Fishery adapts years after N.L. cod closure

The cod fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador is a shadow of what it was, but the seafood industry has still learned to change with the times.
The crab industry in most of Newfoundland and Labrador was stalled this spring because of a dispute over prices. ((CBC))

Newfoundland and Labrador's wharves still seem to bustle with crews and seafood, but the fishery has changed completely in just a generation.

Eighteen years after the northern cod moratorium was imposed, there are bigger boats, fewer workers and veterans like Gerard Chidley, who have all learned to adapt to a new way of working.

"We did the things that needed to be done to get us to where we are today," said Chidley, speaking to CBC News as his vessel Atlantic Champion offloaded its crab catch in Cape Broyle, just south of St. John's.

"The people who didn't do it are still where they were to, 18 years ago."

Hulking steel vessels

The trap skiffs and punts of the historical fishery have given way to hulking steel vessels that are able to go further from shore for other species, especially crab, which has helped Newfoundland and Labrador's fishery evolve through its greatest crisis.

In St. John's alone, hundreds of thousands of pounds of crab get offloaded on the south side of the city's harbour each year.

For Gerard Fennelly, who went from the trap skiff to the fish plant and finally to the offloading business in St. John's, the fishery now is doing better than it ever did with cod.

"People have got into bigger boats and better boats and it seems there's always a struggle with prices and stuff like that, but once the fishery gets going it seems that people are doing better," Fennelly said.

The cod fishery is indisputably a shadow of what it was. Most of the areas shut down in 1992 remain closed, with Atlantic cod still considered a threatened species. The landed value of cod in the province was just $15 million last year.

Crab and shrimp have been the dominant species, but in recent years both have been rocked by poor exchange on the Canadian dollar and slumping demand in the U.S. This year, the seasonal crab industry was nearly derailed amid a dispute over prices.

Survival for some

Arnold's Cove, in Newfoundland's Placentia Bay, has one of the few cod plants that survived.

Alberto Wareham, president of Icewater Seafoods, said that has not been an easy feat.

"It's just a continuous focus on finding the markets that'll pay a premium price for a premium product," he said.

Wareham said if the resource is managed properly, this operation will be around for a long time.

"It's science and it's sustainability and they go hand in hand," he said.

Science, though, has had problems of its own. With the decline in the commercial value of traditional fisheries, successive federal governments have dramatically scaled back spending on fisheries research.

Just last week — on the very anniversary of the July 2 announcement — Premier Danny Williams announced Newfoundland and Labrador will pay for an independent fisheries research centre to be based at Memorial University's Marine Institute.

Gerard Fennelly said he does not want to see a repeat of 1992.

"Everybody got to be aware and conscious of what next year's going to bring. So sometimes you got to bite the bullet today to make sure that tomorrow's there," he said.