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Staff at the Icewater Seafoods processing plant in Arnold's Cove, N.L., on Nov. 14, 2017.Paul Daly/For The Globe and Mail

When the cod fishery collapsed in Newfoundland three decades ago, ending a way of life for the island’s fishermen, Bruce Wareham started looking across the ocean – to the cold waters of the Barents Sea, where Russian trawlers were hauling in increasingly large catches every year.

His decision to begin importing frozen Russian cod at a time when no one else was doing it helped save a fish plant and keep hundreds of jobs in Arnold’s Cove, N.L., a community of about 1,000 people on a finger of land jutting out into Placentia Bay.

This week, his son Alberto Wareham cancelled his last order of Russian cod as he watched TV reports about the invasion of Ukraine. It’s no small decision for a fish plant that employs 225 people. About 55 per cent of Icewater Seafoods’ codfish, shipped to buyers around Europe and the U.S., comes from Russia.

“It’s a significant part of our business,” said Mr. Wareham, who took over as president and chief executive officer from his late father. “But it’s just the right thing to do.”

While there are no sanctions yet on Russian seafood products, Mr. Wareham was concerned about getting stuck with an order of fish that he would be barred from selling. The federal government has continued to ratchet up pressure on Russia, announcing on Tuesday that Canadian ports would be closed to Russian-owned ships, while threatening further restrictions on companies from the country.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has warned there will be “collateral damage” to Canada’s economy as more sanctions continue to be applied in support of Ukraine.

“It was the right decision from a humanitarian perspective, but we were also facing increasing business risk,” Mr. Wareham said. “I can’t say this is ending forever, but it’s ending for now. … I was worried if I couldn’t get that fish into Canada, and couldn’t get it back to Europe, what would I do with it?”

When Icewater’s customers, which include high-end grocers such as Britain’s Marks & Spencer, began asking how much of his cod was Russian in origin, Mr. Wareham realized he needed to make a change. But with finite limits on the world’s supply of North Atlantic cod, replacing that much fish isn’t easy.

His plant, the largest codfish processor in Newfoundland and Labrador, buys about 2,000 tonnes of cod each year. Cutting off his largest supplier means it could be May before he begins to find replacements. Mr. Wareham suspects it will mean his employees could lose as much as a month’s worth of salary.

“I’m proud of our people,” he said. “We haven’t had one person say it’s the wrong decision. Nobody likes getting less work, but they understand.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, just before the cod moratorium devastated Newfoundland’s economy, Russia has become an increasingly large supplier of the world’s cod. It now accounts for about 40 per cent of the North Atlantic cod harvest. Norway and Iceland make up most of the rest.

Russian and Norwegian cod, which arrives in Arnold’s Cove deheaded, gutted and frozen, allowed the former High Liner Foods plant to survive as the last year-round facility focused on cod in Newfoundland. When it opened in 1979, in the heyday of the Newfoundland fishery, all its cod came from local boats.

In 2020, Mr. Wareham’s company completed a $14-million upgrade that would allow it to double production. But the war in Ukraine is causing uncertainty for fish companies, along with plenty of other industries, around the world. One impact will be a rise in the price of cod, which Mr. Wareham already sells as a premium product, he said.

Hubert Warren, who retired last summer after 50 years as a fish-plant worker, said people in Arnold’s Cove are concerned about a cut to their paycheques as Icewater plans to downsize and reorganize its supply chain.

Four of his siblings still work for Icewater Seafoods, and the fish plant is a major employer for a lot of families in the community, he said. He still remembers his first paycheque from the plant – $67 – which the then 18-year-old spent on beer, cigarettes, gloves and the water-repellant oilskins that workers wear.

He hopes the company can find an alternative supply quickly, but says it’s still hard to understand how a war in Ukraine could affect jobs in Newfoundland.

“Those are good jobs and people are worried. If they can get the cod from somewhere else, that’s what they’re all hoping on. But that could fail, too,” he said. “It shouldn’t matter where they get the cod from.”

Editor’s note: An earlier headline on this story suggested fish plant workers had lost their jobs over the decision not to import cod from Russian trawlers. This version has been corrected.

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