Ocean Choice International CEO Martin Sullivan speaks to reporters Tuesday after speaking to the St. John’s Board of Trade. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
The CEO of Ocean Choice International says the Newfoundland fishery is broken, and less government interference would fix it.
Martin Sullivan, speaking at the St. John’s Board of Trade luncheon at the Sheraton Hotel Tuesday, issued what he said was a “call to action” to the industry.
“The Newfoundland fishing industry model is broken,” he told the audience. “It’s not viable as it exists now, and unless we change, it won’t be viable in the future. The restructuring is a necessity right now, not something that we might want to do. And we don’t need any more studies. We’ve had lots of studies and reports coming out of your yin-yangs since the early ’80s, and most of them are saying the same thing.”
Chief among Sullivan’s complaints is that while market requirements are changing, with growing demand — especially in Asian markets — for whole fish, such as yellowtail, but minimum-processing requirements are hamstringing his company.
Sullivan added other competitors around the world — or even in Canada — don’t face the same restrictions.
“We have to be able to produce what the market wants if we’re going to maximize the value for everybody. That’s fishermen, processors, employees in plants and so on. We have to be allowed to sell the products the markets wants to bring back the best return to this province,” he said.
After the luncheon, Sullivan said he thinks there’s “hundreds of millions of dollars” in lost value in the ocean because the industry can’t provide what the market wants.
“We have 15 species for which there’s a specified processing requirement,” he said. “A lot of times, that’s contrary to what the market wants. So we basically want the opportunity to sell what the market wants, and lift those restrictions so we can increase value for our products, and that’ll translate back into better incomes for fishermen, better incomes for plant workers and better incomes for companies in the business.”
Sullivan pointed to yellowtail as an example.
“We’re required to produce fillets, which you can only really sell in North America or Western Europe, whereas the market demand is in Asia, where they want it in the whole format. So we’re restricted from producing a product that will bring better value back to the province. It (would) allow us to catch our entire quota, not leave thousands of tonnes of fish in the water, and (would) create a huge economic spinoff.”
Sullivan rejected the suggestion that doing less processing would cost jobs, because he said in this instance, jobs would be added on the boats, and wages and benefits would go up.
Sullivan said failure to lift restrictions would eventually result in the closure of fish plants.
“We have to adapt to the international market. All our competitors around the world basically can produce the products they want for the market,” he said. “If we don’t change that, as I said, our competitiveness is eroding over time, so in time, we’ll get less competitive every year. So it’s hard to predict exactly when that might happen, but it will inevitably happen if we don’t have change.”
Meanwhile, Port Union plant workers are still waiting to find out when that plant will reopen following extensive damage done by hurricane Igor last year. Rumours are circulating that Ocean Choice will be looking for a cash settlement from the insurance company and building a new crab plant in Bonavista, rather than reopen the Port Union shrimp plant. Sullivan said the company hasn’t made a decision yet to build in Bonavista, but didn’t rule it out.
“We’re looking at investments in Bonavista. We haven’t made decisions yet, but obviously it’s a very old plant, it was built in the ’50s, and that’s something we’re actively looking at but we haven’t made any decisions yet,” he said. “We’ll be deciding something on that over the next few months.”
As for when Port Union employees will hear about reopening the plant there, Sullivan said an announcement could be forthcoming soon.
“There’s meetings this morning, again this afternoon. We’re trying to get that finalized,” he said. “This has dragged on too long, so we’re trying to get that done so we can sit down with the workers and explain everything. But we don’t have an answer yet, unfortunately.”