Back in the early 1990s, Orlie Dixon remembers earning about $1 a pound for gutted haddock.
It wasn't a bad wage then. But nearly two decades later, with costs rising as the fleet goes farther and farther out, he's still getting about the same.
"There's too many people handling these fish between the fishermen and the consumer," said the father of two who lives near Digby, N.S. "If we are going to stay in this fishery we need to get paid a better price for our product. And we feel we haven't been paid fairly."
Laments about the future of the fishery are as routine in Atlantic Canada as distress about farm crises on the Prairies. But, in partnership with a Halifax environmental group, Mr. Dixon and a few other hook-and-line fishermen are determined to break the mould.
July 22 marks the first delivery by the Off the Hook Community Supported Fishery, reportedly the second such venture in the country and the first on the East Coast. It promises to pay about triple what the struggling fishermen have been getting.
The fishery operates much like programs that provide farm-fresh vegetables or shares of organic beef or lamb. Subscribers pay an upfront seasonal membership fee and pick up weekly shares of locally caught groundfish, gutted, with head and skin left on. They also will be offered filleting lessons and cooking tips.
Another advantage for the fishermen is that, while subscribers share the fish, they also share the risks. If bad weather prevents fishing one week, they won't get their delivery. But they may get extra the following week.
About 100 people had signed up by early this week, according to Sadie Beaton of the Ecology Action Centre. Members pay $500 for a full share - eight to 12 pounds weekly - or they can opt for a half-share of four to six pounds.
"It's a question how we'll get through it," said retiree Sheila Stephenson, who signed up with her husband because it fits with their beliefs surrounding slow food.
"I think that's going to be part of the adventure, what to do with four to six pounds of fish a week," she added. "It's a bit of a challenge to one's creativity."
The cost per pound of the groundfish - including haddock, pollock and hake - will work out to about $6.50. The fishermen involved will get about $3 of that; the remainder goes to cover costs.
Gutted whole groundfish are not readily available in Halifax, but for comparison, haddock fillets typically range from $5.99 a pound at Sobeys to $7.99 at Pete's Frootique.
Ms. Beaton said the fishery deliberated a long time about the price, looking for one that was both "fair and livable." It is more expensive than the supermarket, she conceded. But she listed the advantages consumers will enjoy: traceability, a relationship with fishermen who will come to the weekly pick-up spot, supporting the sustainability of hook-and-line fishing, and guaranteed freshness.
"It's going to be less than 24 hours out of the ocean," she said. "You're getting to be part of a food model that supports local fishing communities."
The venture follows the lead of a community-supported fishery started by salmon fishermen last year in Vancouver. It now has about 180 subscribers, who pay $250 for roughly 35 pounds of whole, gutted sockeye - or the equivalent value in other salmon species or products - over the season.
"It was getting to the point where you couldn't make a living. ... Every year the small boats keep disappearing," said Shaun Strobel, who helps manage Skipper Otto's Community Supported Fishery, named for his father.
"I want us to be able to keep the boat going so my two-year-old son will be able to go out and fish."