Sisters find niche selling hake to China
Nanoose Bay fishing company is resurrecting itself in several ways
VANCOUVER — Two incongruent images are at the heart of how Mariner Seafoods International, a 32-year-old B.C. fishing company, is saving itself. The first is a family of five sisters, young women all in their 20s, down-to-earth and warm, but well-spoken and confident. The other is a vessel that is basically one massive factoryfreezer that hauls and instantly “heads, tails and guts” hundreds of tons of fish before freezing them at sea in big blocks.
In 2006 and 2007, Mariner Seafoods exported some 12,000 tons of Pacific hake gathered from B.C. waters to processing companies in Qingdao and Dalian, China. That’s an astounding 24 containers of raw fish every few weeks that goes on to be hand-sliced, trimmed and repackaged in China for sale as barbecue fillets, fish-fingers and the like back in North America and Europe.
Mariner is mum on a dollar value for these sales, except to say, “we’re not small.” Whatever the number, it is obvious that the sheer volume of its product to China has completely transformed the company.
In 1976, Ron and Hetty Mann, a husband-and-wife team, started building this fishing business and raising a family of five girls in Nanoose Bay.
For decades, it was much the same. Two or three little boats from French Creek harbour fished and sold salmon, black cod, Pacific ocean perch and sole. The couple hawked wet and fresh product in comparatively measly quantities, around 100,000 pounds, to brokers in Port Alberni, Ucluelet and sometimes Vancouver.
These middlemen, said Hetty Mann, would then “sell it down the I5” highway to buyers in Washington, Oregon and California.
The track was local, and the operation was very time-sensitive. If fish didn’t move in two or three days, it plummeted in price.
“You would have weekends [like Thanksgiving] when Americans don’t eat fish,” said Shannon Mann, the eldest daughter and first to follow her parents to fish industry meetings. “Or you would have six boats land at once, and brokers claiming a crashed market.”
With zero control over prices, “it was a business not going anywhere,” said Hetty Mann. Like many in the industry, she felt “we had no future.”
Meanwhile, the girls were growing up and finishing high school.
“Mom worked from home. Dad would be in the boat, or in the net loft, or in his office,” said Shannon. “We were surrounded by the business, but never immersed in it.” Still, they each fished to pay for travelling and university, intimately learning the frustrating economics of the business, right down to what it feels like to squish as much cold, wet product as possible into a 30foot boat.
In 2003, Sheryl Mann, daughter number 4, was taking a break from her prerequisite business courses at the University of Victoria when her parents asked her to do some market research.
Their essential question: What could they fish in much larger quantities that would fetch prices to support a radically new way of doing things? Her short answer: Hake. And so they began amassing quotas for this metallic silver-gray species.
In 2005, the family took the next step of buying the Osprey No. 1, an almost 60-metre, 2,000-ton, Denmark-built vessel replete with an on-board processing and freezing plant.
“It’s the biggest fishing boat in B.C.,” said Alban Lo, Vancouver-based general manager of trade finance at Scotiabank. “It’s a mobile factory on the sea.”
Instead of heading back to shore every few days to drop off small quantities of fish that had to be sold quickly, the Osprey stays out for 21 days at a time. Working around the clock, crew reel in hake that gets gutted by automated machinery. Within two hours of being caught, fish are assembly-lined into a giant freezer, ready for offloading in Vancouver and shipping to China.
“There is a negative connotation toward frozen fish because it is usually frozen after they have been trying to sell it fresh for a while,” said Sheryl Mann, who is now head of sales and marketing. The lapse can be as long as seven to 10 days, often longer.
“land frozen” hake is widely available from other sources in Canada and the U.S. However, “it is never as good as sea-frozen,” said Sheryl. “They don’t like to use it in China for re-processing because when you are thawing out a once-frozen product, filleting and refreezing it, you need to have the best quality.”
She said that because this land-frozen product is so popular in Eastern European markets like the Ukraine and Russia, Mariner Seafoods is mostly focused on taking its sea-frozen product to China, sending more than 95 per cent of its sales there.
Initially, the company did chase some buyers in Western European countries like Portugal and Italy, not realizing that they were just turning around and re-selling the hake to China. In 2005, 75 to 80 per cent of their product was sold to such brokers.
The next year, “people came to us saying they had gotten our product indirectly in China,” said Sheryl. “That’s when it really changed for us because we started dealing directly with buyers in China. ... We now have full control [of the price] from the time the fish comes out of water to the time it gets sent to China.”
The business has expanded exponentially, not only in volume of fish, but also in staff and complexity of tasks.
Before long, the other sisters got involved too. Now, Debbie oversees shipping terms and contracts. Renee and Stephanie cook and manage crew on the Osprey. They also help Shannon with administration.
Local agents in Vancouver “who have been [selling to China] for years” have come forward with offers of help us for a fee or guarantee of the catch. “They say to our parents: ‘If you want, we can help your girls out,’” said Shannon.
But for now, they aren’t seeking much of this. “We helped them set it up, and we’re in the background,” said Hetty Mann. “But it’s [the girls’] deal ... We’re pretty proud of them.”