Nfld. & Labrador

More than just a trendy label: The uphill struggle to make the cod fishery sustainable

A fish plant owner who fought hard for environmental certification in a Newfoundland fishery says he had no choice but to give it up, Sarah Smellie writes.

Marine Stewardship Council's vaunted blue label has become influential in the world seafood trade

On Fogo Island, fishermen have been using cod pots, an easy-on-the-ocean way of harvesting fish. (Submitted by Brett Favaro)

It isn't easy being green, and that includes the deep green ocean, too. 

For one fish plant owner in eastern Newfoundland, the fight to bring sustainable practices to his industry has meant a painful setback that unravelled years of hard work, and the loss of a type of certification that appeals to environmentally conscious consumers.

"A sustainable fishery means that you're taking out an amount of fish that the fishery can support," said Alberto Wareham, president of Arnold's Cove-based Icewater Seafoods. 

It was the right thing to do. What choice do I have?- Alberto Wareham

"If you're taking out more than the fishery can support, that's a short-term focus and that's not where we want to be."

After years of research and paperwork — and a year of what turned out to be a short-lived victory — Wareham was forced to make a difficult decision: he withdrew the Marine Stewardship Council's sustainability certification for the cod fishery off the south coast of Newfoundland. 

Icewater president Alberto Wareham voluntarily surrendered the sustainable designation for cod caught off southern Newfoundland. (CBC)

The decision cost him time, money, and a few major customers who were drawn to the vaunted blue MSC label. 

"It was the right thing to do," he said. "What choice do I have?"

Label has changed how customers buy seafood

The Marine Stewardship Council formed in the mid-1990s, after the world's fish stocks – in particular, Newfoundland's cod stocks – plummeted. The council was launched by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, the multinational company behind brands like Dove soap and Hellmann's mayonnaise.

The MSC label tells consumers that the fish they've purchased can be traced back to a fishery which has been certified "sustainable" by the council.

Cod on a filleting machine a the Icewater Seafoods processing plant in Arnold's Cove. (CBC)

In granting these certifications, it looks at factors like the gear used in harvesting, the impact of the fishery on the larger environment, and the management of the fishery.

Wareham started the MSC certification process for the cod fishery in the 3PS region, off the south coast of the island, in 2010.

In 2016, it finally came through, and 3PS became Canada's first MSC-certified Atlantic cod fishery.

A reluctant but necessary decision

MSC certification has become the market standard for seafood, especially in the European market. For instance, British retail giant Marks & Spencer, which buys cod from Wareham, encourages its customers to "be an #oceanhero" and look for the blue MSC tag on seafood products.

Costco will sell at-risk species like Atlantic cod onlyfrom MSC-certified fisheries. That's why all the cod fillets from its St. John's store, just an hour and a half away from Wareham's, come all the way from Iceland.

So it was with a heavy heart that Wareham voluntarily gave up the certification this year when the 3PS cod stocks were found to be struggling again.

"Basically what's happening is we have a very high level of mortality," he said.

Federal stock reports for this year showed that large numbers of fish born in 2010 and 2011 — fish that would be spawning and being caught this year — hadn't survived.

"So the concern was that if we didn't reduce the catch, we'd have a much bigger problem looming in the future," said Wareham.

"We've lost some business with certain customers that, for their particular market, must have MSC-certified fish. We no longer have MSC-certified fish. So we've had to sell that fish elsewhere."

No hard and fast rules on sustainability

Though the MSC sets the current market standard, it is not without its critics. There are no hard and fast rules to determine what makes a sustainable fishery, and some scientists say the MSC's version of sustainable isn't clear or tough enough.

Even the 3PS certification was met with resistance. Halifax's Ecology Action Centre filed an official objection, saying the cod in the region was still at risk and on its way down.

Cod processed at Icewater Seafoods had been sold to buyers like retail giant Marks & Spencer. (CBC)

"A sustainable fishery can be defined in narrow terms or in more holistic terms," says Brett Favaro, an instructor at the Marine Institute in St. John's who has been working with harvesters on Fogo Island to develop a more sustainable fishery using cod pots.

"Fisheries is not just about taking things out of the water, it's about what you do with it once you take it out," he said.

"This is something people have started to talk about locally: how should we take it out of the water, and what should we do with it once it's caught?"

Gear needs to be easy on the ocean

Favaro thinks a properly sustainable fishery would be managed with a view beyond the fish, looking toward the community and culture that the fishery serves.

Chef Lora Kirk, who serves Fogo-caught cod at the acclaimed Toronto restaurant Ruby Watcho, talks with George Ford while salt cod dries in Fogo. (Lora Kirk)

He points to the Shorefast Foundation's New Ocean Ethic, a series of projects and wide-ranging plans to revitalize the fishery while building a tourism industry and supporting the community, as a great example of a local approach to fisheries sustainability.

The vision includes the Fogo Island cod pot fishery, which uses easy-on-the-ocean gear like cod pots and handlines to catch high-quality cod. Shorefast used its narrative of community and ocean sustainability to develop a market for the fish in high-end Toronto and St. John's restaurants.

Whether the Newfoundland fishery moves toward the MSC model of sustainability or a locally developed model, Favaro said there's an important first step.

"We need to agree on what we're trying to accomplish," Favaro said. 

Some GoPro footage from CBC's Zach Goudie of cod pots in use off Fogo Island 2:13

As for the 3PS fishery, Wareham said there is work to do.

"We're working with DFO and some of the industry stakeholders on improvements we need to make," he said.

Quotas for cod in the 3PS region this year have been cut by half this year.

"Hopefully that's going to have a positive impact on the resource," he said. "And at some point in the next several years, if we see an improvement in the stock, then 3PS should be MSC-certified again."

About the Author

Sarah Smellie is a journalist in St. John's.