Local entrepreneur pioneers community-supported fishery model

“I didn’t expect it, but I really enjoy that part of it is getting to know who eats the fish that we catch.”

When Cowichan Bay commercial fisherman Guy Johnston heads out fishing this season on his 40-foot-long boat the Michelle Rose, he will already know who will eat the catch. That’s because 10 years ago he created the region’s first, and thus far only, community-supported fishery.

CSFs are younger cousins to community-supported agriculture programs, where farms typically provide members with a weekly box of produce. Instead of farm-to-table, CSFs are boat-to-fork as people prepay a fisherman for a share of the year’s catch of seafood. Last year, 330 people, mainly from Cowichan and greater Victoria, bought shares in the Michelle Rose Community Supported Fishery, Johnston says. 

According to Johnston, he’d probably be out of the salmon side of his business if not for the CSF. “What the CSF has done is given me security,” Johnston says. “I’m not sitting for three months down on the boat trying to sell my product a few pounds at a time.”

A need for a new fishing model

The 65-year-old Cowichan Bay resident has been selling fish to people in the region for more than 30 years. Johnston, whose family has long roots in the Cowichan Valley farming community, was raised in Vancouver where a high school teacher got him hooked on fishing. He became a commercial fisherman and eventually moved to Vancouver Island in 1990.

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Back in the day, he would tie up at the wharf in Cowichan Bay and not be able to go fishing again until he could sell all his catch. There wasn’t much walk-by traffic, and it wasn’t uncommon for consumers who had arranged to meet him at the boat not to show up. It wasn’t an efficient way of doing things, Johnston recalls. 

When the Japanese market for local prawns exploded in the early 1990s, he and other fishermen gained some financial security by committing to deliver all their prawns to wholesalers for export. However, he says the standard practice was to borrow money from a wholesaler to pay for rigging, traps and other items in the offseason, and this dependency on a single company made him uncomfortable. 

He was also troubled by the impact on the environment and the local community. “It became very difficult to buy prawns [locally], and it didn’t seem right to me — the carbon footprint of shipping all my prawns to Japan,” he says.

At the same time, he says he was noticing how climate change and diseases introduced by fish farms were depleting stocks of migratory juvenile salmon. The rise of the fish farms as well as market consolidation kept prices of wild salmon low, reducing profit margins for fishermen.

Michelle Rose Community Supported Fishery
Guy Johnston and crew member Jordan Lambeth aboard the Michelle Rose. Courtesy of Guy Johnston

Johnston figured there must be another way of doing business. He knew about community-supported agriculture, and wondered if it could work for fish. Prior to the 2011 fishing season, he asked his friends John and Katy Ehrlich of Alderlea Farm about their successful CSA. “They explained to me the idea of paying ahead of time so you really knew that somebody was going to come show up at the farm, or in my case the boat,” Johnston recalls.

He says the Michelle Rose CSF is organized around a set of principles he borrowed from the Ehrlichs — balancing society, nature and the economy. “Without actively looking to balance these three factors we don’t have a healthy society, nature or economy,” Johnston explains. 

He looked online to see if anyone had created a community-supported fishery, and discovered a handful. Many were located on the East Coast, including one that claims to be the first CSF, established in 2007 in Maine. Johnston spoke with some of the CSFs and learned the ins and outs of how they worked, he says.

The community-supported fishery is an instant hit

Although he was unsure if it was going to work for him, Johnston launched his CSF in 2011. Through word of mouth, he was able to sign up 60 members that first year, Johnston says.

“It was very apparent after that first year that this [the CSF] would make a significant difference,” he says. “By having the money up front … I was not having to go to the company to borrow money. So it’s real independence, which is important.”

Because of this success, in 2012 Johnston bought a larger boat, the Michelle Rose, named after his wife and daughter. He also bought a northern salmon fishing licence, which allows him to fish for salmon every year. He says that in southern B.C. waters, there is only a good run of sockeye every four years, with the next expected in 2022.

With the CSF, Johnston is able to sell his catch at consumer prices. By stabilizing his income from salmon fishing, the CSF enables Johnston to have a much longer fishing season, which is crucial in helping him retain crew, Johnston says. He usually has three crew members for prawn season and two for salmon. “The CSF was just night and day in terms of having a real impact.”

All of the salmon and about 10-to-15 per cent of the prawns he catches goes to the CSF. The bulk of his prawns goes to China and Japan, but especially because the markets there for prawns collapsed last year due to the pandemic, Johnston says he hopes to increase the percentage of prawns that go to the CSF this year. 

In addition to shrinking his carbon footprint due to less reliance on overseas shipping, the CSF contributes to local food security, Johnston says.

“The ocean is a real integral part of food security and CSF is a great way to enjoy that bounty,” he says. “It’s really important that the community does understand what fishing is like, what the challenges are like, and to be able to put a more realistic view of where their food comes from.”

How it works

Each winter, before any fish are caught, members order and pay for the shares they want of that year’s catch. 

Members choose from several options, including a combined full- or half-share of prawns and salmon, salmon-only or prawn-only shares as well as octopus and smoked salmon shares. Members must order a minimum of $150 in shares.

The deadline for ordering shares is when Johnston heads out, usually in late March or early April, for prawn fishing. While Johnston is at sea, his friend Larry Lenske, who helps with data and logistics for the CSF, is available if members have any questions. 

Throughout the spring, Johnston and his crew use traps to catch prawns along the central coast and the north end of Vancouver Island. All of his catch is frozen at sea, and sometime around late June he comes back and sets a time for members to pick up their prawn shares in either Cowichan Bay or Sidney.  

After a short break, it’s salmon season. The Michelle Rose heads north most years, from the Johnstone Strait to the Alaska border, to catch various species of salmon as well as rockfish and lingcod. He catches the fish with hook and line, which Johnston says is considered a low-impact method.

Members receive a few weeks’ notice of distribution dates in late summer or early fall for shares of whole salmon and salmon fillets, followed by a date in late fall for shares of smoked salmon. Often, Johnston will have extra catch, which he sells to members as well as the public. There is often quite a lineup on the dock as he fills individual orders from large coolers on the boat. The distribution is something he’s come to appreciate.

“At first, I’ll be honest, I was a bit nervous to be meeting all these people,” Johnston explains. “I didn’t expect it, but I really enjoy that part of it is getting to know who eats the fish that we catch.”

Pandemic fuels interest in CSFs

Johnston has been talking up the benefits of CSFs with other fishermen for a decade, but despite some interest, he says that until recently no one locally followed in his footsteps. He explains that when he started his CSF, most of the local salmon fishermen were older than him and didn’t feel they had the technical skills to run a CSF.

But last year, the uncertainty around access to markets due to the COVID-19 pandemic convinced at least six younger fishermen in other parts of Vancouver Island to set up their versions of a CSF, Johnston reports. He says that this has worked out well for these fishermen, providing “some real stability.”

Last year was also a banner year for the Michelle Rose CSF, as more than 100 new members signed up. According to Johnston, he has yet to scratch the surface of the many people in Cowichan and Victoria interested in local seafood. If there is continued growth in salmon shares, Johnston says he will consider recruiting a local fisherman to partner with him.

“The biggest lessons that I have learned is that you can do things in a different way and that with community support they can work,” Johnston says. “I think people are hungry for doing things in a sustainable way in all parts of their lives and the CSF is just one small part of that.” [end]

This Food For Thought article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights/RBC. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.

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