In the seaside village of Sointula on Malcolm Island that lies between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland, Cary Williams serves hake and eggs for breakfast. Williams caught the hake himself. He has fished hake for nearly 25 years off the west edge of Vancouver Island. The delicate, soft, white-fleshed, mild-tasting fish is the largest seafood catch in B.C.
“Pacific hake is the most abundant fish resource we have off the coast of Canada,” said Murdoch McAllister, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of oceans and fisheries. “It’s way, way larger than the salmon abundance.”
In 2017, 85,000 tonnes of hake were harvested off the B.C. coast, nearly six times the province’s wild salmon catch.
But there’s one more catch: not many others in B.C. are eating hake. Despite the unrivalled volume of the province’s hake catch, it’s unlikely to find hake on local restaurant menus or in supermarkets and grocery stores.
Williams and McAllister each note that most of B.C.’s hake catch is exported overseas. “I think we actually consume very little of what we catch here,” said Williams. “The amount that is exported would probably be significantly all of it.”
For two decades, this troubled Sonia Strobel, CEO and co-founder of Skipper Otto, a local community-supported fishery that connects small-scale fishers with seafood consumers.
“Maybe we should be eating what’s local and what’s abundant. And if hake is local and abundant, then we should be eating it,” said Strobel.
Strobel co-founded Otto in 2006 with her partner Shaun, partly inspired by J.B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith’s local food movement, the 100-Mile Diet, which launched on The Tyee in 2005.
Shaun and his father used to catch hake as bycatch in salmon gillnets, leaving Sonia wondering where the hake was going. She soon learned that the hake was predominantly exported abroad. It also came to her attention that B.C.’s hake fishing industry was concentrated in the hands of five or seven mass factory vessels.
In 2017, she began actively searching for small-scale, independent, family-operated hake fishers, asking around her local seafood networks for leads. “There was no local market for it. I thought, we've got to find a way to change that,” said Strobel.
She met Cary in 2019 and pitched her vision of creating local hake markets to him. By January 2020, Strobel was offering Williams’ hake to Skipper Otto members.
“It feels good that the hake is actually getting eaten locally,” said Williams.
B.C.’s hake, also known as Pacific whiting or Merluccius productus, is a transboundary species that crosses Canadian and American waters. Both countries share management of the short-lived, bountiful species under a joint fishery treaty.
“Their stock is healthy,” said Bruce Turris, executive manager of the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society.
Turris, who represents the hake fishery on the joint management treaty and has worked with hake for more than 35 years, notes that Canada only harvested around 60 per cent of its total allowable catch in 2019. “We’re still not fully utilizing the resource,” he says.
But “it’s not a resource that’s easily accessible,” said Turris, citing a steep investment requirement into the fishery.
Fishing hake requires access to a trawl vessel, fuel, gear, crew, electric monitoring and processing capacity. It’s only economically viable to fish the low-value seafood species at high volumes, says Turris.
“You have to catch volume if you’re only getting six, seven, or eight cents per pound of fish,” he said.
Hake is a popular seafood in Eastern Europe, China and South Africa, but not in B.C., where it is harvested. “There’s just no demand for it locally,” said Turris.
China, Ukraine and Lithuania respectively imported the largest volumes of B.C. hake in 2017.
“It’s part of the culture there,” said McAllister.
The cultural divide on hake is partly thanks to a myxosporidian parasite found in the flesh of Pacific hake. When the hake dies, the parasite releases an enzyme, a molecule that speeds up a chemical reaction, that rapidly deteriorates the flesh. This quickly turns the fish soft and mushy.
To prevent the deterioration of flesh, the fish needs to be headed, gutted and frozen quickly. Once it thaws, the fish will begin to deteriorate again, so it needs to be prepared immediately.
“A bunch of countries are happy to buy frozen, headed and gutted hake,” said McAllister. “The people buy it and cook it up pretty well right away.... As soon as it thaws out, they’re cooking it.”
“They know the product and they’re used to it,” he added.
In B.C., seafood consumers occasionally buy frozen halibut and salmon, but usually, they’re buying pre-thawed fish that can sit in the fridge, says McAllister. That preparation method would not work with hake.
“They’ll think, oh yeah, we can leave it for a couple days. And if they did, then it would turn to mush.”
Moreover, Strobel called seafood consumption in B.C. “very limited” in diversity.
“People just want chinook, coho and sockeye salmon. Halibut. Maybe cod,” said McAllister. “But if it’s outside that little fish vocabulary, it’s hard to educate people that this is something new,” said McAllister.
Strobel saw an opportunity to change the tide.
“What I’ve been told by everyone in the industry that I’ve talked to about it is nobody here wants to eat hake, we can’t create a local market for hake, we have to export it because nobody wants it here,” said Strobel. “What I’m trying to prove is that’s not true.”
Williams supplies Skipper Otto with a portion of his hake catch on a weekly basis. Otto processes it locally and then distributes the fish to its members.
“Our members take hake faster than we can get it in.” said Strobel. “I think it’s fantastic.”
Some of her members even have cultural recipes for hake.
“People would say, ‘I have this traditional recipe. I’m so excited to get hake.’ And they come every week and they get hake. They’re thrilled with it,” she says. Strobel’s favorite ways to eat hake include fish tacos and breaded fish fingers.
Williams started fishing hake while working on his grandfather’s boat, the 25-metre Island Sun, when he was 18 years old, nearly 25 years ago.
Williams is a fifth-generation fisher, on both sides of the family. He fished all throughout his childhood, but started fishing for money when he was 11, trawling and gillnetting salmon with his dad. He says all his friends also had summer fishing jobs with their dads.
“I think I’m one of the only ones in my friend group who was foolish enough to stay fishing,” said Williams.
Today, Williams runs the Island Sun boat with his family, fishing for hake by midwater trawl usually near Nootka Island, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Sometimes, he supplements his catch with shrimp and tuna.
Between June and September each year, Williams catches between four and six millions pounds of hake.
Most of Williams’ hake catch is sold to a local processor that exports the hake abroad. But with Skipper Otto’s help, some of his hake is now being consumed locally.
Otto does not have the capacity to take on all of Williams’ catch, but they provide him a fair wage for their portion. “They’re able to offer us a higher price for our fish, which feels like we’re fishing more for value,” said Williams.
Since the flesh of hake deteriorates quickly, Williams believes it is efficient to eat hake locally.
“It’s the sort of the fish that makes sense to eat locally because everything has to happen with it really quickly if you want it fresh. It has to be processed rapidly because it gets sort of soft pretty quick.”
“We already have the fisheries in place, the method to catch it. The offloading facilities are all here. The processing facilities are here. It basically would just be a supply chain from processing facility to grocery stores, which already exists for other fish,” he added.
Hake is recommended as a sustainable seafood catch by both the Ocean Wise Seafood Program and the Marine Stewardship Council.
It is also an affordable protein source, say Williams and Strobel. “It’s a really affordable fish, so it comes at a much lower price point than most other white fish that people are used to getting,” said Strobel.
Williams says he believes his family-run fishing operation is one of three or four independent, small-scale hake ventures in B.C.
For Strobel, working with Williams and his small family fishing operation was a way to push back against the province’s “problematic” seafood industry.
“What we’re fighting against is big global systems, food systems, global policy, national policy on fisheries. And so we have to work really hard to try to create opportunities to eat more locally,” said Strobel.
This concludes our series “The 100-Mile Diet Turns 15.” Find all nine pieces collected here.