia while locally caught B.C. prawns are shipped abroad, is ultimately unsustainable. I’m not the first to call out this fundamental flaw of global food systems. Others have pointed out the instability of global supply chains and called for supports to promote greater self-sufficiency within our local food systems.

This is not to expect that local food systems should feed us all of the time. Global supply chains and export markets will always exist, but more robust local systems offer insulation from the volatility of global markets, while providing fishermen with more options to offload their catch.

Being a fisherman has never been an easy job and COVID-19 has exacerbated the risk and uncertainty that comes with the gig. Fishermen assume a lot of upfront personal and financial risk in order to provide us with fresh seafood: they need to pay for licensing fees, deckhand wages, bait and fuel, just to be able to get out on the water and hope that they can catch something. When they do, they’re hoping to return to a market where they can sell their catch for a fair price in order to recuperate those costs.

With those markets unavailable due to COVID-19, fishermen are taking matters into their own hands. We’re seeing Canadian fishermen adapting by establishing local consumer markets where there haven’t been any before – pushing them in the role of not only harvester, but also processor, marketer, and retailer overnight.

These kinds of direct-to-consumer arrangements have tremendous benefits including reduced operating costs for fishermen and the ability to get a fair price for their catch. Consumers also reap the benefits by gaining access to a diversity of high-quality protein and contributing to building the resilience of our food system.

By keeping locally caught seafood in local communities, these models also shorten the normally convoluted supply chain of seafood products, reducing their carbon footprint and increasing transparency – a critical step towards eliminating problems like fraud within Canada’s seafood market. In November, I received the Youth Science Policy Award of Excellence for my policy proposal to eliminate seafood fraud in Canada. With 44% of seafood sold in Canada being mislabelled, a shorter supply chain and more localized seafood market could lower that number, helping to rebuild consumer trust in our food systems and support the sustainability of local fisheries.

A robust local seafood market can be the key to eliminating problems like seafood fraud, supporting the Canadian economy by providing opportunities for small-scale fishermen, strengthening our local food systems and re-connecting consumers to their food and building relationships with those who harvest it.

But in order for these local markets to be more than a short-term solution, we need infrastructure and strong policy from our country’s decisions makers.

The fishing industry is dependent on infrastructure to process, cut, ship, distribute, market, and sell seafood. Infrastructure that supports seafood product flows within the country would give fishermen the option to build relationships with local processors and distributors to have their locally caught fish processed and sold in Canada. Fishing communities on our coasts have been calling for this reinvigoration of the Canadian processing industry for a while, in order to give them the opportunity to keep Canadian seafood in Canada.

The seafood industry is integral to the economic and social fabric of this country. This time of hardship has shaken fishing communities in a significant way, but along with the difficulties comes an opportunity to breed resilience and create space for robust local seafood markets to thrive. Now, we just need to make sure it lasts.