Nfld. & Labrador

Fishery may be in transition, but don’t bank on cod as a saviour

With shrimp and crab in serious decline, there's no realistic reason to suppose good old cod can save the day. At least, not yet.
Once a mainstay of Newfoundland and Labrador's economy, cod is now a small part of the landed value of the fishery. (CBC)

I love this idea that gets floated by political decision makers, that the fishing industry in this province is in transition.

Well, of course it is. But from what to what?

Shrimp and crab are clearly in serious decline in most commercial fishing areas. Those two species have made up about 80 per cent of the industry’s total value in each of the past 10 years.

You don’t just replace those kinds of fisheries overnight. And certainly not with cod. At least not any time soon.

If you need a lesson in how tough groundfish like cod can be as an industry in today’s world, look no further than 3Ps on the south coast of Newfoundland.

Fishermen there don’t have to get back into the cod fishery. They never really left it. You see, the cod fishery in that area is the only actual commercial cod fishery in the province (the fishery on Newfoundland and Labrador’s northeast coast is referred to as a “stewardship” fishery and comes with small quotas).

No sale

There’s 10,000 tonnes of fish available in 3Ps. As of this writing, more than 60 per cent of it is still in the water mostly because fishermen have struggled to find anyone to buy the stuff (check out our recent fish panel Fisheries Broadcast podcast for more.)

Sure, there are some local companies that buy cod. But the larger buyers have been wildly inconsistent as to when or if they are buying. And smaller local buyers only want a little fish here and there.

The success of cod is mostly — at this point — based on finding somewhere to sell it consistently.

Market opportunities?

And it turns out there might be some market opportunities available, even if they do come at the expense of other key cod fishing areas.

Cod stocks  are still barely fractions of what they used to be.  There’s simply not enough fish in the water for everyone in the industry to transition into.

The cod fishery on the United States’ side of Georges Bank in the Gulf of Maine was shut down this past November when American scientists suggested stocks had plummeted to about three per cent of their historic level (although fishermen there argue the scientists are wrong — sound familiar?)

And the word is that the huge Barent Sea quota will be chopped by 100,000 tonnes this year. That’s about one-tenth of the overall catch, which means there’ll still be an awful lot of fish coming out of that water and going into markets. But still, a 100,000 tonne opening is a 100,000 tonne opening. And the total quota in this province is barely a fraction of that.

But the question is, who will take advantage of those openings? Will it be the inshore fishermen with no marketing or supply support from anyone, and no access to outside buyers? Or will it be companies like OCI who already have established contacts in cod markets and a ready supply of frozen-at-sea fish?

Fish? What fish?

There’s another problem in this “transition” plan of moving out of shellfish and into cod and other groundfish: The scientific reality.

Cod may be making a comeback, and the signs might be all good — but the stocks as a whole are still nowhere near full scale historic commercial fishing levels. They are still barely fractions of what they used to be.

There’s simply not enough fish in the water for everyone in the industry to transition into.

The warming marine environment and the changing ocean dictate that changes are absolutely coming for the fishery, and perhaps in short order. In the face of that change, it’s going to take some major changes to how we do things here in this province if we hope to have even moderate success in the groundfish business.

Because the way things currently are, banking on an immediate and successful shift from $600 million crab and shrimp industries into what has been a $10 million cod fishery in recent years is akin to taking a long walk on a very short wharf.

About the Author

Jamie Baker

Fisheries

Jamie Baker hosts The Broadcast each weekday on CBC Radio.

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