From Smolt to Spawn: crash course on a West Coast salmon lifecycle

By: James Crofton

Let me take you on a journey. A seemingly impossible journey that starts in a small backwater stream of the Fraser River. It is late spring and the rivers in BC all begin to swell from snow melt high in the mountains. Far up the Fraser river a small Coho salmon fry is hatching. After one or two years of feeding on small invertebrates—never straying too far from the comforts of her stream—she evolves into a smolt and is ready for the open ocean. A mass exodus ensues with the Coho and her relatives all venture out in search of the best feeding grounds. It is a journey against the odds: killer whales, sea lions, dolphins, and man all compete to catch the nutritious fish. She will be hunted for the rest of her life.

How salmon are able to locate the exact stream from which they left is still somewhat of a mystery, but it is believed they use the earth’s magnetic field as well as a keen sense of smell. Should she survive the arduous pilgrimage, what awaits back at her natal stream is equally grim. Along the riverbank, grizzlies, gray wolves, and other scavengers wait in hungry anticipation while bald eagles circle overhead. Her strong body—developed over several years at sea—is needed now more than ever to swim against the current, jump waterfalls and other obstacles, and evade predators until she is back to where it all began. It is a last-ditch effort of sheer willpower. Of the 2500 eggs laid by her mother, she is one of only a few survivors to spawn and carry on the lineage.

As salmon return to spawn, the waiting predators take their kill far into the forest where decomposing salmon carcasses enrich the soil with nutrients, enabling the growth of the towering canopy overhead. Traces of salmon DNA can even be found in the top needles of conifer trees, many miles from the closest stream and hundreds of miles inland. These animals truly are the life force of the Pacific northwest—a link between forest and sea.

Unfortunately, many salmon runs have seen sharp declines in recent years. Some see only a fraction of their historic return numbers while others no longer see any at all. A myriad of challenges now confront salmon, threatening their future survival in some places. By-catch and overfishing continue to put pressure on the species while the logging of old-growth forests is altering stream habitats and creating impassable barriers. Open-net pen aquaculture presents an additional threat. With so many fish crammed into a small space, disease and lice can spread quickly and have shown to spread to their wild counterparts. As seen at one of Cooke Aquaculture’s sites in Washington State, these pens are also prone to collapse, releasing thousands of farmed salmon into the open ocean where they can outcompete wild salmon for food and space, and even prey upon them.

Now, more than ever, new technologies are needed to provide alternative sources of salmon protein that alleviate pressure on wild stocks without polluting the marine environment. One such solution is moving salmon farms on land. Aquaculture presents us with an enormous opportunity to feed the world while taking pressure off wild populations. However, to fulfill its potential aquaculture must be acted on with sustainability as a pillar to its foundation. We are very proud to be able to offer Sustainable Blue, land-raised Atlantic salmon; a farm only an hour outside of Halifax! They are at the forefront of land-based technology and boast a 100% recirculating salt water aquaculture facility. The fish they yield are nutritious, tasty, and most importantly, do not harm our wild salmon populations. Stay tuned for our next post all about Sustainable Blue!

Soothing the Fear of Farmed Fish

Do you eat meat? If you do, it’s more than likely been farmed, and highly unlikely that it’s been exclusively hunted from the wild. Most meat eaters can tell you that how farmed meat is grown has all sorts of differences, from its taste to its environmental impact. That’s why we find it particularly peculiar that many seafood consumers still have a steadfast fear of farmed fish. Just as all farmed meats aren’t equal, the same can be said for farmed seafood. We’re here to soothe your qualms and give you a little food for thought.

First and foremost, at Afishionado we absolutely appreciate and encourage scrutinous food purchasing behaviours! Perhaps you only buy a certain type of farmed meat—maybe pasture raised beef or free-range chicken. Maybe you take the time to make sure your eggs are cage-free, and maybe only the freshest spring lamb will do for you! You might go to leaps and bounds to avoid eating beef sourced from a confirmed animal feedlot operation, and perhaps you’d scoff at the idea of eating chicken raised in battery cages. Yet it’s still farmed meat—it’s just that you’ve chosen a specific method of farming that you prefer for sustainability or quality reasons or both.

The initial aversion to farmed seafood is often well deserved. There are many unsustainable large volumes, low-value aquaculture methods that pump low quality farmed seafood into the marketplace while having a huge environmental impact. Yet farmed seafood is far from a catch-all term. There is a distinct difference in quality, texture, taste, depending on how a species was grown. And there is a huge difference in sustainability. There are many different ways to raise a fish, and the resulting products are vastly different.

Just as pasture-raised grass-fed beef might taste different and have a different texture than an animal that was fed an unnatural diet of corn, soy, and grains, an Atlantic Salmon grown in a recirculating closed containment aquaculture facility, fed a diet comprised of sustainably sourced wild marine protein and fish oils, will certainly taste different than an open-net pen-raised Atlantic Salmon that was fed cheap feed comprised of corn and chicken by-products. Responsibly grown seafood can taste absolutely delicious.

 

Despite all of this, some folks are just deadset on wild seafood. It’s wild or nothing. We agree that a wild Atlantic Salmon definitely tastes different than a farmed one. It’s also a given that the modern-day chicken doesn’t taste like wild partridge or guinea fowl. Domesticated mutton and lamb don’t taste like wild bighorn sheep. We still find farm raised meats to be delicious, or we wouldn’t eat them. And farmed seafood can be a culinary delight as well.

Wild seafood is incredible, and if responsibly fished, a sustainable source of nutrition that can sustain consumers and coastal communities for generations to come. But we can’t—and shouldn’t—all eat wild seafood exclusively. We can—and should—celebrate those pioneering individuals and enterprises that are taking a stand against large-scale aquaculture, who take the time to raise delicious seafood responsibly. Together, sustainable aquaculture and sustainable fishing can make our seafood supply chain resilient and diverse for now and generations to come. Our eating decisions directly impact the future of seafood.

by Justin Cantafio, Sustainable Seafood Specialist

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.

Hana’s Year-End (Beginning of the Year!) Update

In my usual fashion, I’m all but three weeks late getting to my year-end update! What a wild year of changes and adaptations it’s been, and it only seems appropriate that it’s taken me well into January just to settle down and do some reflecting.

Last year‘s highlight was a complete pivot at Afishionado. January 1st, 2016 marked the end of our six day a week retail seafood stand venture at Local Source Market. They were great hosts to test out our business model. We knew that local customers wanted access to local, sustainably-harvested and grown seafood. The success of our little bustling seafood stand was proof. I met so many wonderful people, and have forged friendships that will last a lifetime! The support that we received at our humble fish stall helped us launch the next evolution of Afishionado.

While operating the retail stand we realized something very important. While we had many incredibly loyal local customers, it was still difficult to source high quality products when limited to only purchasing from our suppliers twice a week and in small volumes. We were seeing so many stories to tell of the fisheries that we wanted support, but just couldn’t buy in volumes large enough to make it worthwhile for them to go out fishing, or to ask processing plants to keep some products from the express transport trucks heading to Boston for export.

Meanwhile, we were researching and learning a lot from Community Supported Fisheries, like Halifax’s Off the Hook, who worked to overcome these exact same challenges. We kept wondering: how do you shift larger volumes from small-scale, sustainable fisheries to as many local consumers as possible within a short time frame?

We were fortunate to be able to learn from some of Off the Hook’s successes and shortcomings, giving us the confidence to embark on a weekly subscription business of our own. Our first delivery was in March, and I was immediately in awe. Right off the bat we had over 50 people sign up! I couldn’t believe it. It was working! We had enough volume, just once a week, to order in quantities that it mattered. We also had more time. Time to tell people the stories of where their fish was coming from. And more time to go out and search for new supply.

Many of those original 50 subscribers are still with us today, and we’re up to 150 customers. I still can’t believe that we have so many amazing customers who follow us online, and trust in us to bring them high quality, sustainable seafood every week. We couldn’t do it without the community we’re building.

We’ve been able to expand outside of the HRM into the Valley and now to Antigonish. We’re hoping to add Truro, Moncton, and Sackville, NB this year.

A natural evolution of the challenges that we’ve faced was the realization that we needed a processing plant to continue growing and support more small-scale sustainable fisheries. While we knew there were products out there that we wanted to bring in and tell the story of, seafood in this part of the world is at the whim of a complicated supply chain and burdensome regulations, all of which requires that product goes through a CFIA-registered plant even for sales within Nova Scotia.

Many of Nova Scotia’s small-scale fisheries and sustainable aquaculture operations haven’t achieved scale to attract the attention of existing processing plants. They operate at small volumes that existing processing plants can’t or simply don’t want to accommodate. With upwards of 90% of Nova Scotia’s seafood leaving the province, and much of it unable to connect to market, we found that in order to source product, we needed to be able to handle it all by physically intervening in the marketplace.

So this month, we began to operate a CFIA-certified processing facility in Millbrook, NS. It’s exciting to begin to overcome some of the challenges that we see facing the Nova Scotia fishing industry, and to move more towards a high-value, storied, transparent, and fair seafood exchange right here in Nova Scotia. Our ongoing growth is proof that there are people who want this type of seafood, and that we don’t have to only rely on the traditional Nova Scotia paradigm of high volume, low value exports. We can and will promote more small-scale fisheries and aquaculture operations in this province. It will be the biggest challenged we’ve faced, but we’re ready with our amazing five-person team to get more Nova Scotian seafood cross Canada.

We’re also excited that this year we’ve been chosen as a Top 25 company in Canada for SheEO, a venture capital fund for female-led and run businesses. Only 4% of venture capital funding currently goes to female-led businesses! Yet over two thirds of new businesses are started by women.

SheEO is trying to overcome that, representing “a new model of wealth creation that uses the power of relationships to upend these challenges and turn them into new possibilities. Through the $1000 contributions of thousands of radically generous women, SheEO invests in a small number of women-led, socially positive ventures, and actively supports them with zero percent interest loans, a guided development program, and access to a global network of female investors, advisors, and customers. Through this approach, women entrepreneurs not only access needed capital, they are also guided in the business strategy and leadership development so necessary for sustained success – and they have access to the mentorship, expertise, and networks of thousands of She-EO members.”

Thank you again for all support and interest and we’re excited to share with you everything 2017 brings!

Hana

Realizing the Value of Our Local Fisheries

Article: Hana Nelson
Illustration: Scott MacDonald

When it comes to seafood in Nova Scotia, many of us think that a fish is a fish is a fish. But an increasing focus on export and commodity markets in Nova Scotia is stripping the identity and value away from our seafood. So how do we maximize the value of our small-scale, community-based fisheries and aquaculture operations?

Here in Nova Scotia, we have some of the best ocean access in the world. We have over 13 thousand kilometers of coastline where small-scale, community-based fishers use age-old and low-impact fishing methods. We have emerging world-class aquaculture producers, too, from land-based recirculating aquaculture systems to low-impact, community-based shellfish farms.

With over $1.6 billion in seafood exports, Nova Scotia is Canada’s number one seafood exporter. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to retain the value of our seafood in Nova Scotia when the majority of our premium fish are exported in a faceless, global commodity market. According to One Nova Scotia’s 2015 report, Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Nova Scotians, over 90 per cent of Nova Scotia’s seafood is exported to foreign markets, often with little domestic processing before it goes abroad.

Consider one of Nova Scotia’s seafood poster children: haddock. Haddock exports represent the most significant loss of value in any groundfish species in our province. Less than 6 per cent of the exported weight of haddock is as fillets. Instead, fish is shipped out whole to be processed somewhere else. By not processing it here in Nova Scotia, we lost over $7 million in direct export revenue in 2011 alone, and that doesn’t take into account the loss of associated economic activity from employment in the processing sector.

Small retailers can’t step in and change this because our provincial government maintains antiquated fish processing regulations that are a direct consequence of this commodity market export focus. New and innovative businesses like ours (Afishionado) can’t access some types of fish we want, let alone fillet it. There is a moratorium on groundfish processing licences, so we have to rely on the increasingly scarce supply of community-based processors who can cut haddock for us and who are also under duress.

Let’s be clear: exporting isn’t bad. We’ve relied on it for centuries and will continue to do so. The tricky thing is, however, when we focus exclusively on the bulk commodity market without telling the story of our seafood — and celebrating it — we lose value, we lose identity and we lose the opportunity for local access. The haddock you eat in fish and chip shops throughout the province was probably caught here but sent on a worldwide odyssey where it was cut abroad, most likely China, and frozen twice before returning to the province.

This message really hit home recently when, sadly, one of our shellfish suppliers drowned while on the water. There are inherent dangers to life on the sea. But if our producers are competing on a convoluted and faceless commodity market, then is it really worth it to brave the perils of the sea? Cheap prices devalue the reality of their livelihoods.

We need to process our own seafood so that we can tell its story and celebrate the communities where it came from. If we want to benefit from place-based marketing, then we need to be able to access that product here in Nova Scotia. Consumers abroad need to be able to distinguish our products in the convoluted global commodity market. We have a robust, independent inshore fleet that could be back out on the water fishing.

Nova Scotia has the story. We have coastal communities that would benefit from branding and storytelling. We can embrace and celebrate a culture that has sustained our province’s growth for centuries. If we don’t have the ability to distinguish a fish by how or where it was caught or grown, or on what scale it was caught or grown and by whom, then we’ll just be another producer of commodities stripping value from our beautiful seafood resource.

Originally published in Local Connections Halifax, January 3, 2017.

http://localconnections.ca/home/local-fisheries

 

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