The tangled, writhing pile at the back of the Flat Island Venture was transferred one armload at a time into weathered, plastic tubs. Hands in thick, waterproof gloves dug in, over and over, filling the containers with crab and ice, stacking them, making short towers plucked up ashore by a dockside crane.
The transport crew took over from there. With a forklift, they carried the catch away and prepared it for loading aboard an 18-wheeler, to be moved 420 kilometres from the Fort Amherst small boat basin in St. John’s to a fish plant in Comfort Cove.
The crab was as fresh as it gets, with some of the creatures pulled aboard the boat only a couple of hours earlier, at the end of a 12-hour run.
Province lifts restriction on direct sales of seafood
Still no action from government on direct fish sales, despite years of delays
“We’re just there off Torbay. It’s as fresh as— well, you can see it there,” said fisherman Jason Sullivan, gesturing to a stack of containers in front of him.
Would-be escapees waved burnt-orange legs in the air.
Almost all of the crab was destined for the plant, but Sullivan was to set a few aside in the end, roughly 10 pounds, for a cardboard box and direct sale.
Being allowed to do something and being able to do it are two different things.
Buying seafood direct from a fisherman for personal use is no longer against the law in Newfoundland and Labrador, since the provincial government’s announcement in September 2015. Yet direct sales (not through a processing plant or established retailer) are still not the everyday for most — both buyers and sellers.
There are fish harvesters interested in exploring direct sales and potential customers abound, but the challenge is connecting one with the other.
Blaine Edwards has offered some help through From the Wharf (fromthewharf.com), an online marketplace bringing fish harvesters and seafood lovers together.
It was launched in the wake of the province’s decision to allow direct fish sales.
“We bought the site and started it … March, probably. A little bit of customization. We started right away with crab and that did really good, surprisingly,” Edwards said. “We did about $7,000 in a couple of weeks of crab only and it kind of blew my mind.”
Harvesters register directly online and pay a flat, annual fee to From the Wharf to have their catch listed before landing. Anyone interested in the seafood can then place an order.
It’s unlike a standard grocery store drop-off, given that anything from poor weather to mechanical troubles could delay arrival by a day or two. Other than that, customers are alerted to a pickup time, or a drop-off is made to their door.
Sullivan is registered with From the Wharf, where he landed his latest direct-buy customer.
By law, he is not allowed to go door-to-door selling his fish and shellfish. He is not allowed to cook his crab and sell it, or set up a crab truck (at least not without a permit under the Food Premises Act). He is not allowed to take catch from another boat and sell that, as the direct sales green light only applies to what comes in under a harvester’s own licence. And direct sale of any mussels, clams, whelk, whole scallops (as opposed to just scallop meat) and periwinkle are not allowed, due to required monitoring for food safety reasons.
But he can pull out a few whole, live snow crab and drop them off to you on request.
“It’s not bad once you get used to it,” he said of the direct sales.
He was an early adopter, wanting to get settled before commercial cod season.
“We only did the crab, really, to just try and get the name out there. Because cod has been underutilized, you can’t sell it to anyone, so we’re hoping that people will buy our cod,” he said.
Ironing out the kinks before big cod has also been a part of Edwards’ work. At this point, he said, he is looking for a few more harvesters, particularly outside of the Avalon Peninsula, to allow direct sales through the site in all parts of the province.
There is evidence of unanswered demand for direct fish sales.
At the Cozy Quarters Personal Care Home in Clarenville, president Phyllis Evely set her business up for direct buy (buying on a larger scale, businesses require a $50 per year restricted buyer’s licence). Evely said she was interested to see what kind of prices and quality she might be able to get in comparison to her still-reliable wholesalers.
“I read about it in a restaurant magazine and it was about the guy in downtown St. John’s and he was buying directly and I said I’d try and see if I could get it. But I haven’t bought directly from anybody because I don’t know where they buy it and I don’t know who the fishermen are and I don’t know what the process is to do it,” she said, echoing the experience of several other licence holders who spoke with The Telegram this week.
“We have fish twice a week,” she said. “We probably buy altogether probably 1,000 or 1,200 pounds a year.”
Newfoundland and Labrador’s top restaurateurs made the regulatory change happen when years of local griping couldn’t seem to get the job done. And names like Raymonds, Chinched Bistro and Mallard Cottage all now have licences permitting their staff to run down to the wharf at any time for a supply run. For others, it’s a phone call away.
But individuals are less likely to know where to run or who to call, sticking with their usual retailers.
Some have the benefit of a fish plant nearby or an acquaintance in the fishery.
“But that’s disappearing, because there’s not as many fishermen anymore, or the family connections just aren’t there,” Edwards noted.
“So like everything else, you just kind of make the connection online.”
Restricted buyer licence holders
There are no limits on what you, as an individual, can buy straight from a harvester for personal use. But if you’re running a business, buying direct, you’ll need a $50 restricted use licence. It allows you to buy up to 300 pounds of a species a week direct — particularly useful if you’re not near a fish plant, or you are looking to add to existing supply options. There are 16 restricted use licence holders at last count:
• The Admiral’s Galley and Keg, Marystown
• Chinched Bistro, St. John’s
• Raymonds, St. John’s
• Burin Peninsula Motel, Grand Bank
• Northern Meat Shop, Hawkes Bay
• Cozy Quarters Persona Care Home, Clarenville
• Newfound Sushi, Corner Brook
• Lester Dyer, Stephenville
• Mallard Cottage, St. John’s
• Spirit of Newfoundland Productions, St. John’s
• The Fish Depot, St. John’s
• Marble Resort Development, Corner Brook
• Neddies Harbour Inn, Norris Point
• Ind-Rec Highway Services, Conne River
• Kinden’s Fresh Is Best, Lewisporte
• Kinden’s Fresh Is Best (Treats from the Sea), Lewisporte
(Source: Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture. List of accepted applicants as of April 1, 2016.)