On Tuesday afternoon, Fisheries Minister Derrick Dalley received a private tour of the Icewater Seafoods cod processing plant in Arnold’s Cove.
The tour is the first of several visits Dalley will make to processing plants. Dalley was also accompanied by Calvin Peach, MHA for Bellevue.
“I want an opportunity, obviously, to see the work that they do, to tour the facility and to have a discussion and personally try to understand a little bit more about the cod processing that’s happening in the province,” Dalley said.
Because of government investments and signs cod stocks are recovering, Dalley has reason to care about the cod processing at Icewater Seafoods.
Cod was once the principle player in the fishery, but in recent years it has taken a backseat to other species, particularly crab and shrimp. Many plants which formerly processed cod have had to adapt to the change in the industry.
“(Icewater is) the last plant left in Newfoundland, Atlantic Canada, Canada, North America focused on cod production,” said Alberto Wareham, president and CEO of Icewater Harvesting Inc.
“We are the single largest buyer of cod in Newfoundland now, and there’s not that many other people buying it at all.”
Dalley made his appreciation of the workers at Icewater known, speaking to them as a group during their lunch break, and later stopping to talk with individuals on the cutting room floor.
“We want to hold onto plants like this one here,” Dalley said to the plant staff.
“That’s important to us, and important to me.”
The provincial government has invested money multiple times over the years to keep the cod industry afloat. It has also made several large investments in Icewater.
In April of this year, a strategic equity investment of $2 million went towards the company’s new fishing vessel. Back in 2010, the government contributed $170, 000 to state-of-the-art environmentally friendly equipment that cut the company’s operational fuel costs dramatically.
While most of Icewater’s competitors went under, or shifted markets, Wareham focused on upgrading the plants technology and efficiency, and searched for new markets. This kept them afloat, but in recent years even Icewater has struggled.
According to Wareham, in 2011 the company’s cod purchases were down 60 per cent from the year before.
This change did not come from a decreased number of cod in the water; the numbers have actually risen recently as the shrimp and crab resource has started to go down, prompting province-wide conversations about the revitalization of the cod industry.
But some fishermen have left the industry because they can no longer make a living.
“If you go back three, or four, or five years ago, the price of cod was 75 or 80 cents, the price of crab was $1.05, the price of shrimp was 35 or 40 cents,” Wareham said.
“Today, crab is $2 to $2.50, shrimp is 60 to 80, and cod is 50 (cents).”
This market shift has affected everyone at Icewater, but particularly the workers on the floor.
“A lot of work is pretty insecure with what’s on the go, especially with the changes to the EI and that kind of stuff,” said Melvin Lockyer, of the Fish, Food and Allied Worker’s union (FFAW).
“So it’s just making it hard for people to hang on to the fishery I guess. So much uncertainty in the fishery. After 25 years they’re picking up and leaving. (Seasonal workers at this plant) went down from 35 weeks (on average) three years ago, to 28, then 22, then last year we were 14 I think. There’s a big difference.”
The provincial government and the company’s investments make the Icewater plant viable. If it were to close however, it would be unlikely to start up again.
“The plant is like a big operating room in the sense that it’s highly automated equipment in there, it’s not what people think of as a typical fish plant. So we need technicians to run that plant. And if we can’t continue to operate, and can’t keep those technicians, we can’t reopen this plant in a year’s time, or six months time, or whatever,” Wareham said.
“I hope nothing happens to this plant,” Dalley said.
“This is a valuable plant for the province, a valuable plant in the industry right now. They’re buying from all around the province, there’s about 200 people working here, it’s important for the community.
“Right now we still have a significant shellfish fishery in this province, and there’s some slow transformation. We’re certainly not peaked in terms of the cod fishery, but as we look to the future and we see signs of recovery, that’s creating a lot more discussion, and I guess interest in what’s going to happen with the cod.”