Fish for the Future

The busy, popular, boutique-style seafood supplier and market Finest At Sea has been setting the example of sustainable fishing on Vancouver Island since 1977.


On this particular day at Finest at Sea, things are a little chaotic. Entering through the customer-facing deli counter—where every square inch has been put to use to showcase fresh seafood, canned products, photos, books, tools, or any number of fishy accoutrements—one has to squeeze by the counter to slip into the operations office. This little room, the antechamber leading toward the brains of the business, feels a bit like a galley aboard a fishing vessel. Cramped but well-provisioned, three points of contact, elbows in.

Inside the office at 27 Erie St., a much larger room in this converted old home across a grass field from Fisherman’s Wharf, the feeling of being at sea carries over. Waves of conversation are abruptly halted, interrupted by phone calls from frantic delivery drivers with annual herring catches arriving early, discussions about who is doing what and when, doughnuts for someone’s birthday. Or anniversary. It’s hard to tell. 

When we finally get down to talking about the business, this too is busy. Operations manager Jennifer Gidora and plant manager and fisherman Rich McBride seem excited, eager to share what makes Finest At Sea such a unique operation. They banter like siblings who’ve been in too small a space for a touch too long. “We’re really like a family here,” says Jennifer, laughing. 

What was meant to be a standard interview in a work setting is quickly railroaded by the appearance of Bob Fraumeni, owner and founder of the business. Bob—a crown of white wispy hair, wiry and strong—seems like a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Seasoned in the way that only decades on a cold water sea will do, he moves through the room lightly barking at everyone to get their shit together. But it’s not aggressive. Rather, there’s a level of reverence for Bob that is clearly evident, and the entire staff quickly falls into place to appease him, tidying up and clearing room for guests. Why? Because there are a little over 30 UVic students arriving with their professor any minute to hear Bob talk about sustainability—how and why it matters—and the journey that he’s been on since the 1970s to bring better sustainable practices into the industry. 

As the students gather around him, he begins to recount his entry into the fishing industry: “When I first started commercial fishing, I was very young,” he tells the group. “And at the time, the fishing industry was like a buffalo hunt.” What he means is, during that early part of his career, most fishing was done with troll nets, giant sweeping rigs that would scoop up everything in their path without concern for bycatch or other unnecessary impacts. It was an industry driven by greed, without an eye toward the future. In other words, it wasn’t sustainable at all.

Bob’s is a meandering tale, but the highlight is that he recognized very early that if fishing practices didn’t change, there’d be no fish left in the sea. And so, he leant in the other direction, looking for ways to ensure the resource remained viable. In just one example of his work on sustainability, he was part of a group that led the charge to help ensure the spot prawn harvest didn’t collapse. Using science and common sense, they advocated for harvesting only female spot prawns—and only after they’d spawned. Spot prawns are hermaphrodites, transitioning from male to female, after which they spawn then die. By catching only the post-spawn females (which are the plumpest prawns), they weren’t removing anything from the cycle that wasn’t going to perish anyway, allowing for generations of sustainable spot prawn fishing. 

“Once that management system came into place in the early 1990s, the catch of spot prawns went from about 400,000 pounds a year to now like six million,” he says with a chuckle that suggests this should be an obvious point, “because we’re not impacting the building of the resource at all.”   

Finest At Sea Today

Bob Fraumeni’s story is not just relevant, it’s important. With more and more humans pulling on limited resources, sustainable practices are critical if we want a future with fresh wild seafood in it. To that end, Finest At Sea continues to harvest using all the same gumption Bob had as a younger fisherman. They only use pots or hooks, no trolling at all. This means a limited catch and more work, of course, but it also limits bycatch, the unintended sea creatures that wind up aboard a fishing vessel inadvertently. It’s more precise, more intentional fishing. For those occasions when there is some bycatch brought aboard (it’s impossible to avoid completely), FAS continues its sustainable approach, ensuring it is handled properly and never wasted.

Image courtesy of FAS

Today, FAS operates somewhere between nine and 13 vessels in the waters between here and Alaska at any given time (Gidora and McBride can’t agree on the exact number). In yet another sensible practice, they flash-freeze everything that comes aboard immediately, rather than letting it slosh about in holds like many other fishing vessels do in order to retain the “fresh” label (which isn’t fresh at all if the boat has been out for days prior to returning to shore, obviously). 

For the most part, FAS continues to supply consumers outside of the Victoria or Vancouver Island market, but of those that do carry its products, they are typically higher quality restaurants, like Brasserie L’Ecole or Zambri’s. They also sell direct to consumer from the same, let’s call it cozy, market mentioned at the beginning of this article. The display case is filled with easily some of the freshest seafood available in town and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.  

What’s more, in response to customers constantly walking into the main office looking for something fresh to eat, FAS opened a food truck directly in front of their office and processing plant in James Bay. Famous for its chowder, seafood burgers, and fish and chips, the truck’s popularity has quickly grown. Managed by Chef (with a capital C), Anna Hunt, it’s a more tranquil option for fresh seafood, away from the touristy madness at Fisherman’s Wharf. It is adjacent to a coffee shop (Imagine Studio Café), and they share a nice patio between the two buildings so you can get cozy with your meal

Image: Johann Vincent

The impact that Finest At Sea has on commercial fishing practices regionally is hard to measure precisely. It’s inarguably positive and large—and for those UVic sustainability students who’ve gathered around Bob to hear his story, there are surely some takeaways. Chief among them being that whether you’re a student, a customer, a fisherperson, or the owner of a slightly frantic seafood business, the choices you make on how you harvest and consume a natural resource have a genuine impact.  

Victoria 27 Erie St 250.383.7760

Vancouver 4675 Arbutus St 604.266.1904

Feature image by Johann Vincent

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