If you’ve been following the headlines last year, you might think that there is a serious shortage of seafood in British Columbia, mostly due to reckless overfishing, and that if we are to save what is left, we should eat less of it.

It’s not that things aren’t bad. They are. But they’re not bad as you probably think.

“It is an oversimplification to say that overfishing is the cause of the population decline. It’s a red herring, ”says Sonia Strobel, co-founder and CEO of Skipper Otto, a community-supported fishery. “There are plenty of fish in the sea.”

So what’s the real story? Okay, that’s complicated.

The real story is a combination of decades of habitat loss, climate change, pandemic-related labor shortages, impacts from fish farming and, yes, overfishing.

“Overfishing is the biggest threat to fish in the world,” says Chef Rob Clark, co-founder of the Ocean Wise conservation program and culinary director of the Organic Ocean direct-to-consumer online fish market.

But, he adds, “Overfishing is not the biggest detriment to the BC fishery. We are the world leader in managed fishing. The # 1 problem in British Columbia is climate change. Oysters cooking on the beach, poaching in their shells, it’s a true story.

Shrimp Panic

The bad news began in January when the pandemic kept many commercial oyster scales at home during peak season. That meant producers like St. Jean’s Cannery, which has been selling its canned smoked oysters since 1961, won’t have any this year. At all.

“Some people have a generational attachment to this product,” says Steve Hughes, president and CEO of the cannery. Smoked oysters are a holiday staple for many on this coast, but this year they’ll have to settle for smoked mussels instead. It’s a delicious product, says Hughes, but admits, “These aren’t smoked oysters.”

Then in March, just weeks before the spotted shrimp season opened, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans suddenly announced a ban on the decades-old practice of caping, hulling and freezing fish. spotted shrimp at sea. This was devastating news for the province’s $ 45 million spot shrimp industry, which had increased production of frozen shrimp when the pandemic drained the live shrimp market.

The problem was a DFO reinterpretation of a decades-old traceability regulation – essentially, inspectors could not confirm the size or source of shrimp once they were frozen in salt water – which did not had not been applied so strictly since the introduction of the height limits. in 1979. Yet spotted shrimp are abundant, well managed and generally considered sustainable.

When Strobel and other fishermen fought back, DFO changed the decision, saying the app this year would only be for “awareness and education” purposes and that it would revisit the issue in 2022.

“We are concerned, of course. We’re worried they’ll do it again, ”says Strobel, and advises consumers to“ Store your freezer ”.

Salmon closures

And then came June.

The month started off cool and rainy. But almost overnight, the worst heat wave on record in western North America swept through the province. Temperatures reached a record 49.6 degrees Celsius in British Columbia and killed an estimated one billion clams, mussels and oysters along the shores of the Salish Sea.

Suddenly, climate change was real.

Around the same time, in response to the continuing decline in wild salmon populations, DFO abruptly announced the closure – for “generations” and possibly permanently – of 79 commercial fisheries, comprising 60% of the wild fisheries in British Columbia and the Yukon. .

The reaction was swift. Several renowned chefs and restaurateurs have announced that they will no longer carry wild BC salmon on their menus, saying it is no longer ethical to consume such a depleted stock. At least one sustainably grown King Salmon from New Zealand has been substituted, claiming it was a political statement on the mismanagement of the fishery.

“I can’t think of a more ridiculous statement in my life,” says Clark. “The problem with this story is (the misconception) that if you eat farmed salmon, you save wild fish.”

In fact, says Strobel, “Most of the areas that didn’t open this year weren’t going to open this year anyway due to abundance management. It was a terrible non-story.

“It’s not a happy story if you’re a fisherman, but it’s a good story if you’re an environmentalist or if you doubted DFO had the courage to make tough decisions,” says Clark. “They’ve closed 60 percent (of the fisheries), and that’s a positive thing. It is positive for the industry. It is positive for the fish. This is positive for food security.

The climate, the real threat

The wild salmon fishery is highly regulated, monitored, managed and predictable due to the four-year spawning cycle. Stakeholders have been invested in protecting salmon for decades.

“But that doesn’t mean that BC salmon aren’t struggling on the BC coast,” Strobel says. “There are major problems with BC salmon. “

For example, industries such as logging destroy watersheds where salmon spawn. Fish farms cause a myriad of problems ranging from disease pressure to crossbreeding of species. Climate change has increased CO2 levels, acidity and ocean temperature – and is melting glaciers, sending debris downstream, destroying even more salmon habitat.

“Climate change is the biggest threat to our oceans and the biggest threat to our seafood. It’s serious,” says Strobel. “It’s horrible.”

But despite all of the crises this year, 2021 hasn’t been as bad as it looks. Sockeye salmon runs in Barkley Strait and Alberni Inlet are estimated to be three times their usual size, and one seasoned fisherman told Clark he had never seen so many roses as this year.

“Every fisherman I know is happy with the fish this year,” he says. “I’ve never seen them so optimistic. They don’t even fight with each other.

The fisheries that are still open “have been well studied, well studied and well monitored,” says Clark. “Yes, some salmon runs are in trouble, but some salmon runs have more salmon than they know what to do with. Also, we have five different species, we have hundreds of rivers, and not all rivers produce all species every year. “

Eat local

Ironically, the reality is not that we eat too much local seafood. The reality is that most of us eat very little of it.

“BC’s seafood industry is primarily an export story,” says Strobel, noting that 80 percent of the seafood caught in Canada is exported. “It’s terribly sad because we should be eating local seafood, and most people don’t realize that’s not the case. There is a lot of sustainable local seafood in British Columbia, but it’s hard to come by because it’s primarily for the export market.

The best way to get your hands on local, sustainable seafood is to build a relationship with a reliable fishmonger who deals directly with local fishermen and has the expertise to explain what’s in season and how to prepare it.

That’s the whole idea behind Skipper Otto – customers sign up in the fall (deadline is October 15), pay a set amount, order whatever they like when anglers start delivering their catch to the spring and collect them at a defined location. .

The other problem is that when we eat local seafood it is almost always one of the few species. We have to go beyond sockeye. We need to eat more of the other four species of salmon (chinook, rose, chum, and coho), as well as ling cod, albacore tuna, sablefish, and crustaceans like clams, oysters, mussels, and seafood. scallops.

“The real sustainable choice is to eat local,” says Clark. “Meet a fisherman. This is the answer if you are concerned about sourcing seafood.

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