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Quality key in future cod fishery, says processor

Cod processor says N.L. fish will never compete globally unless changes are made

Icewater Seafoods

Icewater Seafoods long cod loin is its premium product. A customer in the UK will smoke this product and use it for a Christmas promotion. (CBC St. John's)

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A Placentia Bay fish processor says a top notch product is needed if cod from this province is going to be sold in markets around the world.

Cod has been king at Icewater Seafoods since the late 70s. The Arnold's Cove plant, which employs 210 people, even processed frozen cod caught by other countries to get through the tough moratorium years.

But President and CEO Alberto Wareham has his sights set on the future. Wareham says if his plant and any other processor or harvester in the province wants to compete in the global cod market, there has to be one single focus.

Quality cod grading at Icewater Seafoods 1:39

"It's got to be quality and that starts in the boat." 

The bulk of Icewater's product goes to the United Kingdom and France to customers like Marks and Spencer and Tesco where buyers demand a high quality, premium product. 

'Price usually has a way of fixing problems.' - Alberto Wareham

So, as the resource rebuilds and there is optimism about a future, full scale commercial cod fishery, how do harvesters catch the golden cod?

It's a debate generating more and more discussion in this province. 

The argument generally centres around two fishing techniques. Should fish be caught one at a time, with hook and line and immediately bled, or should fish be caught using gillnets?

Gillnets are hung as vertical panels of netting in the water. Fish swim into them and get caught by their bodies or their gills and can't pass through.

Top quality fetches top dollar

Alberto Wareham's position in the debate is clear. 

"If you use a hook and line you're going to get a consistently superior quality product. You can get good fish in a gillnet but generally you will not consistently get the same quality as you get with hook and line," explained Wareham.

Icewater Seafoods

Alberto Wareham is President and CEO of Icewater Seafoods in Arnold's Cove. He says quality has to be highest priority as N.L. moves back into the world cod market.

He said lower quality gillnet fish becomes obvious to fish graders.

"It has a reddish tint to it because it was left in a gillnet for too long and wasn't bled properly."

For the past three years harvesters have been following a quality grading system. Grade A fish is worth 78 cents a pound. Grade B will fetch 40 cents and Grade C is only 20 cents. 

"Price usually has a way of fixing problems," said Wareham. "We also meet with fishermen and take them through how to handle fish properly, how to bleed it properly. Fishermen who have been handling fish for 20 to 30 years think they know but when our people go out and tell them how to handle it properly, they realize they don't know." 

Icewater Seafoods

There are obvious differences in high quality cod. Grade "A" fish on the left and right. Grade "C" fish in the middle.

Wareham is one of many depending on the return of cod.

"We want to get back to 45 weeks of employment. If we have 40 hours a week, 45 to 50 weeks of the year, it'll be easier to attract workers into the business," said Wareham. 

Right now, Wareham said this province supplies just 1.5 per cent of the world's cod demand. Back in the 70s, Newfoundland supplied 40 percent.

5 more years

Wareham said to get to a sustainable fishery again, the resource has to be protected.

"Based on recent science the stock has doubled in three years. If it doubles in three more, it doesn't have to double again and we'll have a large scale fishery. So, I think it's five to eight years away," said Wareham.

Icewater Seafoods

Icewater Seafoods in Arnold's Cove processes cod. It's the largest employer in the community with 210 jobs.

"This plant has been here for 25 years since the moratorium trying to survive, waiting for the cod to come back, we can wait five more years."

Even though sustainability might be a long way off, Wareham said it's better to get best practices in place now to create a global demand for Newfoundland and Labrador's fish.

"You've got to have the top quality and the supply to compete in those markets but we are not there today."