Bring on king cod ... even­tu­ally

In­dus­try not ready for sta­ple ground­fish’s re­turn

The Compass - - OPINION - BY ASH­LEY FITZPATRICK The Tele­gram

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.

TC Me­dia file photo

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.

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