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Too much cod gives Catholic regulation

Cod are queuing up in greater numbers than ever before since 1946 to spawn. On the whole it is Catholics in Southern Europe and Latin America who will eat cod as bacalao. But this year there appears to be more cod than the financially strapped markets are able to consume. As a result, Catholic assistance is needed in the form of a voluntary Easter stop.

“Instead of following the agreed rule with a maximum 10 percent increase in quotas, the Joint Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission increased the Northeast Arctic cod quota this year by 33 percent to a record high 1 million tonnes. This is not in harmony with that fact that the most important markets for Norwegian cod – Portugal, Italy, Spain, Greece and France – are extremely hard hit by the Euro crisis. The exception is Brazil, which has experienced solid economic growth in recent years. Regardless of this, too much cod within a short space of time is not the best recipe for quality processing of fish for the international market.”

So says Scientist Finn-Arne Egeness, a market researcher at Nofima, Europe’s largest food research institute with more than 400 employees. He adds that the whitefish industry needed everything but a flood of cod in a situation where the profit margins are more than marginal.

Needing muscle

“The industry needs muscle to adapt itself in the markets. Competitors for Norwegian salted fish and bacalhau are emerging, including Chinese-produced skin and bone-free “bacalhau” of Alaska Pollock and various desalted products. These are products that are easier to prepare and competitive in price,” says Egeness.

He is one of 60 scientists at Nofima’s division for Fishery, Industry and Market, the majority of which are in one way or another involved in research on cod-related problems. Nofima is also heavily involved in the Norwegian Seafood Industry Research Fund’s (FHF) Cod Programme, the objective of which is increased profitability in the whitefish industry.

Meeting the Lofoten Wall

The graphic curves for quotas and total catch in the cod fishery are dramatically steep, at times steeper than the Lofoten Wall. The curves depict amongst other things the Norwegian crisis quota for cod of 113,000 tonnes in 1990 to 400,000 tonnes in 1997 then a sharp dive with low quotas for several years. Will this year’s record total allowable catch (a Norwegian quota of 450,000 tonnes) be followed by another dive? At any rate, every year the curve rises sharply then drops sharply in connection with Easter. In addition to market crises, it is not the world’s best management when an enormous quantum of cod is caught and processed in the space of eight of the year’s 52 weeks. Therefore, capture-based aquaculture of cod is one of the suggestions to even out the season. Another cure is a transition to hook-based gear types such as trigging and long-lining, which Iceland has succeeded with.

Just as popular as the Pope

The interest in dried and salted cod dates back to the Middle Ages. The Pope and his cardinals instructed devout Catholics to eat fish instead of meat. This applied particularly to Good Friday, but in some cases also Easter Eve. In some situations, it may be a case of not eating meat for 40, 100 or 150 days a year. Quite simply, this has laid the foundation for the important export of salted fish, dried and salted fish and stockfish to Catholic countries.

“Here in Brazil the people are celebrating Argentinean Jorge Bergoglio, the first Pope in history from South America. At the same time, bacalhau from Norway is being celebrated. Our campaign material is in place in a large number of shops and supermarkets, and it’s no exaggeration to say that both Norwegians and bacalhau from Norway are highly regarded,” says Johnny Håberg, the Norwegian Seafood Council’s representative in Brazil.

“We are just as popular as the Pope and that’s two sides of the same coin. In Brazil 35 percent of bacalhau consumption occurs at Easter, 35 percent at Christmas and just 30 percent throughout the rest of the year. It is festive food that fetches well above the price of fillet of beef outside campaign periods. Consumption of bacalhau in Brazil is radically different to in the motherland Portugal where it is common to eat bacalhau a minimum of every Friday all year round.”

Give the honour to the Portuguese

Nofima Scientist Jens Østli has engaged in market research since 1991, not least in connection with Norwegian seafood’s main products salted fish and dried and salted fish. He believes there is no simple explanation of why salted fish, dried and salted fish and stockfish have become traditional food in Catholic countries. It is the Catholic churches in the various Latin countries that have given their decrees about what and how often they should eat fish and other ingredients in preference to meat.

“But Portugal is the country where bacalhau forms part of the daily diet. This is probably linked to Portugal’s maritime traditions. Conflict remains about whether the Basques or Portuguese were the first to discover the large cod fishing grounds near Newfoundland. I believe it was the Portuguese. They learned at an early stage how to extract salt from seawater and discovered how salt’s preservation effect on fish. To this day salting of fish remains an unrivalled preservation method in which the taste of the fish also matures,” says Østli. He refers to the fact that Portugal was also a major colonial power, which contributed to dried and salted fish also being widespread in both Africa and the Caribbean.

Enticing with bacalhau

“Not so long ago salted fish was such an important foodstuff for Portugal that imports were controlled by the government. Today the supermarkets account for the majority of the imports. The bacalhau is now so important that it is used as a cheap loss-leader. That means that at times the supermarkets sell the bacalao at a loss to attract customers. For their part, the Portuguese can afford to keep eating bacalhau one or more days a week. But for Norway it is not a good situation when the price of the cod products is constantly being forced down,” says Østli.

Fish saved agriculture

We have asked Knut Sunnanå about the Catholic cod. He is the programme director of the Institute of Marine Research’s research and advisory programme in the Barents Sea.

“It was a genial move that the clergymen in Southern Europe instructed the population not to eat meat for up to 150 days a year. This opened the way for significant consumption of fish. In addition to the religious aspects, the clergymen probably also had a sidelong glance at the agriculture. In the late Middle Ages the soil in the region was significantly impoverished owing too high meat consumption. In the long term this provided support for the important Norwegian fish exports,” says Sunnanå.

Light and life in spring

“The fact that the cod and other fish spawn at Easter almost certainly has nothing to do with Catholicism. At this time of the year the light is back accompanied by life both in the sea and on the land. Around Easter we know that a lot occurs in the sea during full moons as well as new moons. We have the greatest difference between high tide and low tide and not least krill and plankton production reaches its peak. With a lot of food in the sea, it is at this time of the year that the cod larvae have the greatest possibility to survive,” says Sunnanå.

“The critics believe the cod quota should be lower both out of consideration to the market and not to risk new downturns which have occurred after three quota peaks since 1977.”

“Market considerations fall outside our mandate. As long as the total allowable catch is not larger than approximately 25 percent of the estimated stocks at the start of the year, we believe the quota is sat at the precautionary level. We have extremely good resource management cooperation with Russia. In practice, we are rid of the black market fishery from the 1990s and early part of following decade. Owing to less ice in the polar region, the cod has 40 percent more space and the feed situation in the sea is unique,” says Sunnanå.

The industry regulates

When neither the scientists nor the authorities put the brakes on, it is the industry that regulates. This occurs not least in the public holidays around Easter,” says Per Rolandsen at the Norwegian Fishermen’s Sales Organisation office in Svolvær.

“Some fish buyers have already stopped buying well before Easter. Some are closed the week before Easter while others close in the weekend. There are a few salters who buy all Easter long, but the majority limit the amount they buy in one way or another. Several of them who reopen after Easter have signalled that they won’t salt, but instead choose to sell the fish fresh and unprocessed. In East Lofoten, there are some buyers who hang fish after Easter.”

Rolandsen has followed the seasonal Lofoten fishery over many years and states that 2013 has been a different year. The buyers have been reserved owing to the fact that the market and fishermen are unsure about whether they can catch their increased quotas and hence be compensated for lower prices.

“We are hoping for 3-4 weeks of continued fishing in Lofoten after the Easter weekend,” says Rolandsen.

The Pope and his cardinals instructed devout Catholics to eat fish instead of meat. This applied particularly to Good Friday, but in some cases also Easter Eve Photo: Finn-Arne Egeness
Copyright: Nofima

The Pope and his cardinals instructed devout Catholics to eat fish instead of meat. This applied particularly to Good Friday, but in some cases also Easter Eve