A local longline fishing co-op has caught a big prize.
Off the Hook was runner-up in an international sustainable fisheries contest sponsored in part by National Geographic.
The group of Digby area fishermen sells shares or subscriptions at the beginning of the summer season and then delivers "fresh fair fish" directly to customers in the Valley, Halifax and across the province.
The CSF or community-supported fishery placed in the top three of 103 entries from around the world in the contest called Turning the Tide for Coastal Fisheries.
National Geographic and an environmental charity called Rare organized the contest to look for "the best solutions for fostering sustainable fisheries and promoting healthy coastal ecosystems."
"The Solutions Search contest has given us a lot of press and attention and support," says Beau Gillis, a longliner from Freeport on Long Island. "It makes us hopeful, this could save the fishery and revive coastal communities."
Gillis grew up on Long Island and fished with his father before leaving home in the mid 1990s to study, work and travel the world. Gillis returned to Freeport in 2004 and has crewed since then on lobster boats. In 2008 he bought his own boat and a bottom hook and line licence.
Gillis says before the CSF it was hard to go fishing at all.
"It's such a huge risk," he says. "Bait went from 65 cents to $1.50 a pound-at that price you can't afford to try to explore."
Two years ago the Ecology Action Centre approached Gillis and other local fishermen with the idea of the CSF.
"They said we could maybe get $2.50 or $3.00 a pound when we were making 75 cents to a dollar," says Gillis. "I said: what's the catch? The catch was hassle. "
The fishermen lose a day's fishing on Thursdays and drive to Halifax to meet their customers.
"It's been worthwhile in every way but monetarily," says Gillis. "We don't have the volume to really get ahead yet. We're just idling, we're holding on."
His hope is that eventually it will be worthwhile for more fishermen to fish this way which he says is much more sustainable than dragging.
"Efficiency is the whole problem; efficiency is killing the planet," says Gillis. "The most efficient way to catch fish is to put a big diesel engine in a big boat and tow a big net behind you-with the tide, against the tide and across the tide and grab up all the fish."
The longline fishermen though sink a line of hooks without having to drag anything over the bottom.
Orlie Dixon, who has fished out of Tiverton his whole life, also signed on with Off the Hook.
He says it has been an interesting experience too meeting the customers.
"People are becoming more aware and interested where their food comes from," says Dixon. "You get to meet a lot of people who want fish they know was caught sustainably, the way we fish."
That has been the hardest part for Tony Thurber of Freeport.
"That's difficult for me cause I'm not really one to meet a lot of new people, but it is hopefully a way to help bring back the fishery. It's worth a try."
The Ecology Action Centre organizes the CSF, connecting the fishermen with subscribers.
"It's relatively easily," says Dave Adler of the EAC. "The idea of sustainably harvested fresh fish resonates with a lot of people. People are not only interested in fresh local seafood but local food sources in general."
Adler admits the premium price is the tricky part.
"Price is an issue for us. Most people make shopping choices based on price and convenience and we aren't offering either of those-it's kind of a tricky business model."
For the second season, 2011, the EAC got permission for two small but important changes-the fishermen can also sell to restaurants now and they are allowed to sell filleted fish.
Restaurants are hesitant to pay Off the Hook's prices but having the option when there is extra fish helps with the profitability.
Adler hopes eventually the CSF can spread.
"This could help fishermen and fishing communities all over the province where they're not fishing because it isn't worthwhile. Our intent is to increase our distribution net and certainly it makes sense to have locally supplied fish in Digby."
The CSF has a mailing list and more information on their website: www.offthehookcsf.ca
Since winning the award word has spread and now a community-supported agriculture group in Montreal is interested in Off the Hook fish as is an event planner in Toronto.
Gillis will also be travelling to Washington D.C. on Feb. 8 with Adler and Susanne Fuller also of the EAC to attend the award ceremony and workshops on sustainable fishery solutions.