The average years of service for employees at the Icewater Seafoods plant in Arnold’s Cove is 18 years. That’s actually down — the result of hiring a group of people who were once employed at the now-closed shrimp plant in Clarenville.
Icewater still boasts a seniority list with some staff who have been at the plant since the 1970s and early 1980s — the kind of workers who can grade fish in a second’s glance, or hold a piece of cod in their glove and instantly know its exact weight.
These are workers who can handle 10,000 fish within an eight-hour shift — heads, cheeks, tongues, fillets and pieces.
“Our workers are professionals,” president Alberto Wareham said when asked about how the company has sustained on cod, when so many other local processors shifted to focus on shellfish.
Wareham took questions on the future of the cod business in the province, but also how the Arnold’s Cove plant employs about 180 unionized workers, with another 20 non-unionized employees, with cod and cod products.
He said having work available outside of a single season and offering full-time weeks remain key to employee retention, allowing the business to serve high-end markets across the pond year-round.
“This plant’s products have gone to Europe since the late ’90s. And the focus in Europe is quality,” he said, while checking on fish grades for the latest line run.
The Arnold’s Cove plant was built in 1979 by National Sea Products, with the company later becoming High Liner. In 2004, as part of an unprecedented deal, arrangements were made for long-time manager Bruce Wareham — Alberto Wareham’s father — to take over.
The more senior Wareham had worked at the plant from the beginning, advancing to a senior manager position with National Sea Products in Newfoundland before the cod moratorium hit.
“My father laid off 7,000 people,” said Alberto Wareham, describing the plant closures happening around the province and the rapid sell-off of assets by the company as the quotas, instead of the fish, were being gutted.
The plant in Arnold’s Cove was later re-started, but by 2001 High Liner was ready to sell its last Newfoundland asset. Unfortunately, no one was buying.
Bruce Wareham wasn’t interested in seeing more livelihoods lost, according to his son. When approached by the company to consider taking over the Arnold’s Cove plant, at the age of 61, he started looking for a way to make it happen.
The sale in 2004 and creation of what is now Icewater Seafoods ultimately required $3.5 million in assistance from the provincial government, in what was later contested by the auditor general as a violation of the government’s own policies around fish plants.
That said, the financing arrangements also included — among the bank and government contributions — a $250,000 loan from the Town of Arnold’s Cove and another $850,000 in concessions by plant workers, who believed in a future for codfish and hoped to continue in their jobs through to a turnaround.
“Arnold’s Cove and Icewater go together — the town and the people,” Alberto Wareham said.
Today, the plant is still served by a local workforce and uniquely prepared for a future return to more groundfish in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The business is well beyond the days of cod block. Instead, the Arnold’s Cove facility is geared to make near-full use of resources.
“We have 99.5 per cent recovery in this plant,” Wareham said, showing cod skins and heads prepped for further processing. “99.5 per cent of the cod we buy, we sell in some form.”
Even so, the main floor of the roughly 72,000-square-foot facility still isn’t blocked with work even as the company’s president said cod was turned away this summer season.
Wareham said it’s all about timing of the product to best serve customers, adding there is a need for fish to continue to be available from both the inshore and offshore fleets, particularly in winter, in order for his business overall to continue to work — what he calls a “balanced fishery.”
Looking ahead, sorting through how the province will ramp up additional cod processing, without potentially harming the committed operations and people it has already invested in cod, remains a challenge.