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Catch with a conscience

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Halifax Chef Andrew Farrell and his partner Meghan Macdonald enjoy their own backyard fish fry. Andrew grills up a rainbow trout and ladels up his favourite fish soup with seafood procured at his local fishmonger. Photo: Bruce Murray, Visionfire

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The East Coast enjoys a rich haul of sustainable seafood—just treat it with respect

Atlantic Canada produces a smorgasbord of sustainable seafood. Finding it just requires doing a little research and asking questions.

“There’s a degree of education that we all have to grapple with,” says Halifax Chef Andrew Farrell. “My family was from Newfoundland originally, so I remember stories of the cod fishery collapsing and just seeing an example of how overfishing can really devastate a place. Keeping that in mind and trying not to go back down that path, it’s important to have these conversations about sourcing and sustainability.”

Small seafood purveyors and fishers themselves are often great sources for information about both ecological and economic concerns.

Fogo Island Fish launched in 2015. The business is part of eight-generation Fogo Islander Zita Cobb’s charitable empire that’s reviving the fortunes of the Newfoundland island. It buys cod caught by the traditional hand-lining method and pays local fishers double the market rates for their catch. The fish is served at the charity’s Fogo Island Inn eco-resort and at high-end restaurants in Toronto and Ottawa.

Once a customer, Chef Taylor McMeekin recently took over operations of the fish business from Zita Cobb’s brother Tony Cobb and his wife Janice Thomson. “Even though I’m a landlocked Ontarian, it’s nice to be able to bring in fish of that high quality and with the moral purpose of supporting the community and helping keep these fisheries going,” says McMeekin.  

He acknowledges the cod fishery is still in moratorium: “I won’t mince words about that. What’s different about the fish we purchase is it’s hand-line only, so there is zero bycatch. It’s one hook, one fish. We’re going back to the historic method of fishing, which is definitely the best for our populations.”

The business doesn’t market its fish in Atlantic Canada. “We believe other local cod fisheries need to be supported by their communities,” says McMeekin. “It would be detrimental for us to come in. We would love to see these fisheries adopt some of the same practices and values, and I think they already do that.” 

To find sustainably caught cod in this region, check labels for stamps of approval from the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program (the not-for-profit also has an app) or the Marine Stewardship Council. These programs are designed to help consumers make informed choices on sustainably sourced seafood. Small, independent fishmongers often embrace sustainable sourcing and best practices. Restaurateurs should also be able to answer questions about the fish they’re serving.

The King of Fish

Restaurant menus and grocery store shelves teem with Atlantic salmon, AKA the king of fish. All of it is farmed, since the wild fishery closed in 1948 after decades of overfishing. 

But not all farms are created equal. 

The open net pens that proliferate in this area score low marks for sustainability. They pump massive amounts of pollution into oceans. They add chemicals, antibiotics, and dyes to the fish food. Sea lice and other diseases are common. And escapes allow the farmed salmon to breed with the all-but-extinct wild population, further diminishing that population by changing its DNA. 

Sustainable Blue has taken a different tack with its fish farm in Port Williams, N.S. CEO Kirk Havercroft says the company is the largest land-based salmon farm in Canada and, to his knowledge, the only saltwater recirculating fish farm anywhere in the world that doesn’t discharge wastewater back into the ocean.

The zero-discharge, in-land model is working, he says. “In the future, that would allow us to take these facilities away from the ocean altogether and move them inland, closer to the markets they serve and away from sensitive coastal areas.” 

Havercroft, a U.K. native who moved to Nova Scotia in 2007 to help get Sustainable Blue off the ground, says it’s “a tragedy” that Atlantic salmon has become a commodity: “A wild salmon is a spectacular fish and an incredible protein.” Instead of feed made of ground-up chicken and other cheap products, Sustainable Blue tries to replicate how wild fish eat and live.  

Havercroft recalls inviting a local chef for an informal taste test a few years ago between his product and a package of salmon from a grocery store in nearby Windsor, N.S. “There is a different taste and a flavour profile and texture and density to the flesh. The chef himself said to everyone around the table that the store bought one, if you just let it cool down to room temperature, will definitely smell something like a chicken breast.” 

To reel in customers, Sustainable Blue must sell them on the idea that the attributes justify a higher price. In the early days, the company handled that job in-house, but in the past five years has handed off the marketing and sales responsibilities to Afishionado.

Hana Nelson launched Afishionado in 2014, selling sustainably farmed and fished seafood from a counter inside a local grocer in North End Halifax. Now based in a Bedford warehouse, the business serves restaurants, retailers, and home-cooks. 

Chad Poirier came aboard early this year, turning his fish-smoking hobby into a full-time gig. 

As the world slowed to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, he was smoking fish at home the same way scads of others were baking sourdough bread. At the same time, Sustainable Blue was up to the gills in hungry teenaged salmon ready to be harvested as restaurant sales slumped.  

Nelson, a long-time friend, dropped a salmon off for Poirier to smoke. That turned into dozens more after he lost his job with an aquaculture start-up. Now he’s full-time perfecting what’s touted as the first all-sustainable line of smoked fish products in the Maritimes.

“If you go to any restaurant with smoked salmon and asked them where the fish came from, they don’t know,” says Poirier. “It might be from Norway. Or it might just be from New Brunswick.” 

The Sustainable Blue salmon has the right fat content and good consistent colour, he says. “The flavour is great when it comes out,” he adds. “I’ve got people that come in here and I’ll throw them a little sample. The most lukewarm compliment I’ve received so far is, ‘It’s as good as the best smoked salmon I’ve ever had.’”

The B.C. native says he grew up eating smoked fish and is excited to help revive the tradition in Nova Scotia. The province was once so famous for the smoked salmon it shipped to New York that it’s still known as
Nova lox. 

“One of the biggest travesties is that most people who eat meat or fish like smoked salmon and nobody in Nova Scotia knows about this chunk of pretty important history,” says Poirier. “So we’re trying to bring it back, the same way as Afishionado as a whole is trying to bring back the small scale, hand-line, small production—artisanal if you want to call it. These are all things that used to exist way more than they do now and we’re trying to extend a lifeline.”

A New Twist on Tinned Sardines

Jordan McIntyre was inspired to start her canned smoked fish business by her great grandmother, who travelled from West Chezzetcook, N.S. through the night by horse and wagon to sell her fish at a stand at the Halifax Farmers Market. McIntyre named her new Charlottetown-based company Mary Mannette, after her great grandmother. 

“I wanted to honour her work as a woman in seafood and brand the business around her story,” says McIntyre, who had a previous career in publishing and as a senior business analyst with the federal government.

She came up with the idea to start the tinned fish business after seeing the growing popularity of craft canned seafood produced in Spain and Portugal. “There’s a movement away from the Bumble Bee mass-produced product,” she says. “I noticed a number of restaurants in New York and Boston were specializing in serving smoked tinned seafood.”

Some sell for $50 a tin and have characteristics not unlike wine, with terroir and vintage part of the flavour profile and price, she says. The Made in Canada brand is strong. So she thought, why not?

Her hand-packed tinned mussels, oysters and herring are infused with brines and natural woodsmoke. Sustainability is “super important” to the company, says McIntyre. “If you’re someone trying to reduce the carbon footprint of your protein choices, tinned seafood is almost always top of the list.”

Tinned seafood typically generates very little waste. “If you think about shipping mussels, a lot of what you’re shipping is the shell, which is really just waste. With our product, 90% of what the consumer gets is consumed,” she says. “Fresh seafood has a lot of waste in the restaurant industry and with the home consumer because it goes bad so quickly and the heightened concerns around spoilage.”

Mussels are one of the best choices for sustainability, she says. “They don’t need to be fed. They actually clean the water.”

Smoked herring, sourced from the same waters off the east coast of Nova Scotia that her great grandmother relied on a century ago, is the top seller. But the company is also seeing strong demand with a limited production line of wild caught P.E.I. oysters. The catch has little market value other than for tinning because the shells are too tough to shuck seafood-bar style, she says.

McIntyre says people who like to entertain are fans of the products, which include a “seacuterie” kit. “It’s elegant, local and ready-to-go with no mess,” she says. “And they pair really well with wine.” 

A PhD in Sturgeon

On New Brunswick’s Saint John River, Cornel Ceapa and his wife Dorina own and operate one of the world’s last remaining legal wild and sustainable caviar-harvesting businesses. 

“We do wild and farming side by side,” says Ceapa, who started Acadian Sturgeon & Caviar after immigrating to New Brunswick from Romania with his wife and their son in 2005. “My dream is to have products as close as possible, wild and farmed.”

He says the problem with much of the world’s fish farming is that it’s done on an industrial scale, not unlike the chicken farms set up decades ago for quick, cheap, mass production. “We forgot that we have to have quality standards,” he says. “Customers have to accept that cheap food is not good and good food is not cheap.”

Ceapa harvests the caviar from sturgeon, a native New Brunswick species that dates back 200 million years. The supply was pushed to near extinction following an 1800s caviar rush. Now, the annual quota in New Brunswick for wild caught sturgeon is 350 fish: 175 female and 175 male. A farmed sturgeon isn’t ready for harvesting for 10 years, while wild fish can take 25 years to reach that level.

Ceapa has created a market for the entire fish, not just the caviar. “We sell the meat, we sell the skins, the heads. Very little gets wasted.” Most of his caviar goes to Canadian customers. He sold out for the first time this year. “My fridge was bare for two weeks,” he says.

Ceapa has a PhD in sturgeon biology and is active in trying to educate about the sustainability of the fish and other species by hosting “Sturgeon Safaris” and giving talks at chef schools. “We try to change the word a little bit from our small business,” he says. “We have fun doing it. When you walk the talk, it feels good.

Pinching Pennies 

Sustainable seafood isn’t known for being cheap, but bargains are out there. Skipping the supermarket and buying straight from a fisher can help save a few pennies and land you a fresher catch. Ask fishmongers for “offcuts.” “We always think of scallops being one beautiful, pristine thing,” says Farrell. “But the scallops damaged through processing sometimes need a home. Look for stuff like that. You don’t always need these beautiful big scallops.”

A smaller serving size saves money and helps save the planet. “We’re slowly moving away from the cultural standpoint of having a big chunk of protein on a plate,” says Farrell. “Does everybody need a six-ounce portion of salmon or is a nice, fileted rainbow trout going to do it?”

Switching Species

If your favourite fish is on the not-so-sustainable list, Farrell suggests swapping it for another, such as . smoked sturgeon for smoked mackerel. 

“There’s usually an alternative in the same family that might be a little bit more sustainable,” he says. “We love haddock. It’s in all of our fish and chips. Some places will have hake, which is a bycatch. Hop Scotch Dinner Club here in Halifax does a lot of foraging and local products and they have hake fish and chips on right now as part of their takeout.”

Farrell is a fan of crispy skin and his go-to fish instead of salmon are Arctic Char and rainbow trout, which are both farmed. “You don’t have to get too fussy with fish,” he says. “If you’ve got a great product, just treat it with respect and cook it simply.” 

East Coast Living