Crab in Conche's future

Aaron
Aaron Beswick
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It may seen as the worst possible time to open a new crab processing plant, but there's optimism in a community that's always had a determination to survive

Conche is waiting.

And it's ready.

Bearing names like Conche Flyer, Irish Connection and Lady Kearney, the brightly painted fleet tugs at their moorings to a wharf recently rebuilt by Small Craft Harbours, waiting for the ice to clear off. Just up the road, plant workers have run pipes into the harbour for a new crab production line capable of handling 40,000 lb. of product a day.

Even Leonard Wiseman is getting ready - the janitor at Sacred Heart School stood knee deep in the balloons he'd been blowing up for last Friday's graduation. There were three graduates.

Manager Scott Patey (left) shows off the cooker, part of a new crab processing line installed last winter by Northern Seafoods, while plant worker Danny Carroll (right) works on renovations to the fish plant at Conche. - Photos by Aaron Beswick/The Northe

Conche -

Conche is waiting.

And it's ready.

Bearing names like Conche Flyer, Irish Connection and Lady Kearney, the brightly painted fleet tugs at their moorings to a wharf recently rebuilt by Small Craft Harbours, waiting for the ice to clear off. Just up the road, plant workers have run pipes into the harbour for a new crab production line capable of handling 40,000 lb. of product a day.

Even Leonard Wiseman is getting ready - the janitor at Sacred Heart School stood knee deep in the balloons he'd been blowing up for last Friday's graduation. There were three graduates.

"Same as we'd do if there were 100 kids graduating," said Wiseman, his cheeks red after a balloon blew up in his face.

"Try to make it special."

Isolated even by Northern Peninsula standards, the 205 people who call Conche home have a few important things - heavy Irish accents, a well-protected harbour and a future.

On this island, having a future means having work - there's 35 fishermen working two 60-footers and four or five 45-footers. While employment levels at the plant after its recent expansion haven't been announced yet, it's expected to provide seasonal work for 35-40 people.

"I won't be excited till we get some product," said Scott Patey, manager of the Northern Seafoods plant. "But it's good for Conche, at least it's a future they can depend on."

The bright metal butchering line, grading/packaging line, cooker and brine freezer were installed last winter after Trevor Taylor, then the provincial fisheries minister, approved a crab processing licence for Conche.

While past years were always a struggle for plant workers, the addition of crab will mean an extra four to six weeks of work - making it much easier to qualify for Employment Insurance benefits. The plant also processes pelagics, lump roe and groundfish.

"But mackerel is always uncertain," plant worker Gerard Gardiner said as he shifted one of the pipes that will carry brine, freezing processed crab in -19 C high-salinity water. "Crab is something you can depend on."

The aging plant has been extensively renovated - brought up to Canadian Food Inspection Agency standards with raised ceilings, hand and foot washing stations and a new processing line.

"The plant is ready to go - we've done some production and we're waiting for the ice to clear up," said Derek Green, president of Northern Seafoods.

"We're looking at this as a long-term investment."

Long-term investment by private industry willing to bet its own money on the survival of communities is rare in rural Newfoundland. But Conche now has a multimillion-dollar fish plant and a modern, locally owned fleet.

And a long-term view is needed more this year than ever.

The Northern Seafoods plant, like the fishermen, won't be making much money this year.

World markets have crashed, taking seafood prices with them. The snow crab hauled from the North Atlantic's cold waters is a luxury item, particularly hard hit by a severe recession in its main destination market - the United States.

The price to fishermen for crab has dropped to $1.40 per lb. While the province's Fish Price Setting panel refused to drop the price any lower, to the $1.12 per lb. that Derek Butler of the Association of Seafood Producers claims the market will support, Northern Seafoods will still be buying this year.

"It's a hard year in the crab industry for everybody and it's a tough year to start out," said Green. "Hopefully we're in a valley and it'll get better from here on in. You have to be optimistic in this business."

That's a thought shared by Frank Kearney.

"We'll survive this year. That's all you can do when you're at this - there's no point in getting down," said the 63-year-old fisherman, whose season has been shortened by a month already by lingering ice.

"They say God never closed a window without opening another. I got me doubts, but it sounds all right."

His wife has worked at the plant for 32 years and he started fishing cod from a trapskiff.

Their lives, like Conche itself, have revolved around an always uncertain fishery. But they've done well - the plant opened each season when others didn't and they raised three children.

"You got to give 'em credit - they kept that plant goin' through the hard times," Kearney said of the Greens.

And like Green, Kearney has staked his money and future in the fishery. Four years ago he and his family built the Lady Kearney from the shell of a 60-foot fibreglass hull.

"They was long days."

Over the course of one winter they built the house, installed a motor, transmission, wiring and gear.

"What one feller didn't know about, another did."

It was a huge project requiring knowledge of mechanics, carpentry, electrical systems and hydraulics, on top of how to fish - the type of thing you don't do if you don't see a future in your community and your industry.

"Conche will survive - it won't be big, but there's work here."

So last year they averaged 72 lbs per crab pot and had no trouble catching their shrimp quota.

"That was good fishing."

This year the Kearneys and the six other Conche boats, holding a combined 650,000 lb. of quota, will be selling to Northern Seafoods.

"You want to keep it going - the plant's important."

Organizations: Sacred Heart School, Employment Insurance, Canadian Food Inspection Agency Association of Seafood Producers

Geographic location: Conche, Northern Seafoods, Northern Peninsula Newfoundland North Atlantic United States

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Recent comments

  • Optimistic
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    This is wonderful news for outport Newfoundland. It's communities like these that keep our culture and heritage alive. I sincerely hope it does work out for the area. Newfoundlanders are known for getting through the hard times and it is courage and optimistic faith that makes this venture a reality.

  • former Trouty plant worke
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    Is this the crab quota that Trevor Taylor removed from the plant in Trouty,throwing 200 peaple out of work.Sneaky politics is alive and well in nl,especially when you have scared government menbers,to represent them,like exist on the bonavista pinisula

  • john
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    woopie do avalon gets the work and we should get 10 to 15 weeks of work eachyear ei for life

  • Optimistic
    July 01, 2010 - 20:24

    This is wonderful news for outport Newfoundland. It's communities like these that keep our culture and heritage alive. I sincerely hope it does work out for the area. Newfoundlanders are known for getting through the hard times and it is courage and optimistic faith that makes this venture a reality.

  • former Trouty plant worke
    July 01, 2010 - 20:24

    Is this the crab quota that Trevor Taylor removed from the plant in Trouty,throwing 200 peaple out of work.Sneaky politics is alive and well in nl,especially when you have scared government menbers,to represent them,like exist on the bonavista pinisula

  • john
    July 01, 2010 - 19:53

    woopie do avalon gets the work and we should get 10 to 15 weeks of work eachyear ei for life