Pomme Poco is now a pick up point for Skipper Otto Community Supported Fishery and we could not be more excited. Skipper Otto lets customers pre-purchase locally and sustainably caught seafood at price that's fair for both consumers and fishermen, which allows independent fishermen to keep on fishing and upholding the environmental values they believe in. To help share more about just why we are so excited, we had a fantastic chat with managing director Sonia Strobel, daugher-in-law of Skipper Otter himself!
Tell us a little about Skipper Otto, the fisherman!
Otto is my father-in-law. He’s been fishing in BC since 1969 as a salmon gillnetter. Otto is a real conservationist, he’s someone who to this day runs a hiking club, is really active about environmental protection. His ethic around marine conservation and his reasons for fishing are really about a love of the sea and a desire to coexist in a sustainable, long-term way as people have for generations on this coast. Otto’s values and Otto’s ethics around how we treat the ocean are absolutely infused in everything we do.
How did Otto’s fishing evolve into this awesome family-run organisation?
My husband Shaun had started fishing with his dad at 7 years old. Otto taught him everything he knew about fishing. But because he couldn’t see a financial future in the industry, Shaun left fishing after he graduated from high school and went on to study the industry at university, looking at history, politics and the economy, the various influences that made it no longer possible for a small scale, independent, fisherman with sustainable practices to make a living. After that he became a high school teacher. Shaun and I were both high school teachers.
Meanwhile Otto had been fishing for all that time, but almost 10 years ago it was starting to look like he was going to have to get out of fishing, not because he wanted to, but because he just couldn’t break even. He couldn’t get paid a fair price for his catch, and as hard as he worked there just wasn’t realistic money in it. It didn’t sit well with us that Otto was going to be forced to leave fishing. We really believed he should be able to continue to fish with his sustainable practices as long as he wanted to. We had been part of community supported agriculture programs for many years and we kind of had this ‘Aha’ moment and realised we could take the principles of community supposed agriculture and apply them to fishing. So in 2008 we started Skipper Otto’s Community Supported Fishery, really just as a way to support Otto and the sustainable practices he believed in, to help him stay in fishing by pre-selling his catch to consumers who cared about where their fish came from. That first year we had 40 members who pre-purchased Otto’s catch, and Otto went fishing and delivered the fish to them. The next year 200 people signed up and suddenly we realised maybe we would need more than just Otto’s fish! So we welcomed aboard one of Otto’s friends that he’d fished with for 40 years, and we began to grow. Shaun actually went back to fishing with his dad to help him meet the demand of the consumers. And that’s just carried on. Last year we had 2100 members supporting 30 fishing families, and we still operate under the exact principles and the values that we started with nine years ago.
Could you give us a brief overview of the mainstream commercial industry?
The industrial supply chain (here, anyway, globally it’s even more complex) but here fishermen will typically fish for the day, and then they’ll come alongside a packer, a boat, that collects and buys fish from fishermen, or they’ll come into a port where there are buyers. Those buyers set the price and the fishermen have very little agency to negotiate. Sometimes prices are kind of reasonable at the start of the fishing season but by the end of the season in most cases they’ve absolutely plummeted. The fishermen are incurring the same expenses, working just as hard as ever, but the price per pound will have dropped by a factor of many hundred percent. It’s a real gamble. Fishermen take on all the expenses at the start of the year for their fuel and their licenses, and all of the operations of the boat, and they head out fishing and just cross their fingers and hope that they’ll catch enough fish at a high enough price to break even at the end of the year. And often they’re not paid for months. They will get a little bit when they first bring their fish in, and then they’ll wait 3, 6, even 9 months to get paid. And you’re not going to see a lot of variation in price from one packer to another. It’s like gas stations: price fixing is illegal, but they all essentially stay around the same price.
You have a great article on your blog about working with the McCarthy family from the Tseshaht First Nation.
Shaun met some of the McCarthy family and other First Nations fishing families while fishing over in Port Alberini this past summer. They were getting the same fish that Shawn and Otto were fishing for farther out at sea, but they were a little farther up the river on a traditional, communal hand fishery—according to their licence they’re not allowed to use hydraulics or any kind of modern equipment but they can hand fish. Getting to know these guys, they realized they were being paid very poorly for the hard work that they were doing. The prices they were getting were much lower than the what other fishermen were being paid, and it just seemed really wrong. It seemed like kind of an extreme example of taking advantage of the situation, paying people as poorly as you can so that you can make the best profit, and that’s just completely counter to our values. So we talked to them and said, ‘What do you think, do you want to sell fish to our members through Skipper Otto?’ And they said, ‘Sure let’s give it a try.” Naturally fishermen are often skeptical when a new buyer comes onto the scene, but the McCarthy family were really willing to give it a try. So we went out there with a truck; they fished; we bought their fish. And then other local fishermen came around to see what was going on and realised we were paying more than they were getting anywhere else. Even though the other families didn’t sell directly to us, they then went to the other buyers and said, ‘You can’t pay us that, Skipper Otto is over there paying this.’ And those companies were forced to match our price. And they were really mad about it!! We managed to drive up the price for that salmon for the rest of that entire fishery. We’re delighted that we’re big enough now to start having some influence on the ground price, not just on what we pay, but forcing other buyers to be more ethical and pay a higher price.
How would someone get into fishing these days, if they weren’t born into a fishing family?
The independent small scale fishing fleet is getting older and older, and there aren’t as many young people getting into fishing. We call it the greying of the fleet. We really want to change that, we really want to make people aware that this is a livelihood, this is an opportunity for the right kind of person. It just really fits certain people’s lives to fish, and we want to be there to help bring those people into the industry. We have plenty of young fishermen—in the industry we use fishermen to mean men and women—who are starting out and we’re happy to buy their fish without the same kinds of pressures some of the big companies bring. If you’re new and not very good at it yet, that’s ok, we’re going to buy whatever you catch. You don’t need to hit certain quotas per week. We take new folks as deckhands on board our boats quite frequently throughout the summer, people who just want to give it a try. We teach them how to fish, how to gut and how to be a deckhand, and how to eventually move up to owning their own boat. We’re part of a conference that’s happening next week in Victoria called the BC Young Fisherman’s Gathering, and we’re working with the T. Buck Suzuki Foundation to put that on and to speak at it, to encourage young fishermen to get into the business, and give them knowledge about how to be successful at it.
So people could get in touch with you directly if they were interested?
Absolutely. People can just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org Typically we’ll say, ‘Ok great, do you want a summer job helping us with onshore distribution work?’ And so they’ll help with packing orders and driving a truck or forklift around, and then when the opportunity arises, if it seems like a good fit, we’ll offer them the opportunity to go out on a boat and deckhand with Shaun. We kind of take people on in that way every year.
Excited as we are now?? You can sign up to be a Skipper Otto member here!