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It’s a peculiar thing to see on any business website in Atlantic Canada.
The option to convert text to Portuguese.
But when your main product is salted fish — cod, haddock, hake and pollock — and your main retail buyers are in the Portuguese communities and restaurants throughout North and South America, and Europe, it’s crucial to speak the language of your customers.
Sea Star Seafoods Ltd. of Clark’s Harbour, Nova Scotia also includes a French option at www.seastarseafoods.com.
They also offer smoked salmon and mackerel products, said Howard Atkinson, general manager for the company.
But salted fish has been the main product of this rural business for more than three decades.
“It’s 90 percent of what we produce,” Atkinson told Saltwire.
That means steady employment in a small community, and in an industry that is mostly seasonal.
Atkinson said Sea Star Seafoods employs 100 people, year-round.
“We’re rather proud of that,” said company co-owner Adlai Cunningham.
While others turned to other species after the cod moratorium was announced in 1992, “We stuck to our roots, stuck to our guns and, as the competition (for cod) went away we diversified,” he told SaltWire.
Today the company started by Cunningham and his brother, Fenton, has grown from the original 800 sq. ft. property to more than 60,000 sq. ft. of storage and processing space.
And work stayed steady this year, even as the seafood industry in Atlantic Canada was taking a hit because of COVID-19.
In fact, at the start of the pandemic this company was a little busier than usual.
The products produced at Clark’s Harbour are sold through boutique stores catering to the Portuguese and Spanish communities south of the border.
As COVID-19 took hold, customers for whom salted fish is a diet staple began to stock up, said Quent Wickens, who heads up salt fish sales for the company.
Normally they operate one shift daily, working 9 a.m to 5 p.m.
For a while, that went to two shifts a day to meet increased demand as pandemic buying and stocking up became the norm.
“In the first two weeks of COVID, we actually saw a spike in sales. We didn’t see that coming,” Wickens said.
He’s traveled through the Eastern United States and beyond seeking out markets for Sea Star products.
He says finding buyers for salted fish isn’t that complicated.
“You see an area that has a Portuguese club or pub and that’s all it takes to get another pallet of salt fish sold,” he told SaltWire.
“We’ve developed and are supplying niche markets, and have customers that order up a pallet or more of salted fish regularly,” he said.
“If we think in Atlanta Canada we eat a lot of salt fish, we’re kidding ourselves,” he added. “This is a religion for the Portuguese.“
Still, there are challenges, chief among them finding cod.
Sea Star gets some of its stock from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, buying fresh frozen cod from suppliers like the Barry Group and Quin-Sea.
Still, with low quotas and short fishing seasons in Atlantic Canada, the company can’t depend on regional cod supplies to feed a year-round operation.
“In Nova Scotia, there’s almost no codfish here and in Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s only from August to November. And we operate 12 months a year so we have to get raw material from Norway,” said Atkinson.
PAST AND FUTURE
Salt cod was once the main currency of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Fortunes were built for families with the last names Ryan, Job and Coaker along the North East Coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Landwashes and waterfront wharves glistened white under a summer sun as split, salted cod, laid flat to dry, filled thousands of square feet of space.
The focus on the salted fish market shifted in the 1970s as the markets for fresh, frozen cod ramped up and fish plants and trawlers were built to feed that demand.
Then the moratorium of 1992 shut it all down and cod, once important enough to be featured on pre-Confederation Newfoundland stamps and currency, became an afterthought.
Except for a place called Valleyfield on Bonavista Bay. There, a fish plant built in 1955 specifically for an experiment in salt cod processing, is still turning it out for a wholesale market.
Paul Grant is vice president of operations for Beothic Seafoods.
“The roots of the Valleyfield facility are in salt fish,” he told SaltWire.
Today the company’s main focus is snow crab and capelin, but they still process some cod as fresh-frozen.
About 75 percent of the cod they buy ends up being salted, said Grant.
“We don’t sell directly to the consumers,” said Grant.
At Valleyfield the fish is soaked in brine in large grey tubs.
Some is vacuumed-packed for retailers in Europe and some is shipped for secondary processing by other companies in Atlantic Canada.
“It’s still raw material when it leaves us. You wouldn’t see what we produce going straight to the grocery store.”
In fact, some of it ends up in Clark’s Harbour, where workers at Sea Star Seafoods cure and dry it to a finished product for their retail markets.
The salted-in-brine cod from Beothic exported to Europe, is processed there to meet the demands of those local markets. Processors run the fish through a de-salting process to suit the local consumer appetite, Grant explained.
Beothic had considered producing a fully-processed salted and dried product, but that process is tricky, said Grant.
“You have to get the right moisture content to suit whatever market you’re trying to sell to. And not every market is the same. So we figured we’d just stick to what we know with the wet, salted product.”
The company has also continued to invest in equipment and space to continue its salted fish operations.
A recent addition to the operation is a 7000 square foot building to provide space for the large grey tubs to hold the brine-soaked fish.
Beothic employs about 400 people every season at its Valleyfield plant, said Grant, and about 60 of them work on the salted fish lines.
Grant noted most of those employees get enough work each season to qualify for Employment Insurance benefits.
The company also received funding of $100,000 from the Atlantic Fisheries Fund (AFF) to acquire salt fish processing technology. The full cost of that technology is $268,000, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans press release announcing the funding.
“We’ve invested in salt fish because it allows us access to a fairly large amount of raw material and in a very short period of time,” said Grant.
Beothic and Sea Star are among just a handful of enterprises in the region producing traditional salted and dried cod for export.
Yet there’s a world of opportunity out there for salted fish products.
And right now Norway has a competitive advantage, said Atkinson and Grant.
For one, that country has an active cod fishery.
According to a press release from the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) last October, 2019 was set to be a record-breaking year for Norwegian seafood, with export values reaching over $100 billion K (roughly $14 billion Canadian).
“So far this year, Norway has exported 19,200 tonnes of salted fish worth NOK 1.1 billion,” the NSC noted in its October press release. “This is a decrease of 22 percent, while the value fell by 12 percent or NOK 152 million from the same period last year. In September, Norway exported 998 tonnes of salted fish worth NOK 47 million. Volume fell by 17 percent, while export value fell by 19 percent or NOK 11 million. Portugal, Spain and Greece have been the most important markets so far this year.”
And according to Statistics Norway, in 2019 the fishing industry landed 327,648 tonnes of Atlantic Cod.
“One of their boats can catch In one month an amount of cod that’s equivalent to the cod quota currently available annually in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Atkinson. “They can ship container loads to customers.”
Atlantic Canada is still just the proverbial drop in the bucket when it comes to cod caught and produced worldwide.
Yet the fish that was once the king of the industry on this side of the Atlantic Ocean still has a presence on dinner tables around the world, thanks to the work being done in the rural communities of Clark’s Harbour and Valleyfield.
And while there might be a perception among Atlantic Canadians that salted cod is a low-end item, or a has-been in food markets, Beothic and Sea Star Seafoods are disproving it every day.
“It’s very much high-end item when you look at those markets where it’s part of their culture, especially in Portugal and Spain,” said Grant.
“It’s very big business over there,” Grant said, adding, “While it had a bit of a setback in 2008 with the banking crash in Europe and a lot of buyers over there got caught up in the downturn, it did bounce back for the most part, and they need fish.
At Clark’s Harbour, Adlai Cunningham says the future is still full of potential for salted fish products.
“We still have growth in our markets. We’re still expanding in terms of bricks and mortar. Who knows where this will end up?”