A new pilot program started by a husband and wife on Fogo Island has begun to transform the island's fishing industry, giving local fishermen top dollar for their catch and putting top-quality Newfoundland codfish on plates in premium restaurants in Toronto. 

Tony Cobb and Janice Thomson are the founders of Fogo Island Fish, a group running a program to hand-line top quality cod and sell their product directly to chefs and restaurants.  

Cobb grew up on Fogo Island and sees the project as a way to right a wrong in rural fishing communities. 

"It was very clear a very long time ago that we needed to do this," he told CBC Radio's The Broadcast.

Fogo wharf

The wharf in Fogo is active again with cod harvesting, although in a much different way from generations ago. (Tony Cobb)

Cobb's father was a fisherman who quit fishing in 1967, during what Cobb describes as the peak of the industry in the area. His father reasoned that he couldn't provide for his family as a fisherman and found another career. 

Cobb said that the economic situation in rural fishing villages is as dire today as it was then because not enough money is returning to fishermen and their communities. 

Best cod in the world

Although he grew up on Fogo Island, Cobb said that he has travelled a considerable amount, and that the best codfish in the world came from Newfoundland and Labrador. 

'Virtually unilaterally, chefs are telling us it's cod unlike any cod they've ever had.' - Tony Cobb

"It's interesting to travel to other places and see how cod is held in such high esteem by diners and chefs in other places, but not so much in Newfoundland," Cobb said.

He said the idea for the Fogo Island Fish project all came together after a conversation with a chef that offered an interesting solution to the economic struggles of many rural fishing towns. 

"What we needed to do was to reinvent the business of fish to serve community," he said in an interview. 

That solution involved bringing quality fish direct to market in small quantities, and having close relationships with small customers.  

This allows for direct feedback between chefs and harvesters on how the fish is prepared and ensures the best possible product. Cobb said the reviews so far have been excellent. 

"Virtually unilaterally, chefs are telling us it's cod unlike any cod they've ever had. Its colour, its texture, its flavour is very different from any other cod they've got access to," he said. 

Fogo Island cod at Ruby Watchco.

A cod dish, made with Fogo Island cod, served at Ruby Watchco. in Toronto. (Lora Kirk)

Cod reaching 20 Toronto restaurants

Newfoundland cod is now appearing on the menus of 20 restaurants in Toronto as a result of the Fogo Island Fish program. 

Chef Lora Kirk is sourcing codfish for her restaurant Ruby Watchco. from Tony Cobb after meeting him on Fogo Island a few years ago and spending some time with a few fishermen. 

"When I was with the fishermen, I got to see exactly how they jig for cod, how amazing it is, and how much hard work it is, but you're getting this beautiful fish," Kirk said. 

She tasted the fish during her trip and was hooked. She wanted to share that experience with the customers at her restaurant. 

"The fish is so much cleaner, fresher. The texture - you can still get a beautiful crispy skin, but the flesh has texture but almost melts in your mouth. It's something I've never experienced before," Kirk said.

She said the fish has garnered an amazing response from the diners at Ruby Watch Co. and she has spread the word to other chefs. The service while getting the fish isn't bad either. 

"I just call Tony when I need a delivery ... and it literally shows up at my back door," said Kirk. 

Process ensures quality

Cobb said the feedback they've been getting from chefs like Kirk has convinced them they're on the right track, and he credits the process used to catch the cod for the early success of the project. 

Thirty-three harvesters were invited to participate in the project to hand-line the fish with a hook and line, bleed, gut and wash the fish at sea, then pack them on ice, all within five hours of the catch.

The fishermen only catch the cod in small quantities, about 500 or 600 pounds per day, to ensure a good product.  

The cod are filleted once back on land and then frozen with sophisticated technology to bring the fish to market in the same condition as when it leaves the plant. Cobb said the process also keeps processing jobs in the community.

Lora Kirk and George Ford

Chef Lora Kirk (left) with local fisher George Ford and some salt cod in Fogo. (Lora Kirk)

Not the fastest, but the highest quality

Austen Reid, who has been fishing for 38 years and is one of the people taking part in the pilot project, said he believes hand-lining high-quality fish is the way forward for cod. Most of the industry collapsed in the early 1990s, and the focus then was on mass exports of a block-frozen product. 

He said that hand-lining cod might not be the fastest process, but it certainly pays off. 

"Hand-lining is excellent quality, yes. You can't get no better fish than hand-lined fish," Reid said. 

"We've got fishermen that fished hand lines this year for the first time in their life that have fished for 35 and 40 years, using cod traps, gill nets, and this year they tried hand lines, and they're very excited about the quality."

Reid said the fishermen also make significantly more money for their hand-lined cod. He said fish caught in gill nets fetch between 55 and 60 cents a pound, while the hand-lined cod net $1.25 a pound. 

That puts a lot of extra money into the community with the 16,000 pounds of grade A cod Reid and his brother hand-lined this season. 

Room for more restaurants

Cobb said it's still early in the project, but there's room to grow from the 20 restaurants as part of the program in Toronto, with potential to expand into markets in other cities. 

He hopes the project will be proof of the concept and become a model for other rural Newfoundland and Labrador fishing communities.