Local seafood? No thanks, I’m from Ontario

October 28, 2009

Guelph Mercury, 28/10/09trout

In Ontario, we like to say the more local, the better. Unless it comes from the sea.

We want our beef to be raised within 100 miles or less. We want to know the cow’s mother, what she ate, and how she voted in the last election. We howl when someone tries to pass off American apples or Mexican lettuce as Ontario-grown at local farmers’ markets. And heaven forbid if our wines contain grapes grown in any place other than the Niagara Peninsula. Heck, we throw people in jail for lying to us about that.

But when it comes to locally grown fish, seafood gets a pass. Ontarians still seem to value more exotic fish over the backyard variety. Local rainbow trout? How quaint. But Chilean trout? Ooooh.

“There’s always been a bit of snob factor around farmed seafood,” Patrick McMurray, owner of the Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill in Toronto, told me at a recent industry expo he hosted to address this problem.

Sure, we’ve long caught fish in the Great Lakes. But the solution to getting more local fish on Ontario tables won’t come from more fishing boats on Lake Huron or Lake Erie. It will come from cages.

You might not know it, but Ontario has a farmed seafood industry. But rainbow trout, its prized pink-fleshed product—often mistaken for salmon—is still flying under the radar. Many consumers, assuming Ontario doesn’t produce much farmed fish for seafood counters, don’t bother checking or thinking about where the fish they buy comes from.

The Northern Ontario Aquaculture Association says it had sales in the range of $51 million in 2007. But it’s still a very small fish competing with some very big sharks for grocery store space. Chile’s farmed fish exports, by comparison, are over $3-billion. That includes over $480 million in trout alone, the fish that Ontario’s aquaculture industry is pinning its hopes on.

Ontario also grows talipia, Arctic char and bass—but you can bet most of those varieties at your local seafood counter don’t come from Canada’s largest province, either. And if consumers don’t ask, grocers won’t switch.

Natural Resources Minister Donna Cansfield thinks the ‘go local’ craze in food means a golden opportunity for Ontario aquaculture. She says she wants to make it easier for the province’s fish farmers to grow their operations. The first step, the industry says, is reducing some of the over two dozen separate pieces of regulation and legislation they say says makes it incredibly difficult and slow to add new cages.

But reducing bureaucracy won’t be the only challenge. The Ontario farmed fish industry knows it has image work to do if it succeeds with plans to expand. Some environmentalists don’t want to see the industry grow, spreading concerns over pollution, impact on wild species and exposure to disease. And many land owners, especially those around Manitoulin Island where most of province’s fish farms are located, want unbroken shoreline vistas, not miles of cages off their beaches.

But fish farmers have a good story to tell, too: When you raise fish in a cage, you help reduce overfishing. And farmed fish is the future, according to the United Nations, which says global seafood consumption is growing by almost nine per cent a year. Half of the seafood eaten around the world is farmed, and we can’t grow it fast enough.

We accept land-based farming as a fact of life in Ontario. But while pioneers first plowed fields hundreds of years ago, commercial fish farming has only been around for a few decades.

Consumers, it seems, still need time to think about it.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

3 Responses to Local seafood? No thanks, I’m from Ontario

  1. Bob Russell on November 3, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    When you farm seafood in the ocean you introduce all kinds of bacterium that often spread to native fishes. The decline of Atlantic salmon that Canada and the USA have spent millions on is directly linked in part to the native fish picking up various ailments from crowded salmon in fish farms. Fish farms in ponds on land–good idea usually–in the ocean usually a bad idea.

  2. Steve Haid on November 3, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Hello Greg. Great article!I’m a food service distributor. I live in Guelph and my company is based in Missississauga. We sell to medium and high end restaurants in Toronto, Niagara on the Lake, Muskoka area, Guelph, Stratford and KW. I think the 100 mile menu concept is well intentioned. As you said a lot of the fish and all of the seafood products are well beyond 100 miles. We have quite a few products such as chicken, beef, rabbit, elk, red deer, quailetc that are local. Which made me smile when I heard of a food distribution compnay named “100 Mile Foods” that started up about 2 years ago. I thought it was a joke. What chef would fall for this marketing BS, I thought, but they do business. As far as fish, we purchase farm raised artic charr from the Yukon owned by a Waterloo based company, that’s local right! Also farm raised Alaskan Black Cod, farm raised Halibut, Nova Scotia and farm raised organic King Salmon, Tofino, BC. As you stated, people turn their noses up at farm raised fish, so say naturally raised, which it is. These fish are antibiotic, hormone free and environmentally sustainable. They are probably better than wild. But damn, their not local, they are Canadian. That’s good right!

  3. Mike Nagy on November 9, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Re: Sorry Charlie – Sea It’s Not So – Oct. 28

    In response to Greg Mercer’s opinion column regarding aquaculture and the insinuation that it is a potential answer to a food and or fishing deficit, I’m concerned people will get the wrong impression.

    Farm fishing on a large scale is not ecologically responsible. That aside, it should never be looked at as a substitute to community-based sustainable wild fisheries. There is no benefit to replacing one shortage with another. Intensive aquaculture requires large amounts of feed pellets and other types of food to produce adult fish. Far more inputs are needed than the end product’s weight. Where does this fish food come from? Most often it comes from other fish that are being caught unsustainably, specifically for the fish-feed market.

    I am currently doing a master’s thesis on this specific topic, as the collapse and abandonment of rural fishing communities around the world is having devastating effects on people and their local economies. It is a tragedy that has been ignored for far too long and it needs to be reversed.

    Why is this happening? It’s because corn has a vote and fish do not. Governments, especially in North America, have not defended local fishing communities, or the marine habitats that have sustained us for generations. Their focus has been on promoting a large-scale corn monoculture that has been degrading land and water systems due to the vast chemical inputs.

    Mercer’s column fuels one of my worst fears and that is a growing attitude in society that there is nothing we can do to save our wild fisheries and that, therefore, fish farming is the answer. The solution is and will always remain using our natural resources responsibly, restoring and enhancing fish habitats, supporting healthy local rural communities which include marine- based ones, and that our insatiable appetite for below-cost protein is, ironically, robbing us of long-term food security.

    This race to the bottom approach must end.

    Mike Nagy, Rockwood

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