T he thick coral fillets of wild Arctic char are the earliest to arrive at Skipper Otto for the 2022 season. The fish comes all the way from Nunavut, pulled from frozen lakes by Inuit families using nets suspended beneath the thick blue ice, then driven by snowmobile to the community of Naujaat, where it’s flown to Winnipeg and trucked onward to Vancouver, eventually to land on West Coast plates. This is the first connection Skipper Otto, a community- supported fishery, has made with fishermen outside B.C., and the first Indigenous fishery to join forces with this unique enterprise, dedicated to keeping small independent fishing alive and selling fish directly from fishers to consumers. Sonia Strobel started Skipper Otto with her husband, Shaun, to help Shaun’s father, Otto, get a fair price for his fish. They created Canada’s first community supported fishery (CSF) in 2008, inspired by farm-based community supported agriculture (CSA). But unlike the typical weekly vegetable box, CSF members pay upfront at the beginning of the season, then use their credits to shop for seafood as it arrives from Skipper Otto’s harvesters. Because the fish is sold before it’s caught, the model removes the uncertainty faced by these fishers — they know the price they will be paid for the fish they catch, and that there is a guaranteed market for it. Skipper Otto began with a handful of small-scale B.C. fishers and has expanded to include 40 fishing families and 7,700 members, distributing a wide variety of local fish and shellfish — from salmon and halibut, to hake, prawns, mussels, oysters and wild B.C. pink scallops — across the country. The members-only online store lists what’s available to buy before its monthly distribution dates. Most of the product is sold frozen and shipped to partner grocers in several cities for pick up, but Vancouver customers can also get fresh seafood at Skipper Otto’s False Creek wharf “home port.” It’s a way to put a face on your food and send dollars directly to Canadian fish harvesters, or, as Strobel likes to say, it’s a way to “help communities build resilient food systems.” From sales to saviours There’s no doubt this CSF model offers benefits to producers and consumers, with shorter, traceable supply chains, reduced waste and a focus on seasonal, conscious consumption of sustainably caught seafood. But in the process of building Skipper Otto, Strobel has become the de facto voice for many small, independent fishing families in B.C., addressing issues from licensing and quotas to government regulations that often favour large corporate and offshore fishing companies over smaller owner-operators.
fishery, threatened by a sudden decision by DFO (the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans) to ban the long-time practice of tailing and freezing spot prawns at sea in the 24-ounce plastic tubs typically used for a pound of prawns. Strobel realized the ban would devastate the local spot prawn industry, prevent small harvesters from selling prawns directly to Canadian customers and effectively destroy some family businesses entirely, many that rely heavily on the income from this valuable fishery. She convened a spot prawn task force to address the issue, organized petitions and lobbied the federal government, resulting in a reprieve for prawn fishermen in 2021. The problem resurfaced just before Christmas last year, with another untenable proposed change to tubbing regulations from DFO. But Strobel sprung into action again, noting the proposed much smaller containers would “require more labour, fuel, plastic and other costs for fishers, driving up the cost of prawn tails to the public and driving many harvesters to abandon selling their prawns in domestic markets.” And after another round of petitions, letter writing and meetings with politicians, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray announced in January that “tubbing and freezing prawns at sea in our typical one-pound containers will be permitted for this season and beyond.” “I have taken up leadership roles on a bunch of advisory com- mittees and groups — that is my own work as an activist, as a social change agent, somebody who wants to bring about a better world,” she says. “But it’s also connected to the Skipper Otto the- ory of change, which is that we can’t produce a just and equitable seafood system if government doesn’t deliver on its promises to support coastal communities and good middle-class jobs. Listening 101 To that end, Strobel used the pandemic to launch a project she’s dubbed “a year of active listening.” She wanted to hear from more marginalized corners of the fishing community and understand Indigenous/non-Indigenous fishing relations. That discussion can be a thorny one among fishers, especially with dwindling fish populations, limited quotas and large-scale closures, whether the topic is West Coast salmon or East Coast lobster. Strobel says she embarked on her quest to understand the issues from both sides, after watching the violent confrontations between Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous commercial fishermen unfold in Nova Scotia last year. “As we were watching — actually horrified watching — the violence and destruction of property, people started asking us, is there a parallel on this coast?” she recalls. “Are there Indigenous/ non-Indigenous conflicts in fishing on this coast? Could that happen here?”
The latest cause to cross her path involves the B.C. spot prawn
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