On a family holiday to Eastport a few weeks back, with the recreational cod fishery in full swing, we decided to see if we could track down some fresh fish to cook for supper.
In the 1970s, when I was a youngster, we ate fresh cod at my house at least once a week. Even St. John's families like mine seemed to know someone who was "out in boat" jigging a few fish. Failing that, you could just show up at any wharf within a 10-minute drive of town with some cash and leave with supper ingredients.
But we were searching for cod, 2012 style.
We started by asking the organic farmer who had a small field by our holiday cabins. He was vague about where he got his own fresh fish, but he gave us our first lead.
After a bit more asking around, we wound up at a small fish plant, where a worker produced a freshly caught fish from a slushy plastic seafood crate. Cash and cod exchanged hands.
My husband manfully split and gutted the fish on the picnic table outside our cabin with our kids looking on in revulsion and fascination.
We baked that fish in the little cabin oven, stuffed with fresh herbs and fennel from the organic farm next door. The next day, I made fish cakes from the leftovers, served with the farm's Chinese salad greens.
It was a taste of my childhood — only with fancy veggies. Which made me wonder why, here in St. John's, I can't simply walk around the corner to my local supermarket and pick up some local seafood as easily as I can pick up a pack of chicken legs.
The food supply chain is long — very long
My CBC colleague Adam Walsh looked into this for the St. John's Morning Show. He pointed out that favourites such as cod, halibut, snow crab and lobster are fished in the waters off our province in varying amounts at different times of the year, yet almost all of it goes to large buyers in export markets. And you'd probably have to travel to Japan — or at least an Asian market in Toronto or Vancouver — to find a local whelk or sea urchin.
Derek Butler, the executive director of the Association of Seafood Producers, shed some more light on this for me.
Butler estimated that up to 90 per cent of all seafood caught in this province is sold to international companies, who in turn, sell to billions of people in southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.
For local fish companies and fishermen, it's simply not worth the time, money and effort to place their products on local store shelves — even if all 512,000 people in this province wanted to eat crab, shrimp, and sea urchins seven days per week.
We prefer meat?
Besides, Butler wrote in an e-mail, "We historically ate more cod than anything, and when shellfish came on big, it wasn't something that people ate a lot of. The U.K. market is the world's biggest cold water shrimp market, and then the U.S. market to a lesser degree. For snow crab, the U.S. is the world's largest market, and that market was developed by the Alaskan industry. Their fishery collapsed just when ours took off, and we naturally stepped into the void."
He continued: "One of my eternal bemusements is eating out with Newfoundlanders, and everyone orders meat. Few order fish."
Butler did add that he's starting to see a bit more local seafood in supermarkets - and it's never any trouble to buy a local lobster in season.
But for now, your best bet for local seafood is to keep your eyes peeled for the mom-and-pop vending trucks that show up intermittently across the city and around the province.
And there's always the cash-only network of "I know a guy who knows a guy." It's about as above board as trying to find some non-medical marijuana.
But in an increasingly cosmopolitan Newfoundland and Labrador, where many people have no direct contact with fishermen or the underground economy, surely there's got to be a better way.
I'd love to serve local fish in my house at least once a week, just as my mother and grandmother did.
Heather Barrett works primarily now with the online team at CBC News in St. John’s, and has produced numerous documentaries and programs for CBC Radio.