Cod 'ranching' offers snapshot of lost traditions

October 21, 2011

Northern cod holds a special status in this province – some old-timers still refer to all species of local fish as cod.

But even as the government helps build an aquaculture industry to fill the gap left by the cod moratorium nearly 20 years ago – a devastating blow which sparked the depopulation of outports and economic decline – attempts at cod-farming are almost non-existent.

Only in the waters around Little Heart's Ease Inlet, off Trinity Bay, is there a variant on fish-farming that produces cod. Dubbed "ranching," this method involves trapping and feeding wild fish before harvesting them for market.

Claude Seward runs Gooseberry Cove Cod with his partner, Valerie Johnson. During warmer months, they live in a windmill-powered home overlooking some of their pens. They feed the fish twice a week, harvest them on Thursdays and protect them from predators, both human and wild.

This was once a more crowded niche. Trapping bans after the 1992 moratorium and again in 2003 knocked out some players, and others quit because regulations require feed fish to be caught earlier in the year than cod, making it hard to estimate the required amount of such food.

Attempts at farming cod from a hatchery have also petered out. Aquaculture experts say that, with a limited projected market, it wasn't worth the investment to determine the best growing techniques and diet. Fish farms scattered throughout the province focus instead on mussels, steelhead trout and salmon, generating $116-million in economic value last year.

The couple in Gooseberry Cove believes they are the last remaining cod producers. Ms. Johnson said they persevere because traceability and control of production lets them sell a premium fish, at a higher price, rather than simply a commodity.

"It was always our goal to have our name on the fish when it went to market," she said.

One morning last week, about 4,000 pounds of those fish were harvested, with the couple calling on family members and other locals to help with the work. It was a day that offered a snapshot of lost traditions.

Before dawn, with a full moon still floating over the trees, three men are going through the old motions of pulling a net into a small boat. This was once routine for outport residents all over Newfoundland, but the cod collapse brought an end to that – and the limited quotas available now have made a centuries-old activity increasingly marginal.

The difference here is that the net isn't full of fish hooked by their gills. This net is the liner of a floating pen. Trapped in the wild in late July and early August, the fish are fed herring to make them gain weight quickly, and caplin, which helps their flavour and flakiness. The cod can double their size in 100 days, Mr. Seward said. Smaller ones will stay in the pens more than a year.

The fish are corralled into a smaller corner of the pen. One man keeps hold of the net while the other two – Claude's brother Viv and his nephew Greg – join the crew aboard a nearby trawler. Viv crawls along the six-inch floating PVC pipes that frame the pen to board the vessel. Greg takes his strides quickly, with the sureness of a log-roller, balancing just above the cold waters.

"You fall in and you have to keep your legs straight out behind you to stop the water filling your boots," Viv Seward says.

The men take approximately 4,000 pounds of cod this morning. It's a normal weekly harvest for the company, which expects to ship 10 or 12 such batches this season, translating into revenues just short of $100,000.

On the 38-foot trawler, a motorized winch is used to lower a net that scoops up a few dozen cod at a time. Swung aboard, the fish are released in a thrashing mass into a large bin.

The crew works quickly, two men grabbing the fish and giving each a measured smack with cudgels the size of a hammer handle. The stunned cod are laid on a plywood table, where the two other men make a fast cut in front of their hearts before slipping them into ice water to bleed out.

Time is of the essence and quality control is paramount. The business grosses $2 per pound – four times the normal rate for this species – by selling through CleanFish, a broker for sustainable and artisanal seafood. Each cod is carefully inspected.

"He's got a bruise or something," said Claude Seward, gently touching the flank of one. "Can't send that one, someone famous in Manhattan will complain."

At least 1,000 fish come aboard as the sun rises. The men chatter as they work, jibing about animal-rights activists they feel focus exclusively on photogenic creatures.

"They don't care about this – cod is too ugly," said Raymond Benson, wielding one of the cudgels.

At the wharf in Gooseberry Cove, a few more family members have joined the boat crew. They're lined up facing each other at tables as the fish are unloaded. Each step in the cleaning takes only seconds – think of it as a disassembly line.

The first team cuts the cod open at the gills and slices down the belly. The next pair yank out viscera, dropping it into boxes, and slipping the fish into a large bin of water. The next team give the cod a sluicing before it is pinned behind the cheek with the CleanFish tag.

"Come on boy, stretch your muscles," Claude's sister Gloria Seward says to a bystander when it's time to shift a 100-pound box of cod onto the nearby scale.

A single cod moving down the line can be cleaned, tagged and boxed in about 30 seconds – by late morning, the crew is cleaning up. There is an ongoing plan to turn the cod livers into biodiesel for the trawler. This time, though, the viscera are dumped off the end of the wharf, to the delight of the squawking gulls.

But not all of it. A pile of "britches" – slang for the sac containing the roe, tasty when fried – is kept aside by Gloria Seward. And Viv Seward has plans for some of the other parts.

"I'll get some sausage out of that cod," he says.

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