Rebuilding fish chains from ocean to plate is crucial if fisheries are to keep contributing to Newfoundland’s food security, says an organization that aims to ensure everyone has access to affordable food.
Kristen Lowitt, a Memorial University PhD candidate who’s researching community food security — which non-profit organization Food Security NL defines as adequate access for consumers as well as a living wage for producers — said fisheries contribute both directly through adding fish to the food supply and indirectly by paying wages that can be used to buy food, which is why the decimation of fish stocks is so damaging to a community’s food security.
Speaking via teleconference Wednesday afternoon, Lowitt outlined recommendations from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2005 on sustaining fisheries’ food security contributions. This includes ensuring participation by small-scale fishermen and their communities in fisheries management, making sure that markets and trade work for small-scale fishermen, and recognizing the special role of women in fish processing and value addition.
“These recommendations are particularly important when we think about globally, capture fisheries are in a state of decline and this is one of the overarching challenges to maintaining fisheries’ contribution to food security globally, is the fact that many commercial species are fully exploited or over-exploited,” she said.
One answer may be focusing on community food systems that provide a more direct connection between fisherman and consumer. For co-operatives such as the Fogo Island Co-op, harvesters get a better price for their fish.
“The potted cod is sold for a premium price to restaurants,” said Lowitt. “So, for example, the Bacalao restaurant in St. John’s purchases this potted cod from the Fogo Island Co-op, and some of that price premium is passed back to the harvesters who are members of the Fogo Island Co-op. I think it’s worked pretty well for their small group of harvesters in getting a higher price and harvesting more sustainably.”
Bacalao co-owner Andrea Maunder said the restaurant doesn’t mind paying more for fish from the co-op because it helps sustain the local economy, and fits in with the restaurant’s philosophy.
“Every item on the menu is local in some way or it doesn’t make it on the menu,” said Maunder, who added that potted cod catch is better quality fish. “It’s really important to us to support the local producers.”
That premium price, though, can be a challenge in convincing consumers to buy into the system, said Lowitt.
“One piece of food security is reliability of supply, and how much food do we have, and the other piece is affordability and who can access food,” she said. “So there is this bit of tension between ensuring viable enterprises for farmers and for fishers and that they get paid a fair price for their products, and at the same time, from a social equity perspective, food should be accessible to people at different income levels.”
Maunder acknowledged that a restaurant can charge more for fish bought from a co-op, but a consumer buying the fish to eat himself simply has a higher grocery bill. But she said it’s still a model that can work for consumers.
“Yes, we all look for a bargain,” she said. “There’s many people who will go out and buy organic produce and the best products they can afford, but they’ll save on cleaner or toilet paper. Everybody chooses their indulgences. With the idea of co-operatives and buying as local as we possibly can, it’s better for the local economy, the food is generally fresher and better … it’s the way we used to eat in the old days and it made sense.”
Lowitt said the Community-University Research for Recovery Alliance, a five-year research program studying ways to rebuild fish stocks and communities along Newfoundland’s west coast, will soon release a report detailing opportunities for — and challenges with — setting up more direct market options for the Newfoundland fishery.
“There’s a steering committee, and we’re having a meeting next week and the partners are still looking at the results and we’re going over that together,” she said.