Bring on king cod ... eventually
Industry not ready for staple groundfish’s return
There are clear indications of recovery in the province’s once-devastated cod stocks. And it has industry players looking at what comes next.
Northern cod fell under moratorium in 1992 and it is not back yet, according to DFO scientist John Brattey, regardless of now-common anecdotes.
“You hear a few fishermen saying, ‘Oh, there’s more now than there was in John Cabot’s day,’ and all this rhetoric,” Brattey said. “The information we’ve got, when you look at the big picture, it just doesn’t substantiate that.” But things are improving. In the early days of the moratorium, northern cod was at about two per cent of its 1980s estimates. It now stands at a little over 15 per cent of 1980s levels.
“It’s looking better. It’s coming up, but we’ve still an awful, awful long way to go,” he said.
Results from DFO’s latest offshore survey, to show if king cod’s recovery is continuing unabated, is expected in March.
Meanwhile, the positive trend of the last decade is enough to have provincial processors talking, researching and looking to a future of “regime change,” where cod once again become a large part of landings, as shellfish suffers declines.
Several processors told TC Media they expect to see expanding commercial cod quotas within three to five years.
They also say that would be trouble.
“We’re the only plant with the people and the knowledge, but we’re not ready. This industry is not ready for that to happen. We don’t have the harvesting capacity. We definitely do not have the processing capacity,” said Alberto Wareham, president of Icewater Seafoods.
The Icewater plant in Arnold’s Cove currently employs about 180 people, with an average age of 52, with 25 to 30 full weeks of employment each year.
Icewater is a rarity, with its yearround focus on Atlantic cod and competing in world markets, based on the limited quantities now being landed from bycatch and management areas where the moratorium does not apply, including 3PS, the area off the province’s south coast.
Cod provides about $9 million in landed value to the local industry, compared to about $465 million for shellfish (roughly 80 per cent of the total landed value).
But Wareham says there is demand for cod. There are markets. Supplying those markets, meeting the specific demands for quality fish and fish fillets, will be the challenge as more catch becomes available.
“I guess I’m concerned. I’m in the business. I want to have a strong fishery of the future. I believe we can do it, but we’ve got to start talking about it and we’ve got to start making some serious plans,” he said.
“The majority of cod that’s landed in Iceland and Norway, it’s not landed in a 10-foot or a 15-foot speedboat. It’s landed in boats that are a lot larger, they go to sea for five or seven days with 10 or 15 men and they’re landing 100,000 or 200,000 pounds of cod after five days and they’re able to fish year-round,” he said, noting harvesters here are already stretched, making any talk of new boats a challenge.
A $400-million fund for the future might have helped, but it sits in the air, under provincial-federal dispute.
For now, Wareham’s plant remains 98 per cent dependent on fish from the scattered, inshore fleet. And to keep the operation running, even at its current 40 per cent of capacity, the company buys fish from up to 3,000 fishermen all over the island.
On the processing side, it is not about plant buildings, but what is inside them. TC Media was told tooling up for cod would require anywhere from $5 million to $7 million.
In a rare interview, Robin Quinlan of Quinlan Brothers said his company has long been looking at preparing for cod.
“We need time to retool, to put Newfoundland fish back into the market, to develop a brand and develop a quality surrounding that brand. That doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.
Quinlan Brothers is one of the province’s largest employers, with about 150 people at its plant in Old Perlican and 600 in Bay de Verde, the latter including about 20 foreign workers from Thailand.
If growing labour needs require the availability of more yearround employment, the answer might lie in the return of cod, Quinlan suggested.
“We have a pool of fish in 3PS (on the south coast) today that we can use as a test case. We can use it to develop our markets. We can use it to develop a wintertime fishery,” he said.
Fish is processed inside the Icewater Seafoods plant in Arnold’s Cove. Icewater stands as one of the few companies in the province able to process cod in large quantities.