During COVID-19, fish harvesters are essential, contributing far more than food

In early April, Melissa Collier got an unexpected call. A group of Nanaimo residents wanted to place a large order for swimming scallops, a wild mollusc she and her husband Joel harvest in the Salish Sea. Stuck in lockdown, the group wanted to support local food producers and knew of the Colliers’ scallop business. They reached out. 

Local interest in B.C. seafood is surging as a result of COVID-19, with more British Columbians concerned about the origins and supply chains filling their plates and B.C. food producers—including fish harvesters—swamped by local interest. For the Colliers and other small harvesters, it’s a promising sign British Columbians are not only paying more attention to the origins of their food, but also appreciating fish harvesters’ contributions to coastal B.C.

“Not a lot of seafood from B.C. hits the Canadian market,” says Collier, explaining that about 90 percent of Canadian fish is exported. The industry’s focus on international markets, driven by large processors and corporations, is partly responsible for a lack of consumer awareness in B.C. Few residents fully recognize the key socio-economic and cultural contributions of the 3,300 small-boat harvesters make in the provinces’ coastal regions.

There are several forces behind this discrepancy. Some species, like geoducks, are sold almost exclusively to specialty foreign markets, while others aren’t as well known by Canadians. Canada’s seafood processing and distribution system is heavily geared to the export market, and food safety regulations can make the direct sales that are most sustainable to independent harvesters complicated and expensive. Then there’s price—top quality seafood can be expensive says Collier, but that’s for a reason.

“People sometimes forget the amount of effort, time resources, financial resources that go into harvesting seafood. There are lots of upfront costs like licensing fees, maintenance on the boat, there’s fuel, there’s food, and there’s personal risk. Then you go out there and hope you catch something, and if you do, you hope that you can get a fair price for it.” 

The story doesn’t end once the harvester gets paid. About half the B.C. fleet, or 3,300 people, work from smaller boats like the Colliers that disproportionately benefit small coastal communities in contrast to the larger industrial fleet. Living in towns peppered along the coast, they’re continuously investing in their local grocery store, boat yard, welding shop, and other regional services. They also support remote coastal communities during the fishing season, buying food, fuel, and other necessities as they move up and down the coast. Even in 2020, when COVID-19 has restricted movement throughout coastal B.C., harvesters have developed protocols to protect communities from the virus while still re-supplying in smaller towns.

Then there’s the obvious—fish is food and, as COVID-19 has shown, developing a robust local distribution system impervious to global crises is key to communities’ resilience and food security. Harvesters are essential because they feed us, but also because they drive the socio-economic life and cultural vitality of B.C. coastal communities says Collier.

“Small harvesters don’t fish because they make a lot of money. There’s so many other things that draw you there. You appreciate the animals that you’re able to harvest. You work in the most amazing places in the world. You appreciate where your food is coming from.”

The best part?

“The idea of providing food for other people.”