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Cold and live storage progresses

A fishing vessel docked at the Port aux Basques fish plant on Feb. 10, 2022. – © Rosalyn Roy / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

By Ryan King

Community News Reporter

– with files from Rosalyn Roy

PORT AUX BASQUES – The former fish plant on Pleasant Street has largely remained vacant since the town acquired it in 2009. The row of large blue buildings requires upkeep, and the town has been actively trying to sell the buildings.

The town issued a request for proposal (RFP) for the property in May 2021, and received interest from several companies, including Codroy Seafoods Inc. However, no sale took place.

“The Town and Codroy Seafoods Inc. have had a number of discussions regarding the terms of the agreement for completion of the sale. Given the current economic climate, both parties have agreed that it would not be financially feasible, at the present time, for either party to proceed with the sale of the property. Until such time that it is mutually agreed to proceed with the sale and acquisition, all terms will remain in effect,” said Leon MacIsaac, Town Manager in January.

However another organization that might make use of the facility is the Seafood Processors of Newfoundland and Labrador (SPONL). SPONL merged recently with the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP) to create a more robust industry trade association for seafood processing. They represent 25 members, including Codroy Seafoods Inc., under the ASP umbrella.

The province and SPONL have worked together on a feasibility study for the live holding, cold storage, and transportation of fresh and live seafood products for national and international markets at both Gander and in Port aux Basques. This study was first announced in July 2020 by Gerry Byrne, who was then Minister of Fisheries and Land Resources.

Francis Littlejohn, Executive Director of SPONL, explained that establishing a facility in Port aux Basques was intended to address issues on the transportation of lobster outside the province caused by ferry cancellations or delays. There had been an increase in the number of ferry cancellations due to adverse weather conditions, causing those transporting lobster to incur increased wait times.

“Those who are shipping from the east coast and the northern peninsula, for example, they’ve got a long trek and, as you know, when shipping live lobster, once you put them on board the truck, the clock is ticking,” said Littlejohn. “There’s only so many hours that you can get them to market where they’re in good condition.”

Having a place to store the lobsters in Port aux Basques would alleviate this issue, causing less mortality and increasing the health of the lobsters.

“The concept was to have a facility there in the event (of) the ferry being cancelled, rather than have the truck return to the plant. Then it could put the lobsters in a pound there for 24 or 48 hours, whatever, until the ferry starts up its schedule again. And that would allow then the seller or operator to take advantage of continuing the good condition of the lobsters.”

Every hour counts when it comes to shipping live seafood products like lobster.

“If you’ve got a guy on the northern peninsula and he’s got roughly 38, 40 hours to get your lobster to market knowing that it is going to be in good condition,” Littlejohn said. “You’ve got an 8 or 10 hour trip down to the ferry terminal. Now if you’re going to sit on the wharf there for 24 hours, you got 34 of your 40 gone, right? Not to mention the crossing time. So again, this is the whole intent to is to revive the lobster to the point where the clock starts ticking from Port aux Basques rather than the tip of the northern peninsula or from the East Coast.”

Having this Port aux Basques storage facility will allow shipments to be delivered even further on the mainland.

“You can go further into the U.S., either south or west, in terms of reaching markets. The fact that you’re shipping from Port aux Basques with a fresh product just starting right there, versus 8 or 10 hours away,” Littlejohn said. “And again, on the premise that weather conditions are getting worse and ferry cancellations are becoming more prevalent.”

This project in Port aux Basques recently received approval, but will not be implemented this season.

“We were late getting out of the gate for this year because the season starts in about six weeks,” Littlejohn said. “So that one will be looked at in terms of starting the actual work a bit later in the year. We were too late for this year unfortunately.”

The other half of the feasibility study was looking at setting up the Gander International Airport for shipping time-sensitive products out of Newfoundland.

“From our perspective, we’ve been looking at trying to find more lucrative markets for our lobster, particularly in Asia and in Europe,” Littlejohn said. “So we’ve been working quite closely with Gander, and as I said, it’s been three years now and COVID intervened, but it is moving – at a slow pace, but it is moving. We’re hoping this year that we might be able to do a couple of trial runs to see what the logistics actually are and what kind of hurdles we’re going to be facing. And then from there I guess we’ll determine what kind of services, what kind of equipment, what infrastructure is going to be needed to be put in place should it prove to be successful, the trails.”

Littlejohn said that getting the facility up and running in Port aux Basques might also take longer than initially believed.

“We’ve been back in touch with some of the contractors or the suppliers that provided us quotations for the equipment and the infrastructure that is needed there,” Littlejohn said. “And you know, what we thought was going to take days or weeks is going to take months now. So we’re not going to be in a position for this year.”

Once this year’s lobster season is over, the process will start, and SPONL and town officials have already been in touch about what will need to happen in order to convert the old fish plant into a live and cold storage facility.

“We’ve been working with them,” Littlejohn said. “And that was the location that was identified, and we have come to an agreement with them.”

Littlejohn said that the facility is very much needed as the industry is changing and logistical issues for transportation are becoming more challenging.

“The weather patterns are changing. We’re experiencing higher winds. We’re experiencing heavier rainfalls. So all of these have an impact on the lobster industry, particularly for those who don’t store in an on-land facility,” Littlejohn said. “There are still a number of buyers who are storing their lobsters in the ocean, and you know if you get a severe rainfall, that can play havoc on the quality of your lobsters, right? I mean, you get freshwater runoff – it’s a killer for lobsters, basically.”

Littlejohn said that any estimates are too soon to make when it comes to the number of jobs that might be created. In addition, the facility will not be running every day.

“It’s only a stopgap measure in the event of ferry cancellations, right? So in terms of full-time positions, no, we really can’t determine what’s going to be needed until we start and use it really. And again, it’s all on the premise that there will be ferry cancellations. If there are no ferry cancellations – very limited usage of it. So there’s no way really to even put any kind of a guesstimate on that.”

When the lobster season ends, Littlejohn believes that SPONL and the town will have a better idea of the timeline for implementation.

“We’ll have more information from the suppliers in terms of what equipment we can get and when we can get it,” Littlejohn said. “So it’s up in the air there really, right? It all depends on the answers to those questions.”

Meanwhile, MacIsaac stated that the town did not have much information about the facility’s progress as of yet.

“We don’t know a lot on this end other than they received funding. I’m not sure what the extent of it is or anything like that, other than they’ve asked to use our facility for their operations,” MacIsaac said.

While they are looking at the fish plant building for the location, no official documentation has yet been signed between the parties. Any plans for the building have been put on hold while SPONL continues their investigation for establishing the facility.

“The only thing that I can tell you is that there currently isn’t a deal with Codroy Seafoods or SPONL,” said MacIsaac. “Other than that they’re investigating using that facility for seafood producers for storage of product, but we have got no official notification and we can’t say anything until we do.”

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