In a boom or bust industry, Mariner Seafoods (Mariner) has been continuing a tradition of family fishing since the late 1970s. In order to meet clients’ varying needs, the family-owned and -operated business is divided into Osprey Marine Ltd (OML), Mariner Seafoods Ltd. (MSL) and Mariner Seafoods International (MSI).
MSL is an offloading facility and onshore provider to local fishing vessels. Meanwhile, MSI is a privately held marketer and distributor of all frozen ground fish produced by OML’s fishing vessel, Osprey No.1.
What started out as a small-scale operation off the coast of Vancouver with Ron Mann partnering in a 44-foot vessel has rapidly progressed. “Although the company underwent significant changes in 2005, OML dates back to when my parents first started fishing in 1977,” recalls Shannon Mann, director of resource management and public affairs for Mariner. “They began by catching salmon and herring out of a small boat. Over their first winter in business, my parents built the 67-foot steel seiner, the original Osprey No. 1, in their backyard and things proceeded to take off from there.”
In 2005 OML retired the other vessels and imported a factory ship, renaming it Osprey No.1. Constructed in 1998, the Osprey No. 1 remains OML’s main vessel at 57.8 metres long with a gross tonnage of over 2,000 metric tons. The vessel is the largest and one of the newest ground fish ships on Canada’s west coast.
“In 2005, we went from managing three wet vessels ranging from 67 to 97 feet with a crew of maybe 10 to 15 people tops and a focus solely on fishing and delivering to the Osprey No. 1 at 185 feet, a whole factory and between 25 and 32 crew,” shares Shannon. “Suddenly, we were fishing, cutting and freezing at sea, offloading, managing personnel, coordinating shipping, managing marketing and sales and contract completions on a significantly larger scale. It all happened in one year so there was a huge learning curve for everyone, but it was our goal and dream for quite some time to get where we are now.”
Gaining Ground in the Ground Fish Market
In a short period of time, the company transitioned from supplying brokers and large local corporations to independent international sales and distribution. “We now sell to customers all over the world, with China, Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe as our main markets,” notes Shannon.
Shannon goes on to note that an important contributing factor to the company’s success is that the family owns the vessel and the licensing quota. In fact, the Mann family owns 8.4 percent of the Pacific Hake total allowable catch (TAC) and approximately 4.5 percent of the other ground fish species TACs off the coast of British Columbia, making Mariner one of the largest independent producers of frozen-at-sea ground fish product on Canada’s west coast.
“We offload the Osprey No. 1 with the help of our 22-person crew managed by our excellent dockside operations manager,” continues Shannon. “We also manage our own marketing and sales, arrange with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for inspections and certificates and work with the freight forwarders to coordinate with our overseas customers for delivery. We utilize a third-party for our cold storage facility and freight forwarding, but we’re pretty well vertically integrated otherwise.”
With more business, and more international ground to cover, Shannon says it’s all an effort to remain efficient. “Our crew is at sea for 20 to 30 days at a time, so we’ve made some improvements to make the most of that time,” she explains. “We switched the original on-board freezers from horizontal 25-pound pan units to 50-pound vertical block units to allow for bulk freezing, which is less labor-intensive. In Canada, we’re prohibited from filleting at sea, but we are able to head, gut, tail, freeze, etc., at sea, which produces a much higher valued product.”
In addition to bulk freezing, Shannon notes that OML has multiple on-board generators to create its own power, a water-maker, machining tools, as well as fuel-saving equipment. “We have to make the most of our time at sea,” she reiterates.
A Boom or Bust Business
Shannon also says that every year hosts a new slew of challenges, because the fishing industry is very unpredictable. “Cod quotas have increased dramatically over the past couple of years resulting in a surplus of whitefish product worldwide, which has created a lot of challenges in our business,” she explains. “Finding skilled labour is always a challenge. We’re competing against much larger corporations and we need trained marine emergency personnel and specific qualifications of engineers on board.”
“Fishing is a boom or bust industry,” continues Shannon. “Anyone in western Canada will tell you it’s not an easy industry to be a part of. Our markets have been hit recently, so we’re working to stay profitable for 2013.”
Although rapid expansion and new markets have brought challenges, Shannon says the company remains supported by family ownership. “There are four girls in this family that help run the business alongside our parents,” she continues. “My husband is also our port engineer and my brother in-law manages the crewing. We girls grew up in fishing, but we’ve all had to adjust to work on the marketing and sales part of the business along with the new demands an operation of this size entails. We are very pleased to have the ability to sustain such good jobs for our crew and family; we’re honored to be working in our family business, each with our own important role.”
Shannon contributes to Mariner’s success by checking the pulse of the industry. “I attend industry meetings and I participate in government committees and advisory panels,” she says. “I keep in touch with the science and management of fisheries and I’m also in charge of managing our quota usage.”
Shannon says a next step for Mariner could possibly be moving processing to overseas markets. “Currently we sell our product to processors in China, however, we’re always exploring the potential/possibility of custom processing and marketing the finished [retail-ready] product ourselves,” she adds.
In the meantime, Mariner continues to be a well-recognized player in Canada’s ground fish industry. “We were proud to be selected in the top three as a runner-up for the British Columbia Exporter of the Year award for our primary products and services,” shares Shannon. Since 1977, Mariner Seafoods has climbed to the top of the food chain while remaining grounded in family ownership.