All on the table
In the years before the Canadian government shut it down, the cod fishery was the thing that kept our rural and provincial economy buzzing.
In the heyday of cod fishing in the 1980s, about 200,000 tonnes of cod were being landed at ports around this province.
About half of the tonnage came from the inshore fleets using cod traps, hook and line and gillnets. The other half being scooped up by the trawler fleets dragging sock-like nets along the ocean bottom.
The workforce around cod — including harvesters and plant workers — was around 39,000.
Hard to imagine now, but just three years before the northern cod moratorium, this province landed 394,648 metric tonnes of cod, turbot, flounder and blackback.
Today, by comparison, we bring about 12,000 metric tonnes of cod ashore. Turbot is making a comeback as well.
Back then, the inshore codfish went to market, mainly, split and salted.
The trawler fish kept hundreds of people employed on the processing lines in places like Port Union, St. John’s, Twillingate and St. Anthony, turning out cod as frozen blocks of meat. The cod blocks were shipped to the US, to end up as McFish burgers in fastfood drive-throughs, or frozen fish dinners for the heat-and-eat consumer market. It kept us going for years. And we never really worked very hard to change up the recipe for cod markets.
Quick freeze or dried and salted. Those were the easy markets and we fed them.
From time to time there was discussion about building better markets — of supplying better quality fish for the ‘white tablecloth’ crowd — but we never really seemed to be able to switch it up; or at least not in any significant amount. Then we lost the cod. The appetite for crab and shrimp ramped up; and any discussion about a vision for the cod fishery of the future got shelved as everyone raced to shellfish to save the day.
As that fishery begins to fade — with cuts to shrimp quotas, warning about crab stocks on the decline — the talk has once again turned to cod, and other groundfish.
Earlier this month an unlikely band of brothers (I say this only because there were no women at the table) held a press conference in St. John’s to talk about the nearly forgotten fisheries.
The Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union, along with some leaders from the processing industry — Bill Barry among them — have formed an Industry Advisory Council to talk about a future around cod and groundfish.
To be honest, their press release was not clear.
I saw nothing in the carefullyworded statement, or the explanations offered up at the press conference, to give me a good idea of what they were aiming for.
So in an attempt to find clarity, I called Keith Sullivan, president of the FFAW.
What I learned is that, essentially, there is no specific vision at this point.
The intent of the Advisory Council is to gather people from the fishing industry around the table — hopefully, this time, including a few women to add their advice — to talk about how we need to change our ways to increase the value of our cod and groundfish, from catch to final processing.
The past method of flash-freezing cod for bulk shipments, just won’t cut it, says Sullivan.
“Freezing fish for cod block is not going to do it for us anymore; we got to have prime quality to get prime prices,” he said. He is right on that count. For a couple of reasons. We just don’t have enough cod to produce the quantities of frozen blocks that food processors would need to churn out recipes for the fast-food market.
And the price the market would be willing to pay for the bulk product is not enough to create a rise in prices for the harvesters.
Fact is, the price for the catch has not increased over time; it’s hardly matched the annual rises in the cost of living.
And although the amount of cod being caught in this province is less than 10 percent of the catches of the 1980s, the law of supply and demand does not apply here.
Other countries still have a cod fishery, and food markets and importers need a steady supply.
Newfoundland and Labrador haven’t been able to guarantee that, so consumers are getting their taste of fish elsewhere — turning to Pollock, for example, to whet their whitefish appetites.
It’s also unlikely that, even as cod appears to be making a comeback, the federal government will be cautious about increasing quotas.
“We’re at a place now — from the FFAW point of view — there are opportunities to harvest more cod, in particular; and it’s time for us to start a fishery on the north east coast of Newfoundland,” says Sullivan.
However, neither Sullivan nor processors and harvesters should expect major increases to cod quotas to get the fish, and the money.
Small, steady catch increases, are more likely.
We’re not going to go from 12,000 tonnes to 115,000 overnight.
So there has to be a plan to get more value for the catch.
Last year the price for cod ranged from 20 cents (Grade C) to 68 cents (Grade A) per pound.
That’s not much different from where it was in 2010, or the years before.
If fishermen and processors who now depend on crab and shrimp have to turn to cod, they simply have to get better prices for the catch and the final product.
There’s simply no sense in catching anything, unless you can make a decent living and pay the bills.
As I understand it, through the Advisory Council process, everything will be on the table for discussion.
They’ll talk about what they catch, how they should catch it and process it, and how that will help build a new industry around cod and groundfish.
The new groundfish fishery for this province has to be sustainable; not just because we want it to but because the world demands it.
No one wants to see anything fished or hunted to extinction, or grown/produced in a way that destroys land or ecosystems.
Consumers demand it and, for our own good, we have to embrace it.
Before the cod collapsed, there was plenty of blame — much of it deserved and eventually proven — of how fishing methods (gillnets and bottom trawls) killed the industry and our future.
As we go back to cod and groundfish, the way we catch fish will be a point of discussion at the table, assures Sullivan.
One thing is for certain; we are headed for major adjustments in the fishery as the industry begins the switch from shellfish to groundfish.
My only word of advice is that all members of the industry have to have an equal seat, and voice, at this particular table.