What is old is new again
Last week, I read something interesting in the weekend edition of a daily newspaper. It was an article reprinted from anaround-the-bay weekly.
It described a way of harvesting cod that two fishermen in our village were practicing over a decade ago but gave up when they couldn’t make a go of it. The newspaper article was notable because the people featured in it had managed to overcome the troubles encountered by my neighbours and so many others.
Despite all the catastrophes the fishery has encountered in recent years, these folk have found a profitable market for their catch.
The method in the article was simple and made complete sense. The codfish are first caught in traps – just the way fishers in Salvage have for over two lifetimes.
Cod trapping is a method invented nearly a century and a half ago. It remains today the only method for mass-harvesting codfish that does them no harm whatsoever until the moment they are plucked out of the water and sent to market.
A large mesh box with a mesh floor is fixed to the bottom and the four corners of the vertical walls are drawn abroad to make a large space within. The top of the perimeter walls is held at the surface by floats. A mesh leader fence is attached, normally to the shore in our part of Bonavista Bay. It is placed strategically to guide the fish swimming along the shore, funneling them towards and then into a small opening in the trap.
The fish have trouble finding their way back out, a task made increasingly more dif- ficult as their numbers within grow larger.
In periods of bad weather sometimes as much as four or five days, when small boats can’t put to sea to haul nets, the trapped fish swim about happily awaiting the arrival of good weather, and with it the fishers.
During the same spell of bad weather, fish that swim into and are ensnared in the linnet of a gill net suffocate promptly and begin to lose quality from the moment they perish. By the fifth day, they have deteriorated to the point where they are fit for nothing but fertilizer or to be thrown overboard for crab food.
Meanwhile, their comrades in the cod trap are not just alive but in perfect condition. Maybe a little hungry, so they must be fed.
That’s what my neighbours did a decade ago and what the people described in last week’s newspaper article are doing now.
First, the fish need to be gently transferred to pens located in sheltered spots with plenty of current to keep the water clean.
During the transfer, peak breeders among the traps of fish can be identified and released, maximizing their ongoing benefit to the species.
Reviewing what I wrote a decade ago, I am reminded of the reasons that I found this way of fishing so exciting.
Back then, my neighbours caught fish themselves and bought from their friends, a
total of 26,000 pounds of trapped cod. In the three-month period starting in October, they fed 78,000 pounds of feed to those fish, doubling their weight. The diet was capelin, mackerel and herring, which they themselves caught or bought from their neighbours. By adjusting the percentages of the different species in the feed, subtle changes can be made in the taste of the cod flesh.
During the three-month grow out, as is customary at the end of the season, the price doubled.
The result was that the return on the cod my neighbours had brought ashore was quadrupled. Through their own labour and that of others in their community, four times the money was made producing first-class seafood raised on the same food those cod would have eaten in the wild. These were not doped-up fish, chowing down on manufactured food, never intended to be eaten by a self-respecting codfish. They were delicious fish of the highest quality returning value to local workers.
Nonetheless, for a number of reasons, most important among them difficulty finding customers seeking quality fish for the table, my neighbours gave up on their cod grow-out enterprise.
The ability to find just those quality markets is certainly the reason that the fish operation featured in last week’s newspapers is succeeding. The piece explained that this group, employing 17 people, has a growing list of enthusiastic restaurant customers, most on the mainland or stateside who cater to a ‘white tablecloth’ market.
The fish themselves are as good as they can be. Catching them with old-fashioned methods and feeding them up on their favourite foods before jetting them to the tables of discerning diners is the key.
What is old is new again.