A company based out of Heart’s Ease Inlet, not far from Clarenville, is growing trapped cod for export to white-table restaurants across North America, building a reputation as a source of sustainable seafood for ethically minded diners.
Gooseberry Cove Cod catches cod in the summer, keeps them in an enclosure, feeds them their natural diet of herring and caplin, then harvests them in fall and winter.
They feed the fish to double their weight in about 90 days. The fish are then gutted and sent to the mainland where they fill a demand for seafood from a source people know and trust.
Claude Seward founded the company in 1990 and weathered the cod moratorium of 1992. In 1996 he partnered with Valerie Johnson, who took over the business end, while Seward, a fisherman, handled trapping and farming.
Gooseberry Cove Cod was riding a wave of popularity in cod farming that saw the establishment of a cod farmers’ association to advocate on their behalf. Johnson says the company was doing well as one of about 20 cod farms operating in the province until 2002. That year, the federal government halted all cod fishing in northeastern Newfoundland due to historically low stocks.
“Things were booming,” she says. “It was great because we had all these people advocating for us, changing the rules with DFO. Then in 2002 the second moratorium … it just ripped the guts out of everybody.”
Now the company is one of two cod farms left on the island and has found a niche in the North American market that let’s them take advantage of being a small, sustainable operation.
Johnson says she read an article in Northern Agriculture Magazine about a Toronto restaurant that was switching to all sustainable suppliers. She called the restaurant and the owner told her about a company called CleanFish, an American sustainable seafood marketing company. According to the company website, its “network of artisans are stewards of their fisheries, and we are stewards of their stories as we connect producers to chefs and consumers in a celebration of fish you can trust with a difference you can taste.”
“They recognized there was a place for people doing artisan fisheries, people doing different things that’s not for the big market,” says Johnson. “They’re not big corporations. They’re mom-and-pop operations that have 100-per-cent natural fish.”
CleanFish began buying Gooseberry Cove Cod’s seafood and selling it to high-end restaurants in Chicago, Boston, Montreal and Toronto. Their cod has been eaten at the famous Pebble Beach Golf Links in California, and at Kouzzina at Disneyland World Resort, founded by Cat Cora, a former Iron Chef.
Closer to home, St. John’s restaurant Bacalao has had Gooseberry Cove Cod on its menu, and it’s been served at Eat The Hill, the annual food festival at White Hills Ski Resort in Clarenville.
Johnson says they’re trying to sell more of their fish in the province because it cuts down on transport costs. At one point, of the 4,000 pounds of fish a week they were selling, just 50 pounds was staying in province.
The cod appeals to people who care where their food comes from. On its website, CleanFish notes that Gooseberry Cove Cod uses trapping methods that don’t damage the natural habitat or create bycatch, and the company’s electricity comes from a wind turbine.
Johnson says the company is working with the Marine Institute to find uses for the parts of the fish they don’t use. They’ve researched using the livers as biofuel, but Johnson says they would be more valuable in pharmaceuticals and as pet food. She’s also looking into finding a use for the eggs, noting that in Greece cod roe is used in a dip called taramasalata.
“The whole idea of being ecologically sustainable is big to us, so to be dumping the livers and the roe is just heartbreaking,” she says. “Fish will eat it but it would be better to maximize returns by using all of it.”
Gooseberry Cove Cod sold 60,000 pounds of seafood in 2013 and is building up a high enough profile that celebrity BBC chef Valentine Warner stopped by to shoot an episode of his show. They’ve also been featured in the Globe and Mail.
Johnson says they employed 17 people seasonally last year, and they partner with eight fish harvesters to trap the cod. Demand for the product is greater than what they can supply at the moment.
The whole experience makes Johnson glad she found a way to market her company as a small and sustainable operation.
“I went looking out for a market for this fish because it’s 100-per-cent natural,” says Johnson. “It eats its natural feed. Really, it’s a product for people looking for that type of product.”