Breaking the Commodity Curse

Superstitions abound among Atlantic Canada’s small-scale fishermen. Whistling on board can bring on a gale, while a mere mention of pigs- let alone snacking a pork product whilst at sea- threatens a trip to Davy Jones’ Locker. But only one bit of mojo really matters: It’s the commodity curse.

And there’s only one way to break it. If we care about local seafood and healthy, resilient coastal communities, the way we buy and sell fish here has to change.

Atlantic Canada is home to some of the world’s best sustainable seafood. We’ve got bottom longlined haddock and halibut, trap-caught shrimp, harpooned swordfish, dive-caught scallops, hand-dug clams, freshly jigged mackerel and so much more. But in part because of perverse global economics- a.k.a. the commodity curse- you can find better seafood in Detroit than you can in Halifax. Worse, the small-scale fisheries that provide this incredible bounty don’t have access to a regional or local market, and independent fishermen are finding it harder and harder to stay in business. Fish has become a commodity. And to some, fishing has become a curse.

In the old days, fishermen would hold onto some of the choicest bits of the day’s catch to share, trade or sell within their immediate community. The rest of the catch would be scooped up by a local buyer who would offer premium fresh fish to the local and regional markets and send salted and dried products to distant markets. The two markets were separate- a drop in demand in the distant market would have no effect on the price of fish in the local one.

Nowadays though, most Atlantic Canadian seafood becomes a global commodity the moment it comes out of the water (and in some case, before it is even caught). It slides right into the global seafood supply chain, a long, slippery trip that competes on low prices, requires large volumes, and breaks any meaningful connection between the people who catch fish and the people who eat it. Until very recently, Chedabucto Bay trap-caught shrimp were simply lumped in with their more plentiful trawled counterparts and sold at commodity prices, despite superior quality and sustainability. With such low prices, the easy option is to ‘make it up on volume’ – draggers and seines scoop up enormous amounts of fish (and anything unlucky enough to get caught in the neighbourhood) and dump it onto the market while low-volume, low-impact gears get squeezed out.

The curse of the seafood supply chain also drives most value-added processing to far-flung places. Regional processing of high-value seafood makes sense, but the incredible volume of cheap fish being landed makes our “high” labour costs uncompetitive. Consolidated lots of fish make local processing inefficient and these days, a haddock landed in the Bay of Fundy may have traveled all the way to China and back before it appears back at the Digby Superstore.

Only a small part of our locally caught seafood makes the long trip back. This leaves us with supermarket seafood displays full of Vietnamese shrimp and local groundfish that traveled far too far. Few of our farmer’s markets offer local seafood at all. Meanwhile our succulent Chedabucto Bay trap caught shrimp and dive-caught urchins are for the most part shipped directly to the premium Japanese markets, while the entire harpooned swordfish catch goes to the American Whole Foods chain.

Another rub of this commodity curse is that it tends to corner fishermen as ‘price takers.’ Because the buyers and sellers along the supply chain rarely share information, fishermen rarely know what price the final consumer has paid for their catch. This makes it difficult for fishermen to negotiate a fair price. Local prices are set with reference to Boston auctions and our fishermen feel the impact. If a forklift runs over a pallet of halibut in Boston, the wharf price in Yarmouth drops accordingly.

To stay afloat and contribute to a regional food system, our small-scale fisheries need to break this “commodity curse.’ But of course, this kind of curse can’t be broken with chants, incantations or positive thinking. Or even blog posts.

Small-scale fishermen need a viable market alternative- namely, a regional value chain. In a value chain, seafood products don’t compete merely on price. Rather, their value is held by the stories shared along the chain- of fishing families, communities and stewardship- along with the traceability and integrity of the chain itself. (More about how regional value chains for seafood might look in Atlantic Canada in a future post.)

Regional value chains create good mojo and help empower small-scale fisheries, bolster rural employment and support community development. Unfortunately, Ecology Action Centre’s recent assessment of Nova Scotia’s regional seafood value chain found that we simply don’t have one.

Changing the way we buy and sell fish in Atlantic Canada is a real piece of work. There’s no magic bullet answer, no one-size-fits-all solution, or catchy slogan that will build regional markets, distribution, and processing infrastructure. Which means that for those of us who care about, good, clean, fair seafood, we need to really put our heads together to figure out how to help build new regional value chains. We need to pinpoint the best opportunities to push, invest in and develop regional seafood value chains in Atlantic Canada.

And as consumers, we need to do our part in breaking the commodity curse. When buying seafood, ask these questions: Where was it caught? How was it caught? When was it caught? Who caught it? Where was it processed? Seek out sustainably harvested seafood, and be ready to pay a premium for it. Expect seasonality. Consider joining a Community Supported Fishery, or try to buy your seafood from the mobile fish vendors you see on the side of the road.

Sadie Beaton has been working on various sustainable fisheries and coastal conservation projects for the past decade or so with Ecology Action Centre, Nova Scotia’s largest environmental organization. Most recently, she has been administering a new Atlantic Canadian fisheries blog.

Despite major shifts, small-scale fishing is still the anchor for many of our communities. But do most of us even know who our small-scale fishermen are? What IS small-scale? And what is the future of our fisheries as we re-imagine rural economies in the 21st century? As we dive into untold tales, foggy assumptions and tricky questions, hope you’ll join the conversation.

This article by Sadie Beaton was orriginally published on


Find out more about Slow Fish, Slow Food’s international campaign for sustainable fishing at

Watch this space for more information about the Slow Fish event to be held in Genoa, Italy from May 9 to 12.

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