Nfld. & Labrador

Shelving shrimp: Inside Katsheshuk II, OCI's $8-million bet on groundfish

For years the Katsheshuk II hauled in shrimp off the shores of Newfoundland but shrinking quotas have forced a change.

Big drop in shrimp quotas forcing companies to invest in groundfish, says Blaine Sullivan

Blaine Sullivan, chief operating officer of Ocean Choice International, says the $8-million refit of the Katsheshuk II will shift the company away from shellfish and towards groundfish. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

For years the Katsheshuk II hauled in shrimp off the shores of Newfoundland. The ship caught, processed and froze the shrimp to be sent to customers.

But shrimp stocks have shrunk, leaving Ocean Choice International with too many boats for too small a quota, so the company is spending $8 million to convert the ship.

It's not the end of the industry.- Blaine Sullivan

"The shellfish resources are declining but in general, some exceptions, groundfish is increasing," says Blaine Sullivan, the chief operating officer for OCI.

The Katsheshuk II is being overhauled so it can start fishing for groundfish. The industry is hoping for the eventual return of cod, but in the near future it will be other species.

"Our purpose now is to focus on red fish and some other species, but yes, definitely, when we built this vessel we expected cod to increase in the future," said Sullivan.

"We've built it with that in mind."

Processing on board

A lot of the money has gone into a new processing plant on board the ship. The million pounds of fish that this vessel can hold can all be processed on board.

The fish are sorted, sized, gutted, sliced and frozen, ready to be delivered to customers around the world.

Jeff Burke is managing the conversion of the Katsheshuk II from shrimp to groundfish. The sorting station will separate by-catch from groundfish before it's processed. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

"Years ago there was a lot more manual labour on board, a lot more handling, and nowadays most of the equipment does the heavy work for you," said Jeff Burke, who manages the boat.

The processing plant is more labour-intensive for groundfish than it is for shrimp. Twelve people, working in six-hour shifts, will be needed to process the fish.

The ship will spend weeks at a time at sea, fishing as far away as the Arctic Circle.

Uncertainty over cod

Cod stocks have been climbing in recent years, but are still well below the levels they were before the cod moratorium in the early 1990s.

It's unclear how much quotas will increase, how quickly and how it will be divided between small inshore vessels and larger offshore boats like the Katsheshuk II.

The processing plant on the Katsheshuk II is more automated, reducing the physical tasks workers used to have to do. But it will need more workers to operate than when it was processing shrimp. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

Sullivan said that makes it challenging to make the right decisions about where to invest.

"Without reinvestment you can't protect those jobs," he said. "Whether it's on land or on the ocean, we really need a stable environment to invest in."

Even with shrinking quotas for shrimp and crab, Sullivan said the industry won't shrink.

"We want people to continue to choose this industry as a source of good jobs, and yes, we definitely believe this is a transition," he said.

"It's not the end of the industry."


Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.