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Seafood shortage: It’s more complex than just overfishing, insiders say

If you have been following the headlines this past year, you might think there is a dire shortage of B.C. seafood, mostly due to reckless overfishing, and that if we want to save what is left, we should eat less of it.

If you have been following the headlines this past year, you might think there is a dire shortage of B.C. seafood, mostly due to reckless overfishing, and that if we want to save what is left, we should eat less of it.

It’s not that things aren’t bad. They are. But they are not bad the way you likely think.

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

So what is the real story? Well, it’s complicated.

The real story is a combination of decades of habitat loss, climate change, pandemic-related labour shortages, impacts of 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 chief culinary officer for the direct-to-consumer online fish market Organic Ocean.

But, he adds: “Overfishing isn’t the largest detriment to B.C. fishing. We are the world leader in managed fish. The No. 1 problem in B.C. is climate change. Oysters cooking on the beach, poaching in their shells — that is a true story.”

Spot prawn panic

The bad news started in January when the pandemic kept many commercial oyster shuckers at home during peak season. That meant producers such as 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 cannery president and CEO Steve Hughes. The smoked oysters are an essential part of holiday celebrations for many people on this coast, but this year, they will have to make do with smoked mussels instead. It’s a delicious product, Hughes says, but admits, “It’s not smoked oysters.”

Then in March, just a few weeks before spot prawn season opened, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans suddenly announced a ban on the decades-old practice of topping, tailing and freezing spot prawns at sea. This was devastating news for the province’s $45-million spot prawn industry, which had increased production of frozen prawns when the pandemic gutted the market for live ones.

At issue was a reinterpretation by DFO of a decades-old traceability regulation — basically, inspectors couldn’t confirm the size or source of the prawns once they were frozen in salt water — which hadn’t been enforced this stringently since size limits were introduced in 1979. Yet spot prawns are plentiful, well-managed and generally considered sustainable.

When Strobel and other fishers fought back, the DFO changed the decision, saying that enforcement this year would be for “outreach and education” purposes only, and that they would revisit the issue in 2022.

“We are worried, of course. We’re worried they will do it again,” Strobel says, and advises consumers, “Stock your freezer.”

Salmon closures

And then came June.

The month started cool and rainy. But almost overnight, the worst heatwave ever to hit western North America swept over the province. Temperatures reached a record-shattering 49.6 degrees C in B.C. and killed an estimated one billion clams, mussels and oysters along the shores of the Salish Sea.

Suddenly, climate change was very real indeed.

Around the same time, in response to the ongoing decrease in wild salmon populations, the DFO abruptly announced the closure — for “multiple generations” and perhaps permanently — of 79 commercial fisheries, comprising 60 per cent of the wild fisheries in B.C. and the Yukon.

Reaction was swift. Several high-profile chefs and restaurateurs announced they would no longer carry wild B.C. salmon on their menus, saying it was no longer ethical to consume such a depleted stock. At least one substituted sustainably farmed king salmon from New Zealand, saying it was a political statement about fishery mismanagement.

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

In fact, says Strobel, “Most of the areas that didn’t open this year weren’t going to open this year anyway based on 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 had any doubts that the DFO had the courage to make hard decisions,” says Clark. “They closed 60 per cent (of the fisheries), and that’s a positive thing. That’s positive for the industry. That’s positive for the fish. That’s positive for food security.”

Climate the real threat

The wild salmon fishery is heavily regulated, monitored, managed and predictable because of the four-year spawning cycle. Stakeholders are invested in protecting salmon, and have been for decades.

“But this isn’t in any way to suggest B.C. salmon isn’t struggling on the B.C. coast,” Strobel says. “There are major problems with B.C. salmon.”

For instance, industries such as logging destroy the watersheds where salmon spawn. Fish farms cause a myriad of problems from disease pressure to species interbreeding. Climate change has increased the ocean’s CO2 levels, acidity and temperature — and is causing glaciers to melt, sending debris downriver, destroying even more salmon habitat.

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

But despite all this year’s crises, 2021 wasn’t as bad as it seemed. It’s estimated that the sockeye runs in Barkley Sound and Alberni Inlet were triple their usual size, and one veteran fisher told Clark he had never seen as many pinks as he had this year.

“All the fishermen I know are pleased with the fish this year,” he says. “I’ve never seen them so optimistic. They’re not even fighting among themselves.”

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

Eat local

A little ironically, the reality isn’t that we’re eating too much local seafood. The reality is that most of us actually eat very little of it.

“The B.C. seafood industry is mostly an export story,” Strobel says, noting that 80 per cent of seafood caught in Canada is exported. “It’s terribly sad because we should be eating local seafood, and most people don’t realize we’re not. There’s plenty of local sustainable seafood in B.C., but it’s hard to get because it’s mostly going to the export market.”

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

That is the whole idea behind Skipper Otto — customers sign up in fall (sign-up begins Oct. 13), pay a set amount, order what they like when the fishers start delivering their catch in spring, and pick it up at a set location.

The other problem is that when we do eat local seafood, it’s almost always one of a very few species. We need to go beyond sockeye. We need to eat more of the other four salmon species (chinook, pink, chum and coho), as well as ling cod, albacore tuna, sablefish and shellfish such as clams, oysters, mussels and scallops.

“The true sustainable choice is to eat local,” Clark says. “Meet a fisherman. That’s the answer if you’re concerned about the supply of seafood.”