Newfoundland’s largest cod processing plant halts Russian imports, putting workers out of work
When the cod fishery collapsed in Newfoundland three decades ago, ending a way of life for the island’s fishermen, Bruce Wareham started looking across the ocean – to the cold waters of the Barents Sea, where Russian trawlers were carrying bigger and bigger catches every year.
His decision to start importing frozen Russian cod at a time when no one else was doing it helped save a fish processing plant and sustain hundreds of jobs in Arnold’s Cove, Newfoundland, a community of about 1,000 people on a stretch of land that juts out into Placentia Bay.
This week, his son Alberto Wareham canceled his last order of Russian cod as he watched television reports of the invasion of Ukraine. That’s no small feat for a fish processing plant that employs 225 people. About 55% of Icewater Seafoods’ cod, shipped to buyers in Europe and the United States, comes from Russia.
“It’s an important part of our business,” said Mr. Wareham, who succeeded his late father as chairman and CEO. “But it’s just the right thing to do.”
Although there were no sanctions on Russian seafood yet, Mr Wareham feared he would be stuck with an order of fish he would not be allowed to sell. The federal government continued to increase pressure on Russia, announcing Tuesday that Canadian ports would be closed to Russian-owned ships, while threatening new restrictions on domestic businesses.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland has warned that there will be “collateral damage” to the Canadian economy as new sanctions continue to be applied in support of Ukraine.
“It was the right decision from a humanitarian point of view, but we also faced increasing commercial risk,” Mr Wareham said. “I can’t say it’s over forever, but it’s over for now. … I was worried if I couldn’t get this fish to Canada and couldn’t bring it back to Europe, what would I do with it?
When Icewater’s customers, including high-end grocers such as Britain’s Marks & Spencer, started asking how much of its cod was of Russian origin, Mr Wareham realized he had to make a change. But with limited limits on the global supply of North Atlantic cod, replacing so many fish is not easy.
His plant, the largest cod processor in Newfoundland and Labrador, buys about 2,000 tonnes of cod each year. Cutting his biggest supplier means he could be in May before he starts finding replacements. Mr Wareham suspects this will mean his employees could lose up to a month’s wages.
“I am proud of our people,” he said. “We haven’t had a single person say it’s the wrong decision. Nobody likes having less work, but they understand.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, just before the cod moratorium devastated Newfoundland’s economy, Russia has become an increasingly important supplier of the world’s cod. It now accounts for about 40% of the North Atlantic cod harvest. Norway and Iceland make up most of the rest.
Russian and Norwegian cod, which arrive at Arnold’s Cove headless, gutted and frozen, allowed the first The High Liner Foods plant will survive as the last cod-focused year-round facility in Newfoundland. When it opened in 1979, at the height of fishing in Newfoundland, all of its cod came from local boats.
In 2020, Mr. Wareham’s business completed a $14 million upgrade that would see it double production. But the war in Ukraine is causing uncertainty for fishing companies, as well as many other industries, around the world. One of the impacts will be an increase in the price of cod, which Mr Wareham already sells as a premium product, he said.
Hubert Warren, who retired last summer after 50 years as a worker in a fish processing plant, said residents of Arnold’s Cove are worried about a reduction in their paycheck as Icewater plans to downsize and reorganize its supply chain.
Four of his siblings still work for Icewater Seafoods, and the fish plant is a major employer for many families in the community, he said. He still remembers his first paycheck from the factory – $67 – which the 18-year-old spent on beer, cigarettes, gloves and the water-repellent raincoats the workers wear.
He hopes the company can quickly find another supply, but says it’s still unclear how a war in Ukraine might affect jobs in Newfoundland.
“These are good jobs and people are worried. If they can get the cod from elsewhere, that’s what they’re all hoping for. But it could also fail,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where they get the cod from.”
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