In 2011, I did a year of reporting for CBC Radio One’s Homestretch program as their Calgary-based “food finder”. It was my job to find lesser known but great food stories, places and people. What a fun job.
One of the biggest delights of that year was discovering a company called Skipper Otto’s Community Supported Fishery (CSF). This post will describe what CSFs are and provide the story of Skipper Otto then and now. Like most fishing stories, it’s a pretty tall tale – only in this case, it’s all true.
Otto Strobel has not missed a fishing season off the coast of B.C. since 1969. He has a small “gill netter” boat and round about 2009 he was contemplating giving up fishing because the money he made selling his fish to commercial fishing operations barely paid for the diesel his boat used each season. It certainly was not enough to make him a living.
Enter the return of the prodigal son. (I told you this was a good story).
Shaun Strobel started fishing with his father when he was seven years old and loved it so much he did a Master’s degree with a focus on the labour history of West Coast fisheries. He had lived and taught in Manhattan where he and his wife Sonia subscribed to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share. They paid a farmer at the beginning of the season for a share in the crop, the farmer had “seed” money for the season and the subscribers shared the benefits and risks of each growing season. subscribers are co-producers and often volunteer on farms and they receive a box of farm-fresh produce weekly throughout the growing season.
When Shaun and Sonia heard that Otto was downhearted and thinking of giving up fishing Sonia came up with the idea that the CSA model they had enjoyed in New York might work for fisheries in Vancouver. Sonia talked to a group called Farm Folk City Folk to ask about the intricacies of running a CSA and they created the first ever CSF. Since then there are many that have surfaced and it is becoming a way for fishermen to keep afloat.
Skipper Otto’s CSF got 43 subscribers their first year – all in Vancouver. With the 230 they got the next year they were able to employ a second boat. In 2011 they came to the Prairies looking for more customers and we met. My “food finder” report got them 50 Alberta subscriptions and they now have close to 400 across Alberta and Saskatchewan and they tell me they can handle up to 1200 from B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan as they now have several small-scale fisheries boats lined up to work with them. Here are a few of the faces of Skipper Otto’s.
All of the boats that work with them have to be certified Ocean Wise™. Here’s a few ways Skipper Otto’s gill netter – Omega V – earned that designation. The gill net is set so that only the species of fish desired will get caught. Skipper Otto only fishes during the day, at 100 fathoms deep, with a quarter of a mile wide net that will only catch moving fish. A good catch is 300 salmon which are all removed by hand, cleaned and stored in iced sea water on board. If there is any by-catch (fish he’s not supposed to catch) there is a specially designed fish revival unit on board.
Memberships in Skipper Otto’s CSF start at $100.00 plus some basic fees. In past years, members have had access to whole salmon (sockeye, spring, chum, and pink); sashimi grade salmon fillets (all species); a variety of smoked, candied, and canned salmon products; sashimi grade albacore tuna loins; halibut fillets; spot prawns, side striped shrimp and Dungeness crab. For the 2014 season, they may be able to add lingcod and sablefish fishermen.
Once you purchase a share, you “buy-down”. In my family we eat a lot of fish. I was raised on the stuff as my grandfather had a wholesale/retail fish market and my father fished the east coast ground fish banks for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. I buy a $500 share each year and each time I connect with Skipper Otto I can take however much I’d like from their inventory to a $500 total. Each item is assigned a competitive price based on that year’s fishing and transport costs.
I had a distinct advantage going into this proposition because I spent time interviewing the Strobels and realized what good honest people they were. I knew they would come through and the only draw back to the program is that a person really has to own a freezer to be part of the CSF and while Vancouver subscribers can choose to pick their fish up fresh weekly at the docks at Vancouver’s Granville Island/False Creek – those of us on the Prairies always had to wait till the fishing season was done and Shaun had time to bring frozen truck loads of fish in September to December in monthly boluses.
This is where the story gets even better.
There are now over 100 subscribers in Calgary, 90 in Edmonton, 28 in Peace Country and 6 in Jasper and for the first time we have a full-time employee of Skipper Otto’s here to provide a more frequent delivery of product.
Krysta Cowling has Degree in Biology from Simon Fraser University where she specialized in aquaculture fisheries. She is thrilled to work with a sustainable model of wild salmon and Ocean Wise™ fishing and she will be in charge of fish distribution at Crossroads Market in Calgary and every other week distribution in Edmonton. She’ll also be an educational ambassador and blog regularly on the fishing season’s progress as well.
And so like any good fish tale, the story grows with each telling. Skipper Otto’s CSF can accommodate 1200 subscriptions. They’ll be able to hire more fishermen. They are still very small-scale. A good season of sockeye salmon might mean 12 – 15,000 lbs per boat. But that fish is destined for people who want to support well-managed sustainable fishing methods. It’s small but its a start and just like a story out of The Bible – these fishermen are multiplier to feed the masses.