Neither Here Nor There

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Appellation Clean Coldwater Codfish Controlée

My friends were unhappy. I could tell the minute I walked into their stage and sat down. It was very hot and as brutally humid as the summer days I fled the mainland to escape.

The kind of weather we all might have been complaining about if we hadn't just endured the summer that never came. Because in the end, summer did come, like an abandoned baby, sweat dotting its forehead, wrapped in a blanket inside a basket, deposited on the doorstep of autumn.

My friends are a man and wife who fish together in a 23-foot fibreglass speedboat. They manage their fishery well, are active members of the union, support and promote the Marine Protected Areas in Bonavista Bay and are now engaged in a project for DFO to measure the population density and size of lobsters in our area. In short, they are making as good a living as they can from the sea, in a way that can be sustained indefinitely.

"You look unhappy," I said as my friend mopped his brow and crossed over to the chest freezer. From among the frozen cod that filled it, he withdrew three beers and passed one each to his wife and me. Clutching our icy bottles, we all took a good big glutch of the deliciously cold liquid. "Unhappy?" my friend said, "Yes boy, I'm poisoned".

Everyone has been grumbling because the minuscule cod quota of 3,125 pounds of cod, gutted, head on. All bad enough, when the food fishery in July showed that cod were abundant, but that was not what had my friends poisoned the most. Last year, if you chose to catch your fish on a handline they fetched an additional 10 cents approximately per pound.

Catching fish that way not only puts more cash in the bank, but there is an additional bonus. The fish are of notably better quality. That's why the decision to remove the incentive to handline irked my friends so much. At a fundamental level, eliminating the handline bonus was a step in the wrong direction. The superior quality of handlined fish over the soggy product that comes out of a gill net will be noted by worldwide buyers. Handlining is central to raising the reputation of cod from Newfoundland and Labrador. Once the product is recognized by the offshore buyers as superior, it will fetch a better price. This will bring in more money for fewer fish, an absolute must as we await the rebuilding of the stocks.

The fact that the buyers of my friends' fish had reversed the bonus for handlined fish meant that they had failed to make this crucial connection or didn't care. Either way, it underlines once again the short term thinking that is so widespread among those in this province who market fish.

Sitting in my friends' stage sipping the last of my beer, I thought back to a tourist couple I met weeks before walking on the Salvage trails. They were speaking French to each other as we met, and I thought I detected an accent from the south of France. I introduced myself and asked where they were from.

Far from home, they seemed as happy to be addressed in their own language as I was to be using it.

They were from Chateauneuf du Pape, a tiny village in the Rhone valley with a huge reputation worldwide for the quality of its wine. They were very proud that I not only knew of their little village but, like many others besides me, thought the wine they produce is as good as any I've ever tasted.

They were also surprised that I knew that Chateauneuf du Pape was the birthplace of the French system of Appellation Controlée, an agreement among wine producers and marketers in various regions to establish standards of quality among themselves and to enforce them upon themselves. The wine business had been enduring hard times in the late 1800s as a result of plant diseases and a blight of insects. By co-operating rather than competing, producers within particular regions were able to establish worldwide names for themselves and thus fetch top prices. As it happened, this couple was a perfect example of the system. He owned and operated a vineyard, and she was employed by the Appellation Controlée office. Her task was to insure quality standards.

We talked a little about how different their system was from the well known North American dog-eat-dog capitalism in which individuals seek to advance themselves by driving down their competitors. They shook their heads in puzzlement that entire industries could function in a way that guaranteed such misdirected and wasteful energy. Meeting these particular strangers from this particular village seemed to me like a sign.

In April last year I wrote a column that described the Appellation Controlée principle and how it could be applied here to overcome the malaise that afflicts our fish business.

In the final paragraph I concluded:

"The French wine industry pulled off a spectacular comeback from the brink of disaster and are now world leaders in quality wine. If we can find a way to set aside the differences that divide our fishery's various interest groups and agree to self-enforced quality standards, that guarantee a calibre of product we can justifiably boast about, we can cure the ills that afflict our industry. We have an enormous advantage to begin with. From our cold, clean sea we can harvest and prepare food of top-notch quality as good as any this planet has to offer."

The tiny village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape did it.

So can we. 

Organizations: North American

Geographic location: Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, France Rhone Chateauneuf-du-Pape

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