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Letter: With the right choices, Northern cod will make a comeback

Northern cod is on the path to recovery, but proper management is critical, argues an executive from one Canadian firm.

The following is excerpted from a deposition given by Icewater Seafoods' Alberto Wareham to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans on the state of the Northern cod stock. Icewater Seafoods mailed the statement to IntraFish.

Icewater Seafoods Inc. is a family owned business with an extensive history in the Newfoundland cod fishery which started seven generations ago when my ancestors came to Newfoundland from Dorset, England. Icewater was formed in 2004 by my father, Bruce Wareham, from the former Newfoundland Operations of High Liner Foods Inc.

Today, Icewater is a vertically integrated groundfish company with the second largest holdings of >100’ Enterprise Allocations for various Groundfish stocks across Atlantic Canada. Access to these resources allows Icewater to plan and sustain operations at our plant in Arnold’s Cove. Our state-of-the-art plant is solely focused on the production of North Atlantic cod.  With a team of 210 "cod experts," we have successfully built strong niche markets for premium quality, individually quick frozen cod portions (loins, portions and tails) which are sold primarily in Europe.

Even after the moratorium was announced for Northern Cod (2J 3KL) in 1992, our plant operations remained focused solely on cod. This, coupled with the help and support of our community, has made Icewater the largest buyer and the largest producer of cod in Newfoundland since the moratorium.

Prior to 1992, North Atlantic cod was "king" of the world’s whitefish production which Newfoundland benefited from since the early Europeans began drying and salting fish along our shores in 1497. However, world production and consumption of whitefish has evolved significantly since the moratorium.

Although North Atlantic Cod continues to be the preferred whitefish for discerning consumers, it has lost its dominance of world whitefish production primarily to Alaskan and Russian pollock -- in 2016, the 1.4 million metric tons of North Atlantic cod that will be captured, represents only 18 percent of the 8 million metric tons of whitefish that will be harvested globally.

The disposition of world markets for North Atlantic cod has also changed significantly since the moratorium, from the late 1950s when freezing technology was introduced through to the moratorium the majority of Newfoundland cod was produced in to cod blocks and sold in North America this market no longer exists. Today North America only represents approximately 5 percent of the world market for North Atlantic cod.

The primary market for premium quality North Atlantic cod in fresh and frozen form is the United Kingdom and Western Europe. Icewater sells 90 percent of its production in the European market and competes with the top producers from Iceland and Norway where sustainability has been a focus for many years. Actually it was the announcement of the moratorium 1992 that was the genesis for the formation of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which has become the largest certifier of sustainable seafood in the world.

To be blunt, world markets do not need or defer to the mere 4,000 metric tons of Northern Cod captured in 2015. However, for Icewater, this raw material complemented our existing supply and allowed us to further develop our market presence in high-end European markets.

This is not to say that there is no future for Northern cod -- in fact, it is quite the opposite. Provided we do this right, that is, focus on quality and allow the stock to build, Northern cod could indeed be the future of the Newfoundland fishing industry. It is with this mind that I remind you of the following.

The latest Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) stock assessment for Northern Cod which was released in May 2016 shows the stock is only at 34 percent of the lower limit reference point -- the point below which the stock is at risk of serious long-term impairment of productivity. Under DFO’s precautionary framework removals should be kept at the lowest level possible and the very concept of a commercial fishery is inconsistent with this reality.

There is no doubt that the stock has experienced significant growth in the last five years.  It is also indisputable that much of this growth has been driven by a limited number of relatively strong year classes that have appeared as an anomaly, and not been experienced since. Unless these year classes are allowed to grow, develop into spawning stock and contribute to future recruitment, we could easily revert to the same cycle of collapse of our recent past.

We must, as required by the department’s own policy, keep removals at an absolute minimum. If catches are allowed to increase too soon, we will crop-off the growth and will for the third time in 25 years, lose the opportunity to realize the full potential of the Northern cod stock.

In fisheries, we often base our removals on an assessment of how the fish we catch today may impact our population next year, the year after and even out 10 years. With Northern cod, DFO has adopted a model that is unable to "see" beyond three years because of stochastic error associated with the model formulation. This limitation forces management decisions to be undertaken without an assessment of what the impacts may be over the medium and long-term horizon. This is clearly problematic, especially when we are only at 34 percent of the lower limit reference point.

To return to a previous point, prior to the moratorium the Newfoundland processing industry was "production driven," -- they produced primarily cod blocks and salted products (commodity products) which did not require a premium quality raw material. However, to compete in today’s market for premium quality cod we must start with a sustainably sourced, premium quality raw material. In this new market, the Newfoundland processing industry must be "market driven."  We must produce products demanded by the market and must focus on those products that yield the highest value for all steps in the value-chain.

A premium quality raw material can only come from a balanced offshore (Fall/Winter) and inshore (Spring/early Summer) fishery. We must remember that the Northern cod stock is migratory -- it spawns in the early spring in the offshore area and migrates to the inshore to feed during the summer months, returning to the offshore areas in the fall.

We understand various fisheries ministers and department officials have commented that priority access would be granted to the inshore up to the first 115,000 metric tons of Northern cod as the fishery recovers, however, priority does not mean exclusivity.

From a historical perspective, the >100’ fishery was a key component to keeping plants operating year-round in Newfoundland.  In a recent history of the Northern cod fishery prepared by a former RDG of Newfoundland Region, it was highlighted that from 1977 to 1992 the >100’ sector landed approximately 40 percent of total Canadian Northern cod landings.

The minister’s recent comment that his Government would honor any prior commitments to the inshore regarding access as the fishery recovers has been interpreted by some to mean exclusive access -- we cannot maximize the value from the Northern cod fishery as it recovers without an offshore component to the fishery.

One lesson learned from the moratorium is that fisheries managers need the best science available to them when making multi-year management decisions. The Northern cod stock covers a very large area with more than one genetically distinct stock. Although it has been well studied, there are some key deficiencies that exist with our understanding of where it resides, how and when it moves and its vulnerability to the fishery. For this reason and to ensure we are able to fish the stock sustainably and gain MSC certification in the future, the Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council and the Association of Seafood Producers began a Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP) for Northern cod in 2015. The five-year work plan has a budget of CAD 11.7 Million and will result in us having the best understanding of the stock that modern science permits. 

To date, the FIP has funded the development of assessment and simulation models, genetic identification of stock components and worked towards the development of a large-scale acoustic tracking array. In fact, a recent announcement by this government on the Ocean Frontier Institute included a partnership with our FIP that will significantly further our efforts to achieve sustainable management of this stock. For this, I and our partners thank you.

The work in our FIP has highlighted one key risk -- if the productivity of this stock remains low, the population is likely to decline again. Any fishing will increase that risk.

In a more positive vein, the stock may indeed continue to grow if capelin production improves and we truly keep removals to a minimum. If this is the case, we could achieve a limit reference point within five to 10 years. At this point, the stock will be ready to support a commercial fishery that is sustainably certified and can compete in world markets.