There can't be too many things more confusing for the casual fisheries observer than cod.
See, we had cod. Lots of it, then we lost it. But now we have it again ... maybe.
It's worthless. Nobody wants it. Fishermen are lucky to get 50 cents a pound for it. That's if anybody will even buy it. But it's worth north of $20 per pound in some international markets. But there's no market. Our quality is bad, but also, our quality is great.
It's an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, engulfed in a mystery — and surrounded by big honking piles of head scratching.
How many times have we received photos, phone calls and emails from people on The Fisheries Broadcast about the price and demand for cod here and abroad? It's almost daily.
Just a recent sampling includes:
- An email from folks going to Costco and taking heed of the fact the price for fresh fillets is $19.99 per kilogram ($8.61 per pound) and salt fish is going for $16.99 per kilogram ($7.71 per pound). Those prices match, give or take a few cents many of the prices found around St. John's.
- A text message form a Newfoundlander visiting Napa Valley in California including a picture of a price board showing east coast cod fillets at $24.95 per pound.
- An interview with the Nova Scotia producers who say they never have much trouble selling their cod (although a small amount compared to here) or haddock catch into the U.S.
No sale for cod in 2013
And yet, in 2013 there was a significant period of time when nobody would buy freshly caught cod in Newfoundland and Labrador. Thousands of tonnes of cod was left in the water as a result. It has reached a point where the province's fisheries minister, Keith Hutchings, is willing to consider a proposal from fishermen to ship whole cod out of the province unprocessed and into US markets.
Seafood market experts say much of the world has moved on from cod, and whatever global market there is remaining is being stuffed to the gills with product from Norway, Iceland and the like.
At the same time, we hear suggestions here that quality is a problem with Newfoundland and Labrador cod, and that improving the fishery and the raw material price will mean focusing more on producing a more premium product instead of the infamous cod block that we did in the past.
Newfoundland fish ... from Nova Scotia
Confused yet? Consider the following: In 2007, the provincial government in Nova Scotia commissioned what was quite simply called a "Market and Product Development Study for the Salt Fish Industry In Nova Scotia."
The report notes that at the time salt fish was fetching about $25 per pound in Brazil. In fact, in 2006, Brazil imported $183 million dollars worth of salt fish - of which more than half was cod.
But the Nova Scotians discovered they had a branding problem with the salt fish they were sending into Brazil, and that's because most Brazilians recognize all salt fish as being Newfoundland fish! In fact, it notes that Brazilians – and a great many Portuguese for that matter – refer to most any salt fish as "Bacalhau da Terra Nova."
The brand was so powerful and well recognized in Brazil, the report suggested it might be okay to leave well enough alone and just keep trading under the Newfoundland brand name!
The study states that, "The most appropriate brand name for Brazil [as with Portugal] would probably be "Bacalhau da Terra Nova" (Newfoundland) as this is a known product, at least to a portion of the market; but this would conflict with a Nova Scotian identity. However, since about 95 per cent of imported salt fish is split-dried, and not fillets, it is uncertain if a brand is necessary immediately."
By now you must see why the cod fishery is such a confusing and confounding conundrum here.
In recent years, cod has only accounted for about $10 million in a fishery that had a landed value around $600-700 million. But with changing ocean environments becoming more favourable for groundfish, the betting in most quarters is that cod – as well as much more valuable species like halibut and turbot – is going to be much more important in overall mix in the years to come.
So not only does the industry have to get it figured out, but it also has to be prepared for it. That means having a full evolved plan that includes harvesting, processing, resource management/science, and of course, marketing and branding. After all, we've been out of the cod business since 1992.
As a wise man once said, sticking one's head in the sand and hoping the challenging times pass does nothing but leave one open for an awful kick in the 'arse.