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Flying lobsters; air cargo solutions for Newfoundland seafood could help other products get to global market

A study is underway to determine the feasibility of air cargo from Gander to get Newfoundland seafood to global markets.
A study is underway to determine the feasibility of air cargo from Gander to get Newfoundland seafood to global markets. - File Photo

It’s a bird.

No, it’s a plane.

Carrying Newfoundland lobster to dinner tables in Asia.

At least that’s the hope, one that prompted the provincial government to pay for a consultant to look at whether air cargo is a practical way to get live lobsters and other seafood from Newfoundland to the world

The province is putting up $50,000 for the study, which will assess the feasibility of air shipment of fish and seafood to international markets, through the airport at Gander.

Francis Littlejohn of the Seafood Processors of Newfoundland and Labrador (SPONL) said the idea is not new.

He said SPONL has been having discussions with Gander International Airport Authority for the past two years to identify ways to ensure seafood products from this province reach global markets.

Several years ago, he told SaltWire, the province had a “Fly Fresh” program shipping live lobster and fresh cod fillets to Iceland.

According to Littlejohn, a downturn in the Icelandic economy sidelined that program.

“At the time we were using an (air cargo) carrier from Iceland. And then the Icelandic economy failed and everything went south from there.”

Littlejohn said if an air cargo option from Gander is proven to be feasible for seafood, other industries and producers could also be on board.

With regular cargo flights into Asia and Europe, he said, there’d be no reason to think companies making wines, liquors, jams or crafts, could take advantage of that shipping option to introduce their products to those markets.

“In order for this to fly – pardon the pun – we have to be attractive to the carriers,” he said. That means making sure cargo holds are full and not necessarily limited to seafood products.

“We (SPONL) had intended to approach whatever industry in the province felt they had products that could afford the freight. Fish would certainly be the anchor (but) whatever products we could bring on board to help attract a carrier and have a regular, continuous service, that’s what we want to focus on.”

Imagine a cargo plane with a belly full of fish, jams, spirts and even handmade crafts, and you get the basics of the idea.

Littlejohn said SPONL started this idea about two years ago with the Gander Airport Authority and if COVID hadn’t happened, he said, they would probably have been at the test flight phase right now.

Mark Lane, executive director of the NAIA, told SaltWire, regular air freight service for seafood would help some aquaculture producers increase their presence in non-traditional markets like Asia and Europe.

He cites oysters as an example, a seafood that holds after harvest and can be shipped in wooden crates.

Oysters from Placentia Bay could easily end up in a high-end restaurant in Hong Kong within three or four days of harvest thanks to air freight.

Littlejohn is optimistic that the feasibility study will lead to regular flights of products from the island of Newfoundland to consumers in Asia and Europe.

“It’s all about improving Newfoundland’s position in other markets and letting people see what we produce here.”

The study will also look at a solution to deal with ferry delays at Port aux Basques.

Currently, live lobster from this province is shipped by truck to markets in Atlantic Canada and the United States.

Littlejohn said the general consensus is it takes 40 hours from the time it’s loaded onto a truck to final delivery to the market.

A ferry-crossing delay of more than a day can create major challenges, and potential losses, for the shipper, he said.

“We’ve had cases where people have trucked the lobster across the island and, because of ferry delays, have had to truck it right back to the plant to wait for the next ferry crossing,” Littlejohn told SaltWire.

The study will determine the feasibility of cold storage facility at the Port aux Basques terminal to be used for storage when weather and other events delay ferry crossings.

Mussels are not the sorts of seafood that could easily be shipped by air because they need to be packed in a lot of water, Lane explained.

“A holding facility at Port aux Basques would “help maintain the quality of the product for those times when Marine Atlantic might not sail,” he said.

The province is putting up $50,000 to fund the study and SPONL has hired PF Collins, Atlantis Aviation and Pisces Consulting to do the work.

A working group comprised of the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP), SPONL, Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association (NAIA), and officials from the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture are overseeing the project.

A final report is expected to be delivered to the department by the end of this year.

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