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Cod going to pot

As I write this, the small boat fishermen where I live are into the annual cod fishery.  This year the permissible quota is 5000 pounds.

It was the same last year up slightly from 2012.  It is reassuring that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) recognizes what fishermen in our neck of the woods, as well as food fishers who recently swamped our village slipway to launch their boats, have concluded.  


The fish are coming back.  


At the same time DFO is being prudent, edging up the quota slowly.  They are conservative in their optimism about the apparent return of the mighty cod, those magnificent aquatic creatures who first attracted Europeans to the shores of this New Found Land to scoop them up in baskets.


In those ancient times if the the fish truly were lifted out of the water in baskets, they would have been still alive, their delicate, translucent, white flesh would have been as succulent and tasty then, as at any time in the centuries that followed.  Indeed certainly tastier and more succulent than what will be coming ashore in the days you read these words. That’s too bad.   


That’s because the bulk of the fishermen where I live will be hauling their cod aboard in gill nets.  Around the shore of this island and on the Labrador coast it is well known that gill net fish are the least desirable to eat, but there is no financial incentive for fishers to use gentler fishing methods to harvest cod.

Fisherfolk are permitted to get their quota of cod just after the end of summer.  According to townies, that moment is marked by the Royal St. John’s Regatta, which ushers in the season of unsettled  weather as hurricanes from the deep south migrate north, and civil weather for several days running becomes rare.


When fishers set their gill nets, they can count on the good news. The fish are caught by the gills as they mistakenly try to swim through the net, so they cannot escape. The bad news is that the fish are strangled and right away begin to take on water making the flesh soggier and diluting its flavour.


Because the gill net never stops fishing once it is in the water, during whatever time elapses between setting and hauling the net, the fish keep on being caught. 


If inclement weather keeps the boats tied up ashore for several days, the fish caught in the final minutes before the net is hauled will be of good quality.  Those caught a day earlier will be poorer quality, a day earlier than that, still worse.  On the fourth day, the fish caught on the first day the net was set will have been dead four days.  They will no longer be fit to eat, so waterlogged and tasteless has their flesh become.  The cod will be wasted and worthless, useless to the fishers and a crime against the species.  


The cod will have gone to pot.


There is a way however, that cod going to pot can be a good thing.

For decades much of the cod caught in Bonavista Bay was taken in cod traps, large net boxes several boat lengths square with such small mesh that fish could not be entangled by it and strangled.  Stretching from the sea bottom to the surface, the cod trap was essentially a fenced cage.  The fish were coaxed into the door of the cage by another fence, a leader so-called because it would intercept fish where local knowledge taught that cod would be passing by, and lead them into the box.  The outer opening was wide and narrowed gradually to a small hole.  The swimming cod were unaware they were trapped until, roaming  around inside the box they had great difficulty finding the exit and were intimidated by its very small opening.  Few cod got out.  


But inside the trap, they were alive and well.  If the weather was bad and no one came for days, the cod were fine, if maybe a bit hungry, when the fishers did turn up to haul the trap. Closing the open top, bottom and door of the trap and gathering all sides together so no fish could escape, the fishers used dip nets to empty the trapped fish into the boat.  They could discard unwanted small fish alive and unharmed, to swim away, available to be caught again another day when they had reached a marketable size.


For reasons too numerous to discuss here, the trap fishery went out of fashion. With it disappeared the best way to capture fish alive, to select which ones to retain, and to minimize the time they spent between ocean and plate, thus maximizing their quality.


In the last five years some fishermen have begun using cod pots.  These were designed at the Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Resources at Memorial University. They use the principle of the cod trap that brings the fish into a baited cage alive, where they remain alive until the cod pot, in many ways a miniature cod trap, is hauled.  Six feet long  by six feet wide by forty one inches high stretching to eight feet high as the pot expands as it fills with fish, the pot has a metal framework, its mesh similar to its ancestor, the cod trap.  


The Shorefast Foundation of Fogo Island has a number of subsidized fishers using the pots to refine the design and spread the word.  They pronounce themselves very satisfied. Nonetheless, the pot has yet to really take off.  Until fishers are paid a premium for cod landed alive, many ask themselves where is the incentive to invest in new gear when soggy gill net fish fetch exactly the same price.  Maybe they woul change their minds if fish processors started advertising the delectable taste of cod landed alive and sharing with fishers the premium price it deserves.


Then cod would truly start going to pot.  In a good way.


Peter Pickersgill is an artist and writer in Salvage, Bonavista Bay. He can be reached by email at the following:           

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