For the benefit of those who haven't been around the actual fishery a lot since the wild and crazy days of the early 1990s, let me clear up any confusion about the cod fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador: There will never be a cod fishery in this province again like we saw in the past, pre-1992.
To suggest otherwise is pure ignorance of fact; or else it's a blatant attempt to romanticize and/or politicize notions of the good old days, geared to capitalize on "motherhood and apple pie" appeal of such a theory to spark the occasional vote.
Along the northeast coast of Newfoundland, cod is currently considered a nuisance; it is an impediment to far more valuable fisheries like shrimp and crab. These are not my words, they are the words of the people out there on the water. Ask them. They'll tell you.
On the south and west coast of Newfoundland and up along the south coast of Labrador, groundfish like cod are much more important, especially in the small boat fisheries. But even there, it's about far more than just cod. It's about turbot and, perhaps even more so, halibut.
Halibut is worth $3.70 a pound on average. Even turbot is fetching over $2.18.
By comparison, cod is pulling in about .50 cents per pound. At prices like that, the only way to make cod profitable at an industrial fishing level is to catch a honking big pile of it. And look how that brilliant supply and demand marketing strategy worked out for us in the past.
Just for pure ha-ha's, here's a list of species in this province currently more valuable per pound than cod: halibut, turbot, monkfish, smelts, surf clams, scallop, whelk, cockles, sea urchins, tuna, lumpfish (roe), lobster, crab and shrimp.
Consider that the entire cod fishery in this province saw just over 18 million pounds landed on the wharf in 2012, and it was worth about $9.3 million in total landed value. That's not a lot compared to the crab and shrimp fisheries, which together clocked in at more than $450 million.
Flim-flam or a way forward?
Some have suggested on the Broadcast in recent weeks that the best thing to do with cod is to focus the resource on the smaller boat fleets. They suggest the smaller boats could make a go of cod, because they wouldn't need the much bigger quotas that the larger boat fleets would need to make it viable. The idea is that a limited resource can be better managed and maybe even — hold the phone — properly marketed.
Interesting idea or wishful flim-flam? Who knows.
But the truth is, even if the cod fishery came back province-wide right this minute to historical "hauling it up in baskets" levels, there wouldn't be much we could do about it.
A great many vessels are currently not equipped for it. It could be a small supplement fishery for a few multispecies enterprises, but that's about it.
Onshore, where would all that cod be processed? Outside of the Icewater operation at Arnold's Cove, all the dedicated cod processing plants are gone.
When it comes to marketing, we are even further behind.
An experienced processor (who is as straight a shooter as ever there was in the processing business) told me flat out this past spring that nobody wanted to see any huge volumes of cod at all this year because there was nothing much they could do with it. And that was someone from a company that has tried everything with cod in recent years from salting to prime fillets to you name it.
Any markets that want cod are already getting stuffed to the gills by producers in places like Norway and Iceland. They have marketed and branded their product relentlessly, and they have established footholds in the marketplace - and oh, by the way, at the same time, they are seeing stock recoveries in many areas of the north-western Atlantic to the point that there is even talk some cod fisheries there could get Marine Stewardship Certification in the near future.
Am I saying we should abandon cod as a commercial species?
No. Not at all.
But by God, we have a lot of work and catching up to do in terms of harvesting, processing, branding and marketing (certainly not necessarily in that order) if we want to make it work for everyone involved.
If by some miracle we are given a second chance for a profitable and sensible cod fishery, this time it's imperative we get it right.