All on the ta­ble

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - Bar­bara Dean-Simmons is a re­gional ed­i­tor with TC Me­dia based in Clarenville.

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.

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