Why we eat imported seafood instead of our own
More than 80% of fish and seafood produced in Quebec are exported.
Do you salivate at the sight of a dish of seafood and fresh fish? That's good, because we produce them in quantity! Except that… Those we consume do not come from us. We import them from other continents, and we export our peaches. While some are launching initiatives and trying to swim against the tide, Métro explains this perfect paradox.
With the St. Lawrence crossing the province before to flow into the Atlantic, marine riches abound. However, 81% of the fish and seafood that are caught there are sent elsewhere, while 89% of the seafood products that we put on our plate are imported.
< p>A somewhat absurd situation which can be explained in particular by historical reasons, reports Gabriel Bourgault-Faucher, researcher at the Institute for Research in Contemporary Economics (IRÉC) and member of the Mange ton Saint-Laurent collective, which works to make known the edible resources of the river.
“As soon as they arrived in North America, the Europeans subscribed to a colonialist logic with a development model geared towards exports,” he explains. They quickly settled near the cod beds, whose triangular trade was made both to Europe and to the West Indies to feed the slaves.
In a few centuries, our relationship to the aquatic resources has not changed much according to him. We still follow an extractivist model and we still consider these resources as a commodity rather than a foodstuff that could feed the population.
Moreover, the taste of Quebecers for fish and other seafood has developed and refined fairly recently, points out Gabriel Bourgault-Faucher.
“Until the middle of the 20th century, fish and seafood consumption was rather low in Quebec. It was a little unloved food, reserved for the fast days imposed by the Catholic clergy, on Fridays. In the 1960s, especially with Expo 67, we opened up to the world, we discovered sushi, for example, we took pleasure in eating fish and seafood, but it was mainly large prawns, salmon or imported bluefin tuna,” says the researcher.
In 2022, we are completely elsewhere in terms of demand. Our consumption is such that even if all local production and fishing were redirected to the domestic market, it would not be enough to satisfy the appetite of Quebecers. To meet this strong demand, supermarkets have gradually imported more and more seafood from abroad, offering less expensive fish and seafood, but also of lower quality.
Too expensive or impossible to find?
As the distribution system is still almost entirely export-oriented, fish and seafood from Quebec are not easily accessible to consumers and when they are, their price is generally higher since the competition from the big players in the fishing industry is too strong.
So, is this price difference a deterrent? “At the moment yes, answers the economist, in that aquatic products from Quebec are facing almost unfair competition from large foreign agri-food firms” which supply lower quality products, call on labor cheap and are not subject to ethical or environmental standards.
In the past, chefs and restaurateurs who have tried to turn to local fish products have thus encountered several difficulties, in particular to have these products transported in small quantities to Montreal.  ;
“Since the beginnings of Toqué!, in the 1990s, we have worked to develop a cuisine around our fine local products, but it is true that it was sometimes breathtaking, testifies chef Normand Laprise. When you are alone and you ask that we send you to Montreal 50 pounds of halibut, or an order of scallops, you do not measure up. It's quite a logistics and fishermen prefer to sell larger quantities because it's more profitable, even if it means exporting everything to the United States.”
On average, each year in Quebec *:
- 70,388 tonnes of fish and seafood are consumed.
- 54,961 tonnesof fish and seafood are produced or caught. Of this number, more than 44,000 tonnes are intended for export.
*Based on data for the period from 2015 to 2018. Figures taken from the IRÉC report entitled < em>The economy of fisheries in Quebec, analysis and proposals to promote the marketing of Quebec seafood products on the domestic market, published in 2021.
Faced with this observation, the collective of restaurateurs La Table Ronde has undertaken to meet fishermen, breeders and distributors to offer them the possibility of buying their products in large quantities. Last August, its pilot project, “Operation Crab”, enabled dozens of restaurants to serve Quebec rock crab collectively purchased at their tables. This fall, the collective repeated the experience, this time with the sea urchin.
“Nobody is in bad faith and nobody is against the idea of selling more of these products in Quebec, but producers, fishermen and distributors need to be proven that it works,” explains Félix- Antoine Joli-Coeur, General Secretary of La Table Ronde.
Restaurants are the trendsettersand consumers have been observed to follow suit. The crab [from Quebec] even ended up at the Jean-Talon market! We have a list of a hundred very high quality local products that we would like to publicize in the same way.
Félix-Antoine Joli-Cœur, general secretary of the La Table Ronde collective
< p>If La Table Ronde intends to go there one product at a time, over time, we could have the chance to (re)discover in particular oysters from the St. Lawrence, tuna from Gaspésie, squid from the -la-Madeleine, but also local products, such as game meat or Quebec truffles.
And Quebecers will be there, believes Normand Laprise: “The clientele is very curious and likes to be surprised. In addition, with this initiative, local sea urchins are caught on Mondays and served on Tuesdays, and we know that the secret to good fish and good seafood is freshness! So we offer them the best in terms of quality.”
More to be beneficial for restaurateurs and foodiesalways looking for new flavors, developing a local market for seafood products in Quebec could also have positive spinoffs for all links in the chain of the fishing industry.
“Shortening the distribution chain and keeping a larger share of production here would make it possible to better capture the value of the products. It would be very positive for the coastal communities, which would be revitalized,” explains Gabriel Bourgault-Faucher.
For example, rather than selling rock crab internationally, where it will be processed and resold at a higher price, we could create processing plants here to sell its meat directly to restaurants or even to the grocery store, illustrates the economic researcher.
But for this to work, the state also has a role to play. The legislative framework should be adapted to encourage the development of the activities of the smallest local businesses.
“At the moment, retailers, fishmongers and restaurants are not obliged to indicate the origin of the fish and seafood they sell. Nothing is known about the place of production, processing or fishing methods, which does not allow people to make an informed choice when buying, deplores Mr. Bourgault-Faucher. The government could work to impose a more protectionist legislative framework and put in place environmental and ethical standards.”