A conference that brought together more than 200 cod harvesters, processors and industry experts explored options available to Newfoundland as its historic northern cod stock rebuilds.

The conference, titled Cod: Building the Fishery of the Future, was put together this week by the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation housed at Memorial University in St. Johns.

Newfoundland is grappling with management of its cod fishery, the allocation of future cod quotas, and market demands.

Science presentations at the conference showed that with a stock biomass of around 300,000 tons, there is still considerable uncertainty about when the stock will reach 650,000 tons, the point at which fishing can sustainably be done on a large scale.

Some had hoped to see this within five years, but a poor 2016 survey has created doubt, and the more pessimistic outlook is that it may take 10 years for the stock to grow to 650,000 tons.

The current cod fishery is largely done by small boats, under 35 feet, using gillnets, in the summer months. The debate is whether this fleet can catch cod of the quality necessary to bring a premium frozen or fresh Atlantic cod product to market.

Selling lower-grade cod, which competes with twice-frozen Chinese product for example, would not provide the income needed to support a rural fishery, said attendees.

But selling premium products on a large scale is not easy. Todd Clark, who presented the Groundfish Forum outlook on cod, said: “It’s important to set a specification that is hard to meet. Otherwise it won’t be done consistently.”

Representatives of the cod industry in both Iceland and Norway detailed both the way in which these industries operate today, and also how they had to overcome a number of problems to reach the premium product value they have now. CCFI has been sponsoring numerous trips to Iceland and Norway and has found both countries extremely cooperative in sharing information.

At the end of the conference, there was a consensus on four conclusions:

The cod stock is recovering more slowly than thought, and all parties are awaiting the next survey, expected in March, before discussing the best precautionary approach.

Pricing for premium cod products is the only way to get the revenue needed for investment and upgrades to the fishery.

To produce a premium product, all aspects of the fishery, from type of vessel to seasonality, onboard handling, transport, product selection, and volume have to be examined.

There are lessons to be learned from Iceland and Norway, which also had troubled fisheries that were developed into economic powerhouses by taking actions that preserved value.

CCFI will determine next steps, and will likely consider a mechanism for discussing various proposals to transform the fishery, or keep the status quo.