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An app aimed at disrupting Vancouver’s fish-distribution industry adds little new

For fishers, the app generates some surplus cash but it is not keeping their businesses afloat

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson and David Kitai , in City , on October 25, 2017

A B.C. app designed to eliminate the middlemen from Vancouver’s seafood industry is making fewer waves than predicted. 

Coatline Market, launched in 2016, sells itself as the Uber of seafood distribution. Its founders are trying to disrupt B.C.’s $1.2-billion industry, but chefs and fishers have not seen a sea change since it launched last year.

Many chefs are happy to buy fish through Coastline. But they say that other distributors sell at similar prices and let them track their fish from dock to dish. For fishers, the app generates some surplus cash but it is not keeping their businesses afloat. 

“It earns me a bit of extra income, but I still need to sell off part of my quota to big corporations each year to keep fishing” says Larry Hillis, a Duncan-based rockfish and halibut fisher selling to Coastline. Decreased yields and higher operating costs are pinching family fishing businesses like his and he doesn’t see the app reversing this trend.

For his part, Chef Doug Stephen of Vancouver’s Merchant’s Workshop was disappointed by the app’s “clunky interface” and missed the human relationship he usually develops with his distributors. Coastline has been falling back on developing a sales team to reach clients like Stephen.

Price and traceability

When it launched, Coastline co-founders Joseph Lee and Robert Kirstiuk claimed it would reduce prices for restaurants. Yet, according to three Vancouver chefs, the app sells at market prices.

Coastline also emphasized its “dock-to-dish” traceability but, according to Chef Neil Taylor of Vancouver’s Espana Restaurant, many of B.C.’s 128 seafood processors offer the same service.

In an interview this month, co-founder Joseph Lee said Coastline’s media package is outdated. He acknowledged they are “not trying to compete on price,” and other companies offer Coastline’s traceability service.

Personal connection

Some chefs, like Doug Stephen of the Merchant’s Workshop, would still rather keep the human connection of traditional distributors. Lee admitted that the company has had to develop a sales team to overcome the app’s impersonality.

That team has become a selling point for the app. Chef Ian McHale of Wildebeest praised Coastline’s sales reps. His rep often reaches out to offer him first pick of a new catch, before it is made available on the app.

Fishers also appreciate the human connection provided by sales reps. “I’ve never used the app,” says Stewart Macdonald, a fisher who occasionally sells to a Coastline representative at the False Creek Fisherman’s Wharf.

Coastline Market’s app features pictures and prices in an easy-to-read format.

“A marketing tool”

Coastline has given some fishers access to Vancouver’s premium market without forcing them to live in the Lower Mainland.

“They’re great,” says Julia Van der Sande, a Victoria-based groundfish and salmon fisher who uses Coastline to replace her sales from her boat at the dock. For her, the company buys at close to her more profitable dockside prices and offers long-term storage in Vancouver — yet Lee emphasizes that Coastline owns no infrastructure and subcontracts that storage.

According to Lee, Coastline’s lack of infrastructure allows the app to scale up quickly in new markets. The company can automate its subcontracted supply chain between fishers and clients.

Coastline is expanding outside of Vancouver. It is beginning to distribute seafood in Toronto and Whistler and planning a move to Seattle. The company works with about a dozen fishers out of the roughly 2,000 in B.C. Coastline’s website claims that more than 70 Vancouver-area restaurants are buying seafood through their app.

Coastline’s rapid scaling in Vancouver is hampered by B.C. regulations. Those rules require fish products to pass through a certified processor before sale — an identical path from “dock to dish” as the one used by other distributors.

Fishing boats sit in their berths at False Creek Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Patrick Warren, the managing director at Vancouver seafood distributor Smokey Bay, said that he sees Coastline as a regular fish distributor with an online platform. “The app itself is not a business,” he said. “It’s just a marketing tool for a fish business.”