FOOD AND DRINK
Meet Halifax's Hippest Fishmonger
Hana Nelson has local businesses falling hook, line and sinker for locally caught fish and seafood
Halifax-based Hana Nelson is not what you might think of as a typical fishmonger. For one thing, there aren’t many independent fishmongers around these days in the first place, even in the Atlantic provinces. And there certainly aren’t many young female fishmongers. When she meets some older fishermen for the first time, Nelson certainly gets some funny looks and remarks – "many that would not be appropriate to print," she says.
But she works hard to build the trust and relationships that allow her to bring sustainable fish to restaurants and direct to consumers in Halifax. Many in the fishing community share Nelson’s enthusiasm to do so despite it being more lucrative to export their catch.
Starting from disaster
Nelson didn’t exactly dream of becoming a fishmonger when she grew up. She studied the ecology of food systems in Europe, got her masters degree there, then came home and started working at Select Nova Scotia, the province’s buy-local marketing organization. There she found that despite all the good work they’ve done promoting agriculture, the same wasn’t happening for fisheries. “And this is what we’re known for, exporting really wonderful fish,” says Nelson.
In February of 2013, the Miss Ally fishing boat sank off the South Shore of Nova Scotia, killing five fishermen. This made Nelson think even more about the fact that the stories of our fisheries, and the people that work in them, needed to be told. “That connected the dots for me, I thought, ‘I have to do this,’ ” she says. She left Select Nova Scotia to set up Afishionado Fishmongers soon after, and set out on a mission to tell those stories and promote local sustainable seafood to Nova Scotians.
Right now, Nelson sells locally and sustainably sourced fish and seafood from her refrigerated truck at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, and supplies several restaurants in the city. She makes educating people about local sustainable product part of her everyday work, something that isn’t all that common on the East Coast (she follows the Vancouver Aquarium Oceanwise sustainability guidelines where possible, or consults with studies from Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre).
Where the fish comes from
Despite the number of fisheries out here, it isn’t that easy for restaurants to source local product, or for fishermen to sell directly to them. Federal regulations cover fisheries, and make the process more difficult than it probably needs to be. That’s why a lot of Nova Scotians go direct to the source.
“If you go to rural communities, a lot of people know a fisherman and there’s a lot of seafood that passes through hands for cash,” she says. Visitors to the province will also see guys at the side of the road or in car parks selling fish and lobster out of their pick-ups, which is another way locals get their fish and seafood.
In Halifax itself, however, most people don’t have that option, which is what makes Nelson’s operation both important and very successful. Nelson has taken on the role of trusted middleman between the fishermen and aquaculture farmers and consumers, an essential cog in the wheel of promoting local sustainability. “We’re dealing in crazy volumes. A fisherman is not going to go to a farmers’ market with their catch, they’re just not going to sell enough of one particular species, so it is really important to have a middle man that you can trust to represent you,” says Nelson.
So, Nelson sources snow crab from Cape Breton, mussels from the Eastern Shore, and whatever other fish and seafood she can get her hands on. This year is all about expansion. Nelson is planning on getting her product into more restaurants, and homes across the province by setting up fridges in existing retail locations.
Taste the difference
There are lots of well-known fish restaurants in Halifax, but these may not actually be the best place to find locally sourced seafood (Nelson urges you to ask where the fish is from). Heading somewhere that doesn’t bill itself as a fish restaurant will likely give you a much better meal, and there are some fantastic new places in town doing interesting dishes with local and sustainably sourced fish and seafood.
“The Agricola Street Brasserie has a really good seafood tower. Field Guide does small plates with really unique seasonal fish. Battery Park and Brooklyn Warehouse also do great fish. Head to Lot Six for oysters,” advises Nelson.
And if you want to get closer to the source? Nelson says that driving out to eat at The Wild Caraway in Advocate Harbour is a great road-trip from Halifax (it takes just under three hours, but goes through some spectacular scenery and parks along the Bay of Fundy). “For a small rural Nova Scotian town, they have such good access to a variety of both aqua-culture and fisheries. They have a thriving scallop and lobster industry, which is pretty unique,” she says.
This article was originally published Feb. 26, 2016.