NL·Eye on Iceland

Getting the gear: With cod making a comeback, N.L. looks to Iceland for best ways to catch it

Iceland is seen as a world leader in the seafood industry, and fish harvesters from this province are checking out some of the innovative gear. Part 1 in a series from Jane Adey of The Broadcast.

What Detroit's international auto show is for cars, Iceland's Fisheries Exhibition is for harvesters

An automated longlining system like the one used on this vessel is one of the gear types favoured in Iceland and is being checked out by Newfoundland and Labrador fishermen. (Mustad promotional video)

Labrador fisherman Alton Rumbolt is wide-eyed as he strolls around an exhibition room in Smarinn, Iceland.

For a fan of fishing, the Icelandic Fisheries Exhibition is as big a draw as Detroit's international auto show is for car lovers.

To come here and see how far they're advanced, it's a real eye opener.- Alton Rumbolt

IceFish, as it's known, brings together Icelandic companies with others from all over the world, showcasing the latest developments in catching, processing, packaging and marketing.

"I think we're so far behind the times," said Rumbolt. "To come here and see how far they're advanced, it's a real eye opener. There's a lot of new technology that I never thought existed until we came here to this show." 

Alton Rumbolt, who fishes out of Mary's Harbour in Labrador, travelled to Iceland to check out the latest in fishing gear. (Jane Adey/CBC)

He's one of many Newfoundland and Labrador harvesters gearing up for the cod fishery, and many are looking to the thriving industry in Iceland for best practices.

What can we learn?

Iceland's fishing and marine innovation industries are thriving. In September, a group of harvesters, processors, researchers and government officials from N.L. travelled there to see what can be learned.  Jane Adey, host of The Broadcast, made the trip too and has developed a series called Eye on Iceland

Cod quotas in Newfoundland and Labrador aren't anywhere near what is landed in Iceland but there is great hope that cod will rebound.

"It's an exciting time, I'm enthusiastic about it," said Tony Doyle, a harvester from Bay de Verde. He also made the overseas trip to investigate what's available.

Doyle settled on a couple of DNG auto-jiggers, made in Iceland, which automatically bring the catch to the surface after codfish are caught on the hooks.

"Fishermen over here are using four to six of these on a boat for catching cod, and there's a program I can purchase ... and synchronize the use of these jiggers so that there's always one at the bottom fishing when I'm taking fish off the other one," explained Doyle.

Fisherman Tony Doyle of Bay de Verde is interested in an automated cod jigger, one of the exhibits at IceFish. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Rumbolt needs more automation too but he'd like to catch a lot more fish than an auto-jigger can snag. For his enterprise in Mary's Harbour, he's got his eye on a system the Icelanders love: an automated longline.

"Something with less people to operate it because we're finding it very hard now, I know in our area, crew members are hard to come by," said Rumbolt.

Doesn't come cheap

Mustad is a Norwegian longline system widely used in Iceland. Most harvesters in that country say hook and line systems yield higher quality fish than the gillnets typically used in Newfoundland.

The auto-line's automatic baiter fills up to six hooks a second and cuts down on the number of crew members needed. Harvesters cast a trawl line out the back of the vessel. The line dangles thousands of individual hooks near the ocean's bottom. Each hook catches a fish and the catch is automatically hauled in alive.

This fall, Lumsden fisherman Basil Goodyear started using the technology on his boat. For the past 20 years he's been focused on crab and shrimp but with shellfish on the decline, he sees cod as the future.

"Right now it's probably the only thing that we have got that's going in the right direction on a graph, so hopefully that'll continue," said Goodyear.

Lumsden crew checks out automated longline

6 years ago
Duration 0:43
Lumsden crew checks out automated longline

At about $200,000 for a basic package, the auto-line system isn't cheap. Goodyear was able to get $96,000 from a provincial government fund and spent $100,000 of his own money. So far, he's buoyed by good catch rates.

"We did have one set where we had about the first 300 hooks that came aboard, I'm guessing we had close to 2,000 pounds of fish."

But it's a roller-coaster ride. There could be a cod on every hook for 20 hooks and then none for 10. "Then you see another string of fish. It's very exciting, especially when you see big fish coming," Goodyear laughed.

Keeping cool

And how about once fish are caught? Surely Icelanders have lessons to teach about ice.

Freyr Fridriksson's company, Kapp, is drawing a crowd on the exhibition floor at IceFish, partly because it's serving an Icelandic beer but also because of the product it is showing off.

The machine, called Optimice, makes liquid ice by mixing seawater with refrigerant. That means harvesters can make slurry on board their vessels instead of loading ice at the wharf.

Freyr Fridriksson demonstrates a machine that allows fish harvesters to make ice onboard a ship using seawater. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Crew members use a hose to spray the liquid ice onto tubs of fish. Water runs out the bottom and the cod is left chilling in ice crystals.

"It's much less work for the fisherman," says Fridriksson. 

"It cools down the fish from five to seven degrees warm down to –0.9 C. You get a better quality for the product and more shelf life for the product."

But not everyone in a country named for ice, surprisingly, favours ice in the fishing industry.

Jon Gunnarsson is promoting a subchilling system known as Rotex — a rectangular steel box that contains an auger-like component that turns freshly caught fish in chilled seawater for 40 to 50 minutes. 

"In essence it cools the fish down to a level where you do not have to have ice," said Gunnarsson.

"It's designed to put the cooling energy inside the fish and prolongs the shelf life … by three to five days. The less water you have around the fish, the less bacteria will develop."

But staving off bacteria comes at a cost. The smallest Rotex system costs $50,000.

Jon Gunnarsson displays a Rotex system, which revolves fish in chilled water until their temperature cools. (Jane Adey/CBC)

The prices of Icelandic gear are a big concern for Rumbolt. He loves all the technology but like any business operator he has to be able to justify the investment.

"Because right now with the price of cod, you know, you're only willing to put so much money into it because you don't know where it's going to carry you." 

Basil Goodyear agrees, saying the price for Grade A cod won't encourage harvesters to invest.

"It would be difficult to operate an auto-line system with five people in a crew and with the expense of bait and fuel with 80 cents a pound. I guess the processors are going to have to find better markets and get a better price if we're going to make it work," Goodyear said.

Small quota, lack of follow-up

And then, there's the science.

Since 2011 the Newfoundland and Labrador cod stock has been increasing by an average of 35 per cent a year. DFO says the spawning biomass has to triple from the current estimate of 300.000 tonnes before the stock moves from "critical" to "cautious."

I just wish I was 30 years old instead of 59.- Tony Doyle

While harvesters wait for word on a stock assessment in March 2018, Goodyear is looking for more from the government that invested in his new longline system.

"There has been very little followup. No one has even called from the department. No one has called and got into a serious conversation about how well it's working or whether it's going to be feasible," he complained.

"We're going to need everyone to play a part here, processors, fishermen, governments to really get this moving forward. To me, it doesn't show that there's a lot of interest."

While the fishery accounts for only about six per cent of the Iceland economy, the country is seen as a world leader in innovation. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Even with the perceived lack of encouragement and all the uncertainty about the future cod fishery, harvesters like Doyle and Rumbolt still say trips to Iceland are worthwhile to help them understand the competitive market and to help them prepare.

"Looking at all the equipment … I just wish I was 30 years old instead of 59," said Doyle.

Rumbolt wishes more harvesters could see the Iceland model first-hand.

"We really can learn a lot from it and I think go forward with some of their ideas … hopefully it'll work out for all fishermen at the end of the day." 


Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC's Land and Sea. She formerly hosted CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now and On The Go.

Jane Adey's Eye on Iceland series looks at what N.L. can learn from that country's fishery.