There is no place in Canada that is more fish obsessed than Newfoundland and Labrador, and by fish I mean cod. Newfoundlanders love cod so much that they changed the definition of "fish" to mean "cod."
But oddly enough, in a place so crazy for fish, there isn't a lot of locally caught stuff around. That's because most of it is exported, and chefs—the people who, more than anyone else, want to buy directly from fishermen—have been prohibited from doing so by the provincial Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture, which only allowed them to buy fish from processing facilities.
That is, until this week.
"Individual consumers and restaurants will be able to legally purchase fish directly from harvesters throughout Newfoundland and Labrador thanks to regulatory changes enacted today under the Fish Inspection Act and Food Premises Act to allow the direct selling of fish," the Ministry announced in a statement Wednesday.
I never knew nothing about this, not being able to sell my own fish to my own restaurant.
Prior to September 29, chefs were unable to buy their scallops or snow crab from a local fisherman; they were forced to order through a processing plant. Because of this prohibition, chefs and fishermen were unable to build relationships that would lead to an inshore fishery providing local catch to local markets. It's hard to imagine living in a coastal city and not being able to get your hands on some fish fresh off the boat.
"We'd see other Canadian chefs getting product direct from fishers, like Rob Clark in Vancouver buying spot prawns and halibut fresh off the boat from the Organic Ocean crew. That's enviable," says Jeremy Bonia, sommelier and co-owner of Raymonds, the St. John's restaurant that has put Newfoundland on the culinary map. It's drawn attention in recent years from Giles Coren, the New York Times, and Fool Magazine.
Arlene Stein is a Canadian food activist and the founder of this country's largest food symposium, Terroir, which takes place in Toronto every spring. She wanted to shine some light on the strange situation in Newfoundland, so she pulled together a group of chefs and journalists from all over the world and took them all, myself included, to St. John's, Newfoundland's capital city, in May. Titled "One Fish" and convened at the annual symposium, Stein's gathering included people from places as diverse as Minneapolis, Sweden, Baltimore, and Spain. We sat down with local fishermen and chefs, as well as people from the Department of Fisheries.
On that same trip, we visited Chafe's Landing, where our group was served fish and chips made with fish straight from the owner's own fishing boat. "I never knew nothing about this, not being able to sell my own fish to my own restaurant," said Todd Chafe, a fisherman, restaurant owner, and sixth-generation Newfoundlander, as he recounted how he's been supplying his own fresh-caught cod to his restaurant. "I've been doing it for seven years and never knew I couldn't. Then one day last year, the provincial inspector come in and asks my wife where she's getting the fish from, and she said, 'My husband just caught it this morning.' He told her she wasn't allowed to do that, that she couldn't buy fish off of me or off any fisherman. That was news to us. Eight years in business, first time we heard tell of it."
The inspector's visit was only a few days before the cod fishing season was over, and Chafe had already fished his quota, so there were no repercussions at that time. But Chafe is now out fishing again; until Wednesday, he had no idea whether he'd get caught for selling his own fish to his own restaurant.
"I don't know what I'm gonna do. I might take my chances like I did every other year or I might sell it to a processor and buy it back," he told me at the time. I asked him why he was talking so openly about doing something illegal.
"You never hear anything about this on the news, but it's all us fishermen talk about. I want to get everyone talking about it. I'd like the powers that be to talk to the fishermen instead of sitting in their ivory towers and thinking they knows everything."
If you offer an old-timer some squid they'll just give you the fucks. 'What the fuck is that? I'm not eating that! Fuck!'
After our meeting and subsequent time spent in Newfoundland, this issue did make the news; the Globe and Mail alone ran three different articles that stemmed from that trip.
"It's something that we have been asking for, for the last number of years, and I truly believe, with the most recent activities through Terroir and the roundtable discussions here in NL, the government actually listened," says Jeremy Charles, chef and co-owner of Raymonds.
"One of the great things about being a chef on the coast of any country is your ability to go down to the docks and buy directly from the fishermen. I have dozens of fishermen that offer me really interesting and different species," says Ned Bell, chef at the Four Seasons in Vancouver and one of the chefs who participated in the discussion this past spring. "I can pay a fisher true value for his catch by paying him directly. When you buy after the middlemen have been involved, the fishermen are not getting the price they need."
Kyumin Hahn, former sous chef at Raymonds and now head chef at its sister restaurant, The Merchant, told me his main reason for moving to Newfoundland from Toronto was the hunting and the fishing. "That was the biggest draw. Besides cooking, my life revolves around hunting and fishing."
He's excited about the new amendments, saying, "It's going to open up doors for everyone else in town, also for tourists. Chefs can start asking for different species of fish—like sea urchin, razor clams, herring, mackerel. The fishermen don't bother with those because they can't sell 35 mackerel to a processing plant, but now they can find a customer."
"Out here," explains Hahn, "the old-timers, they only eat codfish. The only thing they know that comes out of the ocean is cod. But we do have young people here, too, and they want fresh squid, or turbot, or smoked herring. If you offer an old-timer some squid they'll just give you the fucks. 'What the fuck is that? I'm not eating that! Fuck!'" He laughs and continues, "It's a big win. Now, finally, I can have some variety and I can get it direct."
It's been a long time coming; these rules have been in place since the 1950s, but maybe it was as simple as getting everyone into a room and hashing it out, exposing the stupidity of the whole situation as seen through the eyes of outsiders that finally gave the government the kick it needed to make these changes.
Chafe is now free to sell his own cod to his own restaurant, Charles can get fresh whelks before they're frozen and shipped to Japan, and Hahn can serve his squid and razor clams to the young crowds that are clamouring for a break from the old-timers and their neverending plates of cod. And they can all do it in straightforward transactions with no middle-men. As the old-timers would say when referring to things done right, "You've got'er scaled!"