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Setbacks for Ramea’s scallop fishery

A metric ton of discarded scallops lines the water at the base of the seafood plant in Ramea on Aug. 10.
A metric ton of discarded scallops lines the water at the base of the seafood plant in Ramea on Aug. 10. - Rosalyn Roy

Labrador Gem Seafoods owner Danny Dumaresque is anxious about having a decent season at Ramea’s scallop plant this year.

A few glitches with a new on board tank holding system and issues getting independent fish harvesters to provide the raw resource resulted in plant employees working less weeks than they are accustomed to.

Approximately three weeks ago, a new refrigerated, recirculating sea water system that enables a vessel to carry live sea scallops in temperature controlled water was slightly too high, effectively parboiling the scallops that must arrive to the plant alive in order to be properly processed into the line of products the company produces. The equivalent of a metric ton of finished product had to be discarded.

The holding tank system is a project the company helped to install on an independent harvester’s boat.

“We work with the vessel owner to try and make a change to the vessel that would be a lot more productive, a lot more innovative and a lot more profitable for the vessel,” Dumaresque said. “As opposed to in previous years having to go to sea and only having a certain timeline in which you would have to return, keeping the scallops healthy using ice alone, especially in the summer time.”

The holding system is designed to burn less fuel and avoid unprofitable trips.

“We’re still in the fine-tuning of the system,” Dumaresque commented. “The last couple of times the vessel was out, the system worked the way it should. I’m not saying that every kink is worked out. It will take a while, but the last couple of times we’ve seen impeccably high quality product.” 

Dumaresque is trying to take the setback in stride.

“The temperature of the water is probably the most critical part of keeping the scallops alive,” Dumaresque explained. “I know from the plant side, we’ve recorded the warmest weather that I’ve ever seen in Ramea, same thing is happening on the St. Pierre bank.

“Temperatures reached 17, 18 degrees Celsius and scallops are used to living in 3-4 degrees Celsius. Lesson learned,” he continued. “It happened a year ago as well. That time it was on a truck. Unfortunately the temperature on the truck was set to minus two instead of plus two. When it came to the plant it was frozen solid. Our product has to be alive to keep producing top quality for the international marketplace.”

Labrador Gem Seafoods produces a unique product line that includes serving most of the scallop, including the meat, rowe and frills, in its own half shell.

“Ninety-five per cent of our product leaves in its own original half shell,” he said. “It’s a product form that I discovered nearly 20 years ago when I was travelling in Europe, particularly in Spain and France.”

Sustainable

Dumaresque claims that his company is the only one producing scallops this way in North America.

“I grew up in the Straight of Belle Isle where there’s a lucrative scallop fishery but I was always told everything beyond the muscle is poison, you shouldn’t eat it,” Dumaresque recalls. “Therefore much of N.L. and indeed North America, just grew up eating the muscle of the scallop as opposed to any other parts of it, and never eating it in its own shell.

“We wanted to try to do something different and try to carve out a niche in the marketplace.”

Dumaresque maintains that this method is more sustainable to harvest.

“We don’t need as much supply,” he remarked, “because if you are shucking scallops you only need about basically nine per cent of what you pulled aboard the vessel and that’s been happening the last 50-60 years or so in N.L.

“By keeping the scallop in the shell, we’re selling upwards of 50-60 per cent of what we purchased; doesn’t put the same pressure on the resource; and I believe we deliver a superior product to the international marketplace.” 

Challenge

Dumaresque says another part of the challenge at his plant is receiving enough scallops from independent fish harvesters to keep the plant operating.

“Ramea isn’t a community that has a resident scallop fisherman and neither does Port aux Basques to Harbour Breton,” Dumaresque said. “So we are working hard to try to attract other suppliers.

“This year we thought we had other supplies but these other suppliers decided to prosecute other species rather than scallops and that gave us a significant delay and the refit of this vessel gave us a difficult time and we’re behind the eight ball.”

Dumaresque said they are also working with the possibility of getting scallops from the Northern Peninsula since the fisherman there have finished their groundfish for the year.

Having to rely on independent fish harvesters who have other catch priorities is an issue for Dumaresque who would prefer to have a fleet of company vessels to ensure more reliable catches.

“The most unfortunate thing about the fisheries management policy in N.L. is that me as a processor, I’m not allowed to own a license for scallops, which I can then crew a vessel and operate it to satisfy my plant,” he said. “Under their rules, some people have quotas and we’ve just seen recently where Conne River and the Fogo Island Co-op managed to get a quota for sea cucumber. An arrangement like that with Ottawa, that would secure the future of the Ramea plant.”

Dumaresque added that he understands fish harvester’s duty is to their own enterprises first.

“I don’t blame them,” he said. “If you’re working with crab or sea cucumber or tuna, you have to go after them when you need to.” 

At this point Dumaresque has no idea how much scallop will be processed this year.

“I wish I could tell you,” he lamented. “That’s the biggest question in my mind. 

“I know we’re capable of processing 50-60 pounds a week. It all depends on the supply and I hope and pray the main vessel we have now has ironed all the kinks in the system. We hope they will find scallops and deliver them regularly.”

Dumaresque is also open to working with harvesters from other areas, who are willing to give fishing scallops a try. 

“We hope to pick up supply from other places and certainly if someone from the south west coast wants, and we’ve heard from a couple of people who want to give this a shot when they finish with other things like sea cucumber, then we’d be quite open accepting another supply,” he said.

Hours for plant workers

Labrador Gem Seafoods employs 40-50 plant workers. So far they’ve worked about half the hours they have in previous years. Dumaresque hopes to keep them employed until Christmas but admits that the conditions for steady work are beyond his control. 

“That is the major preoccupying factor of myself every day,” Dumaresque said. “How can I control more supply coming to our plant? In the absence of having that reliability of supply, I can’t guarantee anything.

“We do know there are scallops out there and we are doing everything we can to get them into the plant. It’s been a horrible year, no question. It’s been difficult because we’ve missed the main fishing season from May until September,” he continued. “That makes it more difficult to cover your overhead to hit your targets, but we’ll try our best to work our way through it and I’m sure our fishermen will as well. I’m sure we’ll still have a productive fall.” 

High hopes

Looking forward, Dumaresque is crossing his fingers for the rest of this season and has high hopes for next year. 

“So there’s still time to be able to give the necessary hours for EI (employment insurance) to our workforce and be able to have a reasonable year to our fishermen and the company,” he said. “One thing I can say with confidence is that if the scallops are supplied to us, then yes, the workers will get their insurable hours.

“We certainly believe next year will be a much different year because this vessel won’t go under any such refit so we will certainly position to be off the mark in late March, early April and continue for eight months and definitely will be able to have a much more productive year than we’re having this year.”

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