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Skipper Otto a made-in-Richmond success story

By Lorraine Graves

Published 11:32 PDT, Thu May 16, 2019

It’s a Richmond success story. Three times over. It’s a business success, a win for those who love good seafood, and most of all, a win for those who fish for a living.

Ten years ago, Sonia Strobel’s father-in-law, Otto Strobel, feared he would have to stop fishing because it was just too hard to make money at it.

She knew about fair-trade coffee that pays producers directly, cutting out the middle men. She had been part of community-supported agriculture programs where they pay the farmer before the crops are planted, and in return receive a weekly basket of veggies like the ones offered by the Richmond Sharing Farm.

It seemed a natural progression for Sonia and her Richmond-born husband, Shaun Strobel, to start Skipper Otto, a community-supported fishery to help fishing families.

Celine Terfloth, the company’s communications and member services specialist, describes it as a “seafood subscription program for seafood-loving home cooks.”

Sonia said Skipper Otto had modest beginnings.

“For the first five years, I was a Richmond teacher and I was building this company on the evenings and weekends.”

Then Sonia took the leap and quit her teaching job. Today, she reflects on how far they have come.

“In year one, it was just Shaun going out and fishing salmon for around 60 people,” Sonia says.

“And then in our second year, we grew to 200 people just by word-of-mouth. Now we have around 2,400 members across Canada,” says Terfloth.

“Some are just foodies into delicious fish. They do it for culinary reasons. A lot of people want to support BC fishermen and fishing families and give them a fair price for their catch,” she says.

The annual membership drive is on until May 31.

“It’s $39 for the annual membership fee. Then, the minimum share for the year is $200 and you have basically a year to spend that,” she says.

According to Terfloth, some spend a couple of thousand dollars a year.

“They’re serious seafood

aficionados. Mostly, people go for the quality and the fairness,” she says. “When you tell us the share size, you are literally telling us how much fish to go out and catch.”

People then order online and pick up from a community location. In Richmond, it’s in the Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site in Steveston.

“We really always like to give a shout out to them. They do it on a volunteer basis because they share our values around better ways to access local, sustainable seafood,” Sonia says.

While there are some fresh fish sales at a dock in Vancouver and some is processed in Richmond, Terfloth says Skipper Otto’s tuna and most of its salmon is flash frozen when it’s caught. That makes for fresher fish.

“This flash freezing technique literally freezes this moment in time. It’s as fresh when you thaw it as it was when it was caught. In a blind taste test, people preferred flash frozen to fish bought fresh at a store,” says Terfloth.

The fresh fish in a grocery store can be days or even a week from the day it was caught.

“Knowing it’s never even left the country, and only been in a few people’s hands, is very important to the end consumer,” she says.

“It’s all very transparent. Everything comes with the fisherman’s picture, where it was caught, how it was caught, when and on what boat,” she says.

The fishers make more money selling directly to Skipper Otto. Sonia say they did the calculations a few years ago: “It varied from being paid 10 per cent more to four times as much,” depending on the kind of fish or seafood. “But they’re never losing money,” she says.

It’s a win-win for both sides, says Sonia.

“Fishermen remain the independent entrepreneurs they’ve always been. So we work with them to figure out fair prices that work for them.”

There are 30 pick-up locations across Canada where you can go pick up your frozen seafood.

“We also have some lesser known delicacies like loose-frozen scallops in the shell. We have different species of shrimp, halibut, ling cod, as well as different kinds of salmon—fresh frozen, smoked, canned,” she says.

“Most of our filets come in pound portions, some come in half pounds and some that are portion-sized and we do sell whole fish at certain times of the year,” she says.

And Skipper Otto is looking to the future by honouring the past, she says

“We’re really excited to be working with Steveston Harbour Authority and the Musqueam First Nation and the federal government to bring seafood processing back to the traditional village in Steveston.”

The vision is to build a processing plant on the Steveston Harbour Authority land that’s open to the public for tours.

Sonia says, “Fish processing can be done today, done well, done beautifully to honour the traditions of this place and this land going forward.”

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