One of the city’s largest seafood processors is shutting down its waterfront facility, laying off as many as 94 local workers as the company consolidates its production in Virginia. 

True North Seafood, a subsidiary of Canadian seafood giant Cooke, announced the sudden decision to its staff at a floor meeting Thursday morning. The company is a leading distributor of imported fish, processing more than 16 million pounds of salmon each year, according to its website. Cooke has both harvesting and processing operations spanning 15 countries and over 13,000 workers. Its revenues are north of $4 billion, according to a recent interview with CEO Glenn Cooke. 

“It is not expected that this will change the landings of any fishing vessels that utilize the Port of New Bedford,” the company wrote in a statement Thursday. As a Canadian company, Cooke technically can’t own U.S. fishing boats. But its subsidiary, Wanchese Fish, has an exclusive agreement to buy scallops from a different harvester company (run by people who work for Cooke). That company owns 17 scallopers, the most allowed under current regulations, most of which ship out of New Bedford, where it appears they will remain. 

“It’s never good news when a company like this shuts down, especially for the workers,” said Gordon Carr, executive director of the New Bedford Port Authority. He added that the company is an importer and a processor, not a harvester, and the closure is not indicative of any trends in the fishing industry. “With the premium on processing space on the port, I don’t expect it to be vacant for very long,” he said.  

In its statement, Cooke said it is shutting down its New Bedford processing plant to “optimize the company’s capacity” and “better serve its customers.” But the move also comes after a year of labor turmoil amongst the company’s packers and fish cutters. 

In August, about two dozen seafood workers staged a demonstration at the True North facilities in the center of the South End industrial complex. They were protesting the company’s decision to fire two female fish cutters who had reported a supervisor for sexual harassment. The workers filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which is currently investigating the allegations, according to its public database of ongoing cases. 

Labor activists at the time described it as an example of a quiet but pervasive problem in the seafood industry. It is a job that is staffed largely by women, many of whom are immigrants and don’t speak English, and are especially vulnerable to workplace harassment. 

True North at the time said that the incidents were unrelated and that the women were fired for cause and also due to a seasonal decrease in product demand. The supervisor who allegedly harassed the women was fired, True North also said. But tensions have remained between seafood workers and management. 

True North workers interviewed by The Light on Thursday said, since the protests, those involved were met with retaliation from the company’s upper management and supervisors. “It always felt like there was animosity to people who were supportive of the protesters,” said Tonianne Wong, a 25-year-old production officer at True North, who lost her job on Thursday. 

In its statement, Cooke described the closure as simply about business, and unrelated to the recent conflict between workers and management. The company was formerly known as Mariner Seafood before it filed for bankruptcy in 2020 and was acquired by the Cooke subsidiary. Despite the closure of its New Bedford plant, Cooke has continued an aggressive expansion campaign, snapping up 14 companies valued at $2.5 billion since 2016. 

Gifford Cooke, the co-founder of the Cooke seafood group, died this month at 85. His family continues to run the global conglomerate, which he built up from a single fish farm in New Brunswick about 40 years ago. 

Article courtesy of Will Sennott and The New Bedford Light. Read more here.

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