by Karen Pinchin
photos by Jessica Emin
freshly shucked oyster is a miracle, with few more miraculous than a Little Shemogue. Small and slightly greenish, firm and creamy, sweet and complex with a bracing minerality, I first tasted one at a trendy seafood restaurant in Portland, Maine in 2014. Raised just off New Brunswick’s Tormentine Peninsula, the “Little Shem” is characteristic of the top-quality seafood that has earned Atlantic Canada an international reputation. Enthralled, I knew this oyster would make the perfect snack at a holiday party the following year. How hard could it be to buy some?
Pronounced shem-uh-gwee, from the Mi’kmaq name for the forked river running into the Northumberland Strait in southeastern New Brunswick, the oysters are packed by the Little Shemogue Oyster Company, only two hours from my home in Fredericton. Reaching then-general manager Paul Firminger on his cellphone one afternoon in November 2015, heavy machinery roared in the background, and I could tell he was definitely in the middle of something more pressing. For about 15 minutes he explained why he wouldn’t sell me the oysters I wanted. The problem was distribution. He’d sell them off the company’s doorstep, but otherwise his entire inventory was destined for Boston, the epicentre of the North American seafood trade. I accused him of provincial disloyalty; Firminger maintained he was a proud New Brunswicker.
Our exchange ended in a grudging compromise: a regional local food distributor would detour to Firminger’s family home in Sackville, New Brunswick, and transport my Little Shems to Fredericton in a refrigerated truck. A month later, to the delight of party guests lit by twinkling lights, I shucked hundreds of craggy oysters onto platters of crushed ice. “Where can I buy these?” they asked again and again, scooping mignonette with tiny spoons and squeezing lemon wedges. “Nowhere,” I answered.
Exporting seafood makes sense for Atlantic Canada: fish drew European colonial powers, eager to feed their hungry, growing empires, here in the first place. Today, the entire region contains a population of around 2.4 million—smaller than Toronto—and we couldn’t eat all the seafood landed here if we tried. Given the premium prices international buyers are willing to pay, the international seafood business keeps coastal communities like Firminger’s afloat, one paycheque, boat purchase, and gas-tank fill-up at a time.
But even in communities where seafood is landed onshore, the full bounty of Atlantic waters, the full range of species and varieties from exotic to commonplace, never makes it to local tables. Our culinary culture is undermined by an economic system that treats the region as little more than a producer of raw goods for bigger markets—a system in some ways little changed from the colonial era. A new generation of entrepreneurs, driven by rising interest in ethically harvested, locally caught food, should be rising to meet this demand, but they’re few and far between.
It shouldn’t be this hard. So why is it? This question sparked a long search into why food that ought to be part of Atlantic Canada’s culinary landscape is hard to find or missing entirely. It was a journey into a complex industry of fast walkers and big dreamers, cynics and idealists, where each answer led to a new question. Two winters after haggling over a box of oysters, it landed me on a boat floating on the Bay of Fundy, surrounded by half-naked men zipping themselves into diving gear.
ike Holland drives his blue truck directly onto a wooden-planked wharf and parks above the open ocean in St. George, New Brunswick. He jumps down onto the battered floors of Surchin IV, a boat he bought a few years ago from an ex-urchin diver in Nova Scotia. It’s a working fishing boat, with rainbow millefeuille layers of chipping paint, its deck packed with oxygen tanks and industrial plastic totes stacked into towers.
“Aren’t women bad luck on a boat?” I ask him, only half-joking. Holland considers the question, then waves a hand in the air like he’s shooing an insect. “These guys will come up with any excuse if they can get one.” He hits the throttle, and the Surchin IV turns and rumbles eastward. It’s a bright, blue-skied morning, and the choppy waves rattle our vision as we careen towards a herring weir running out from the rocky shoreline. We’re towing two small, white, flat-bottom skiffs that will be needed at the first dive site, a hundred or so metres offshore.
Once we arrive, the boat’s four divers—lanky, clean-cut, and ranging in age from late 20s to 40s—pull on dry suits, starting at the feet. The sealed suits fit over their t-shirts and sweatpants, but they leak and are prone to punctures (“sea urchins are all quill,” Holland says) so frigid, five-degree water often starts trickling in after a few minutes under. The divers haul on heavy oxygen tanks as Holland explains how each man is a small business, a contractor who owns his own gear and is responsible for maintenance and upkeep.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a small number of urchins were harvested in this area around Christmas, but the industry only took off in the late 1980s, responding to demand from Asia. Holland’s license is one of 18 for this area, but he says only six or seven are actively used. Some owners are getting old, and some don’t see the value in heading out on the water. While diving on Holland’s license, it’s every man for himself; the quantity and quality of urchins collected by each diver determines how much each makes that day. “If they suck, they suck,” says Holland. In addition to being the boat’s captain, Holland also dives himself for urchins, which are sold in bulk directly to local distributor Fresh Atlantic Seafoods.
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Holland’s tallest diver is Dany Fitzback, a broad-shouldered Québécois from Rivière-du-Loup, his back a tattooed mass of cornflower-blue barbed wire. If he looks like a professional fighter, that’s because he was one. He lives in New Brunswick every year during urchin season, which runs October to April. The rest of the time he dives for urchin in Quebec and teaches mixed martial arts. “He’s a monster,” says Holland. They call him the Green Machine—he can easily harvest 1,000 pounds of the spiny creatures a day if they hit the right sites. On his arm Fitzback wears a medieval-looking device, a modified metal rake designed to scrape urchins from the rocky sea floor.
Smaller scale fishermen like Holland operate within a few kilometres of the coast. This inshore fishery is overseen federally and regulated by a handful of cornerstone policies designed to protect fishermen from the corporate interests of foreign or multinational companies. One of those policies is fleet separation, which dictates that only fishermen—not processing companies or corporations—are allowed to hold and use fishing licenses. (Corporations that held fishing licenses before 1979, the year fleet separation was implemented, were grandfathered in and exempted.) Another policy requires that the holder or designate of a government-issued license—many of which are valued in the millions due to restricted supply—must be on a boat while it’s fishing. When the Surchin goes out, Holland must be aboard.
Today, the crew loads up the two skiffs with plastic bins and ropes strung with buoys and mesh bags, which the divers will tow as they scour the ocean floor. As the bags fill, the man running the skiff, who’s called the “tender,” ferries between his two divers, collecting urchins and keeping the hauls separate. When the bins fill up he speeds back to the Surchin and offloads what he has so far, careful to keep each diver’s bins clearly identified with coloured tape. Another worker, paid $120 a day to sort, flips bins out onto a plywood work surface, picks out urchins of legal size (two inches or larger) and pushes any smaller ones back into the ocean through a flap in the side of the boat. Each diver keeps 75 percent of the value of his haul, paying the rest to boat dues that go to the captain, the tender, and the sorter. For a quick quality test, Fitzback uses the tip of a gloved finger to poke through one urchin’s brittle shell. He’s looking for highly prized bright-orange roe that’s firm and tight-packed, not gooey. Anything less than seven percent roe isn’t worth landing, with better-quality urchins running around 10 to 12 percent.
Called uni in Japan, the cream-to-orange eggs of the green sea urchin are a luxury item—Food & Wine declared them “the new bacon” in 2014. Doing the math on how much a diver can make on a good day, Holland isn’t working with Canadian dollars. Here, the only currency that matters is American—Fresh Atlantic trucks every single urchin six hours to Portland, Maine, where they’re processed, packed, shipped by air freight, and sold within the week. Most go to Japan, with others flown to Europe and major North American cities.
This past March, when federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc proudly announced a new $325-million fisheries fund to help grow the region’s seafood sector, he didn’t make the announcement anywhere near a wharf or a processing plant. He made it at Halifax Stanfield International Airport, in front of a row of flags and behind four empty lobster boxes.
According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, nearly 60 percent of Canada’s seafood is bound for export. In 2016 alone, Canada exported $6.6 billion worth of seafood to more than 130 countries, with $4.4 billion coming from Atlantic Canada. Slightly more than half of the region’s exports go directly to the United States.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, as both Canadian and foreign-owned seafood companies consolidated, many used a legal loophole called a controlling agreement to take control of fisherman-owned licenses. In exchange for financing or cash payments, fisherman gave companies, often fish processors, decision-making power over who could buy their fish and who would buy their license if they wanted out.
So in 2007, the federal government brought in a policy called Preserving the Independence of the Inshore Fleet in Canada’s Atlantic Fisheries. The goal was to ensure that the wealth and value flowing from licenses held and controlled by individual fishermen like Holland remained in Atlantic Canadian communities. It gave fishermen who had signed controlling agreements seven years to get out of them or risk losing their licenses. Although the federal government started cracking down on offenders in 2015, the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters Federation has estimated that between 10 to 15 percent of licenses are still corporately controlled in southwest Nova Scotia. And despite the policy, many large corporations still retain de facto control over many fishermen.
In a region where corporate-controlled company towns are still within living memory, it’s a catch-22. Fishermen live in small communities, make their living off the sea, and are vulnerable to being ripped off by buyers, processors, and middlemen who market their catches. But those same middlemen are the reason they can make a living and stay in their communities. Whoever has the money has the power. And in the absence of provincial or federal policies helping to keep more high-quality seafood in Atlantic Canada, it shouldn’t be surprising when the highest bidder wins.
In this way, the urchin industry closely resembles that of other seafood products that will never appear in any Atlantic grocery store, destined to be sold wholesale to international buyers. New Brunswick’s $5.7-million sea urchin sector is a drop in a big, salty bucket compared to overseas markets for lobster, snow crab, shrimp, scallops, and Greenland turbot that comprise the majority of that $6.6 billion. But the takeaway remains the same: the most-prized catches often bypass Atlantic Canada completely.
Holland has yet to get rich from fishing. Some years are better than others, and it’s hard to predict if he’ll make enough for his annual vacation, or if he’ll have to cut small luxuries. To help keep profits predictable, Holland is working with another urchin diver and a group of local entrepreneurs to start an enhanced sea urchin project. They’ll harvest live urchins and transfer them to land-based tanks, where they’ll be fattened up and sold to a more lucrative, higher-end foreign market. It’s a risk, but one he thinks is worth taking.
Around lunchtime, standing under a heater fending off the late-winter chill, Holland chops one of Fitzback’s forest-green urchins in half with a weathered, foot-long curved blade. “You eat that?” asks one diver. “Wouldn’t touch it,” says another, wrinkling his nose. Holland opens an urchin and scoops out its bright, orange roe onto a plastic spoon and hands it to me. Fitzback watches me intently as I taste it. It’s smooth and briny, with mussel-like taste and caviar-like texture. I roll my eyes upward in the universal face for delicious, and he seems satisfied with my pleasure. Still, it’s hard to forget that I’m one of only a handful of Atlantic Canadians who will ever taste this delicacy, pulled from these local waters, landed on these local shores.
n any given day at an east-coast seafood counter, there might be filets of locally caught halibut, haddock, or farmed salmon alongside dark red tuna from the Philippines, rosy snapper filets from the United States, frozen scallops from India, and white shrimp from China. They might be surrounded by piles of Atlantic Canadian mussels, oysters, and occasionally frozen snow crab legs, but unless consumers read the small print, it’s hard to tell what’s regional.
While access to freshly caught seafood is a convenient tourism shtick, many Atlantic Canadian grocery stores and markets are as likely to sell imported, frozen product as they are fish from our own coastal communities. In a different expression of the same problem, even Halifax, the region’s largest city, is conspicuously lacking in the quaint roadside restaurants, bustling fish markets, and deep-fried chip stands that define other fish-famous cities like Boston and Portland, Maine. It was into this gaping hole in Halifax’s food scene that future fishmonger Hana Nelson saw an enticing opportunity.
Nelson wasn’t born into a fishing family. The child of two federal-government bureaucrats, she was born in Nova Scotia but raised in Ottawa. She’s long been interested in food production, studying food systems in France and Norway between 2009 and 2011, and taught herself to gut and clean fish by watching YouTube: Cut open the belly and scoop out the entrails, run a knife along the spine through the flesh, keep cuts smooth and close to the bone. Gutting is easy, she says, but she still struggles with the tiny pin bones in salmon filets that have to be painstakingly picked out with tweezers, one by one.
Nelson started Afishionado in 2014, as a simple ice-lined counter inside another local food store in Halifax’s North End. Despite being located in the centre of the largest city in Canada’s most famous seafood region, hers was then the only independent fishmonger on the Halifax peninsula. And she quickly encountered customers’ many seafood-buying quirks. If she didn’t have a brimming pile of fresh fish on display, customers were unlikely to buy anything at all. Some would head towards the counter, eyes alight, then glimpse her prices and turn on their heels. Two years later she closed the counter and transitioned the business to a box-order program. Afishionado runs special events throughout Halifax on weekends, and recently expanded, opening a fish-processing facility in Millbrook, just outside of Truro, where they process farmed salmon and trout, some shellfish, and other whole fish they’re able to legally acquire.
When starting out, Nelson drew inspiration from the idea of supporting smaller-scale regional fishermen like Holland, and filling what seemed like inexplicable gaps in what local customers can access.
Take swordfish: Most of the world’s swordfish are caught using longlines, which unintentionally kill vulnerable species such as sharks, turtles, and sea birds. Nova Scotia is the only Canadian province with an eco-friendly and sustainable harpoon-caught industry—but until Nelson came along, every single Nova Scotia swordfish not sold under the table was exported to the United States. This season, for the first time ever, a Halifax-based fish broker arranged for Afishionado to buy local swordfish to distribute as part of its box program.
Nelson says that operating a small, local business in a big, export-focused industry is not merely tough, but tougher than it needs to be. Because of a 1994 Nova Scotia provincial moratorium on processing licenses for groundfish—including halibut, cod, and flounder—Nelson is forced to buy hers from processors rather than buy directly from fisherman and process it herself. That means lost margins. “It’s a big boy’s game,” she says. Right now, when local processors aren’t willing to sell Afishionado haddock, pollock, or halibut, the business isn’t able to stock what should be a local product. “We’ve reached a scale that if we don’t see policy changes that allow us to scale, we won’t be able to continue to offer what we’re offering,” says Nelson.
There’s also the thorny issue of under-the-table sales. Nelson thinks many Atlantic Canadians have a distorted sense of the prices that the region’s world-class seafood should command—partially because many are accustomed to buying it from “a guy” in a dock sale, or off the side of the road. “Everybody seems to have this story of an uncle or a friend who sold them really cheap fish once, so they think it’s really cheap,” she says. East-coast lobster might be internationally famous, but grey-market sales have pushed prices so low that local customers aren’t willing to shell out for what lobster actually costs. “We have to pay for it to go through legitimate channels and legitimate processors, and some fishermen are selling it on the side of the road for less than what they’re selling it to their buyers locally,” she says. “That’s not a sustainable model for us.”
And across the region, many fishermen are loath to sell to multiple small customers, preferring to sell an entire catch to one buyer, who can cut one cheque. Susanna Fuller, marine conservation coordinator at Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre (EAC), experienced this first-hand: “We ran a community-supported fishery where the fisherman was making three times more per pound by selling direct to consumer and paying the processing plant to process his fish,” she says. “But at the end of the day more money wasn’t what he actually wanted. He didn’t want the hassle of having to take that fish to market.” With the sorry state of small and mid-sized seafood distribution, the biggest money is to be made in the simplest transactions—the same reason why Firminger didn’t want to sell me oysters—or rather, couldn’t, since his company had no infrastructure in place to do so.
In other words, simultaneously serving a small domestic market and an enormous international market is a challenge most producers are not in a position to meet. “We really do have that natural imperative, if we’re going to gain some benefit economically from what’s in the ocean, then we’ve got to send it somewhere,” says Dr. Anthony Charles, a professor in the environment and business schools at Saint Mary’s University. “It’s difficult for every single seafood outlet to deal both with the big markets in Japan or Europe or the United States, but then also sell a half-pound to someone who walks in off the street.”
ast summer, Swiss-born chef Chris Aerni walked up the lush, sloping front yard of his Rossmount Inn to greet me, wearing a crisp white cook’s jacket folded up at the sleeves. Steve Bachmann, a veterinarian with a side business in scallop-farming, had towed his boat, its trailer dribbling salty water on the hot pavement, alongside the Rossmount’s stainless steel-lined kitchen. In the bottom of the boat was a plastic tote with softball-sized, sunset-orange scallops—truly mermaid’s brassiere-quality shells. Aerni lifted one from the cold water, cracking the shells apart and pulling the creamy, white flesh free. Wielding a small knife, he sliced the scallop into three smooth discs he sprinkled with flaky salt. “Steve once came here on the 30th of December with his boat,” Aerni says. “Who else in Canada is serving scallops, raw, that just came out of the water hours ago?”
The Rossmount and Aerni are very public faces of New Brunswick’s local seafood brand. Located minutes from the ocean in the breezy, Anglophilic resort town of St. Andrews, the inn is a yellow mansion with a wide, columned front entrance and a very Gatsby vibe. Aerni writes his menu daily based on what’s in season, including tender greens, tomatoes, and root vegetables grown at an organic farm across the street, along with herbs, edible flowers, vegetables, and berries from the inn’s huge garden. He forages wild mushrooms on the property and sources meats, cheeses and seafood from surrounding communities. When I visited, mid-morning, Aerni had already butchered two whole fish, a tuna and a halibut delivered from Nova Scotia’s South Shore.
Open April to New Year’s Day, the restaurant’s menu showcases the best Atlantic seafood Aerni can source, a feat requiring fishermen and dealers on speed-dial. But despite frequently cooking for a sold-out dining room, he says the economics of tourism, dining, and running a business—be it a fishing boat or a restaurant—are frequently stacked against the little guy. “My question is always, seriously, is it possible for a family of a fishermen, with one boat, to make a living? Is it possible to have a small hotel like this, with only 18 rooms and a 60-seat restaurant, in a seasonal area like St. Andrew’s—is it possible to make a living?”
When he’s not cooking at the Rossmount, Aerni is either on vacation or working on a contract for New Brunswick’s Cooke Aquaculture. Started in 1985 with a single ocean-based cage holding 5,000 salmon, the company today employs around 5,000 people worldwide and boasts global sales approaching $2 billion. They produce their own feed, have their own trucking company, and recently purchased a retail space, which they renamed North Market Seafood, in the Saint John City Market. The company is still owned by the founding Cooke family, and headquartered in Black’s Harbour, New Brunswick.
Every year, Aerni presents Cooke seafood at two of the world’s largest industry conferences: one in Boston, the other in Brussels. That may seem odd for such an advocate of all things local, but Aerni believes that growing a successful global seafood business doesn’t mean they aren’t responsive or accountable to their community. “Just because [Cooke] decided to take it to another level, and grow their business…” he says. “Listen, they still have top-quality product, and that’s what I’m looking for.”
On paper, the economics of the region’s seafood industry are simple: Atlantic Canada has a tiny population and access to bountiful, seemingly endless natural resources. We can’t afford not to sell to the world. Major businesses like Cooke drive the national economy. Or, as Anthony Charles puts it: “I love to eat a lot of lobster, but even I can’t eat enough to make the market entirely local. There just aren’t enough of us here. Then the question becomes, how do we keep that export happening, but also make sure that local people are able to consume at least some of this local production?”
pproaching Boston from the air, crests of ocean waves seem frozen on a canvas of gunmetal blue, tilting towards New England’s pale, arching coast. It’s in this city, at the Seafood Expo North America, where more than 22,000 producers, packagers, equipment manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, merchants, chefs, and modern-day buccaneers of all stripes descend to do big business for three days in March every year.
Early one morning, seagulls swoop over flotsam in the water as two men lay out a tangle of orange, black, and green nets on a concrete pier, and the sun rises over the New England Fish Exchange. A fishing trawler has recently docked, and workers in rubbery overalls swarm it, unloading fish into a unit in the U-shaped courtyard. A stone’s throw from the water, at the bottom of the U, is the regal red-brick-and-stucco centrepiece of this historic district. Once the beating heart of Boston’s bustling seafood trade, it’s now a modern facility used primarily for hosting conferences, meetings, and weddings. But Charlie Di Pesa remembers when it was a working exchange, and horses and humans pulled pushcarts piled with fish across the pier. “There was a platform with three auctioneers and 30, 40 boats auctioning off everything you can think of,” he says in his Boston drawl. “Everyone was going crazy, yelling back and forth.”
Di Pesa’s fourth-generation Boston family business, F.J. O’Hara & Sons, has since relocated to a 33,000 square-foot refrigerated warehouse a kilometre from the exchange, where a new electric substation was recently built to provide the port with more “juice,” as Di Pesa says. F.J. O’Hara is a seafood company that owns vessels, sells fish, and distributes products via an affiliated trucking and distribution company, Araho Transfer. (Araho is O’Hara spelled backwards.) Showing me around the warehouse, Di Pesa wears a grey pullover with his company name embroidered on the breast, just above an American flag. He is a very, very fast walker: there’s no time for slowpokes in the perishables business.
Staggering volumes of Atlantic Canadian seafood pass through this warehouse every year. Cooke subsidiary True North sends thousands of boxes of farmed salmon here annually, which Araho trucks across the United States. Market prices for all North American seafood products are set in the United States, primarily in Maine and Massachusetts, based on an average from live and remote seafood auctions. If a forklift runs over a pallet of haddock in Boston, the price Nova Scotia fishermen get for their catch will go up due to decreased supply and increased demand.
Just this morning Di Pesa got a halibut delivery from Coastal Enterprises in Dipper Harbour, New Brunswick. The flat white fish, headless and glossy, are piled in a huge mint-green plastic tub full of ice, waiting for buyers to arrive and place orders. One customer is on the floor of the warehouse, looking for Icelandic cod he’ll sell this morning to fish markets across Boston. He passes his hands across the pearlescent fillets. Di Pesa points to me. “She’s trying to figure out how distribution works, from A to B to C to D,” he says.
“When you figure it out, let us know, okay?” the merchant says to me, flashing a quick smile.
Driving around the pier in his truck, Di Pesa rolls his window down to talk to another salesman, who has yet to sell a load of halibut from earlier in the week. “Seafood show gets in the way, doesn’t it?” asks Di Pesa.
“Big time,” says the other man.
“It’s awful,” responds Di Pesa with a shake of his head, rolling up the window.
Held in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, Seafood Expo North America is a swath of colourful banners and booths stretching out across a convention floor the size of nine NFL fields. The world’s powerhouse seafood nations, those aspiring to greatness, and border-defying, billion-dollar, vertically integrated companies reserve huge portions of the convention floor. Some bring underpadding and extra-deep plush carpeting. Stepping into some booths provokes the bizarre feeling of entering a luxury penthouse.
Overflowing display coolers brim with fish, shellfish, and other sea products like sea cucumber and squid, often preserved in mummifying layer of ice. There are samples—so many samples that most people don’t bother bringing lunch, instead trolling the endless aisles of international seafood. There’s raw fish, cooked fish, smoked fish, and whole teams of chefs and culinary students providing miniature restaurant-style experiences to men and women in suits and expensive-looking jewelry. Business cards litter the floor, and a startling number of people seem to be on a first-name basis.
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Walking towards the area where Canadian businesses and provincial employees have set up promotional booths, the first person who comes into view, standing on an elevated platform in front of a stovetop, is Rossmount Inn owner Chris Aerni. He is again wearing crisp chef’s whites, but this time they’re emblazoned with the True North logo. Crowds swarm and dart around the booth like piranhas, descending on the tiny plates Aerni places on the counter in waves, eating samples with tiny plastic forks, sometimes barely making eye contact or polite conversation, leaving nothing behind but greasy smears and crumpled napkins. “This is small,” he says of the hordes of people and the accompanying cacophony. “If you go to Beijing, or even Brussels, that would really blow your mind.”
On the morning of the third and last day of the Seafood Expo, Paul Firminger is hard to find, although his booth proudly displays a small pile of Little Shemogue oysters beside trays of cooked eel prepared by a Boston-based caterer. When I finally corner him, he’s moving so quickly across the exhibition floor it’s hard to track him. He’s tall and strapping, with wide features, and he’s been sourcing new boxes for shipping baby eels. In an effort to clean up, he’s cut his curling, reddish pirate beard for the show, and is now clean-shaven with jaw-length light-brown hair. When he comes back to the booth he’s pulled into conversations with a lingering stream of acquaintances, competitors, old friends, and suppliers, his arms still full of unassembled boxes.
Firminger works for two affiliated companies: South Shore Trading, a business (of which he’s part owner) that buys and sells Atlantic-caught eels, and Little Shemogue. Combined, the two businesses employ about 10 full-time and 20 part-time employees. The tight margins and complex transportation logistics of fresh seafood—buying eels and oysters from fishermen and selling them to the highest bidder—force them to run a lean operation, Firminger says. Little Shemogue briefly considered selling to customers online, but it’s based on wholesale international export, shipping thousands of oysters to American and overseas distributors, most of which pay in those handy lump sums. Handling local sales would require setting up a whole new retail division, which wouldn’t be nearly as profitable. “We have great export opportunities, we push the product out, and don’t need more than that,” Firminger says. “But then someone calls from New Brunswick looking for our oysters, and it’s like, ‘I don’t know what to tell you.’”
Firminger prides himself on his ability to do any job at the company, from driving trucks to scraping wriggling fugitive eels off the floor of the plant—he’s slept beside an eel tank in a refrigerated room more than once. “When I come to the show, it’s just me putting on a nice shirt. I never sell myself as a high-roller because I don’t believe I am,” he says. “This is what a seafood person is. The seafood person is the same guy who wears boots in the shop and then wears a suit and tie to impress the premier.” (Which is a safe bet: New Brunswick premier Brian Gallant was here yesterday. He posted a photo on Twitter with Chris Aerni.)
Despite many small revolutions, such as those in technology and storage, a great deal about the seafood business isn’t much different from 300 years ago. Atlantic Canada was founded as a colonial hub by the Lords of Trade, intended to provide valuable salt cod to a hungry European maw. Trading systems and industrialization modernized the system, and seafood was increasingly drawn to efficient hub cities like Boston, while technology and global economics shaped how fish buyers and distributors do business in North America and around the world. But in the face of so much change, that buccaneering, colonial-era culture of selling a primary resource into larger markets for bigger profits did not.
And so the onus, yet again, falls to the little guy, entrepreneurs like Nelson, Aerni, Firminger, and even large Canadian players like Cooke Aquaculture to fight to keep a channel for regional seafood alive in their communities. While consumer trends like farmers’ markets and buying local can be powerful, it’s the slower, less sexy, more complicated work of bringing together government, industry, and fishermen themselves to build the infrastructure and policy that could bring about meaningful and visible change. Is this likely to happen? Without massive public pressure and politicians willing to help change these powerful systemic forces, it’s hard to see.
Still, things are slowly looking up, at least for the Little Shemogue oyster. Near the end of the Seafood Expo, Nelson tasted one of the oysters and placed an order large enough for Firminger and the company’s new president, Wayne Williams, to take seriously. Afishionado subscribers got their first taste soon after. Chris Aerni also had a chance to try a Little Shemogue; he plans to buy some this winter. Growing demand spurred Nelson’s company to widen its route to include Moncton and they’re even considering an expansion all the way to Fredericton.
Selling to regional restaurants, markets, and distributors might not make the most business sense, at least not yet, but Firminger says it feels right. He lives here, after all, and is raising his daughters as Maritimers. Thinking of an alternate future, one where the little guy has a real shot, and local people have a chance to savour local products, his eyes drift into the distance. “I’ve always had the vision of a sign on the highway that says, ‘Little Shemogue oysters here,’ with a scruffy guy coming off the beach,” he says. “It has nothing to do with economics, everything to do with pride. We’re New Brunswickers. We bloody well better have our oysters available here.”
Words – Karen Pinchin
Karen Pinchin thinks and writes about food systems, science, and culture for outlets including The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, and National Geographic. She once caught a 21-inch largemouth bass on a stick and a string. Find her on Twitter here.
Photos – Jessica Emin
Edited by Chelsea Murray