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Why NL Fishers are Protesting in a Pandemic: An Explainer

in Analysis/Featured/Investigation/Longread by

On May 14, the federal government announced $469.4-million in relief money for wage subsidies and grants for fishers (fish harvesters) impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The measures specifically target those who don’t qualify for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (through the Fish Harvester Benefit) or the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) (Fish Harvester Grant), or who require support through updated Employment Insurance (EI) Fishing Benefits.

While the news was welcome, the path leading to this point has exposed deeply rooted problems in a crucial but troubled industry in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Under the best of times, those who work in wild fisheries weather extreme challenges. There are the inherent workplace safety risks of a seafaring career, as well as the risks associated with enterprise ownership, crew management, fluctuating demand and markets, complex regulations, and dealing with the unknowns of a changing climate. The most recent challenge facing inshore fishers is coping with COVID-19. While half-a-billion-dollars in federal relief payments announced last week will certainly help, many who work in this industry argue that support arrived too late and rubs salt in their wounds, showing they (along with plant workers) lack the representation they need for their industry and the coastal communities they support to truly thrive in this province.

“This announcement was long overdue and was welcome news to fish harvesters who have been calling for income security, debt relief and access to affordable capital since this pandemic began,” Keith Sullivan, President of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW-Unifor), tells the Independent.

“There are still many questions surrounding eligibility and how harvesters can access the funding, but we are hopeful this will provide much needed relief to enterprise owners and crew members.”

The Heart of Rural Atlantica

As background, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) reports Atlantic Canada’s commercial fishery has more than 16,000 vessels and fishing license holders (based on 2018 figures). Most of the 3,500 businesses (about 85 per cent of fishing and fish processors) across this region are located in rural and remote regions (Statistics Canada, 2016); and the bulk majority (90 per cent) of fishing operations are small, employing less than five workers (Statistics Canada, 2017).

Fishing families and coastal communities know inshore fishers and plant workers punch above their weight, but do not reap all the fruits of their labour. DFO reports the commercial fishery in Atlantic Canada has a landed value of over $3-billion (again, based on 2018 figures), a figure that has steadily increased even as fish stocks have become more depleted. This year will undoubtedly see a decline in those earnings. Already, salaries in the fishery range widely season to season for a variety of reasons—many beyond a fisher’s control, as is the case with the current pandemic.

While enterprise owners can net several hundred thousand dollars per year, they shoulder high operational costs, including paying crew, upkeep for vessels and gear, purchasing licenses, debt servicing and more. Crewmembers and plant workers are often in far more precarious situations financially, dependent on the availability of work—sometimes tied to their seniority. More difficult to quantify, but priceless, are the way fisherfolk continue a more than 500-year-old tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador; a tradition that has influenced every aspect of our lives from our settlement patterns, architecture, art, cuisine, and traditions.

Inshore fishers and plant workers are represented by FFAW-Unifor in NL. And while many are satisfied with their union representation (and some serve important decision-making roles within it), others contend the current pandemic has revealed that their interests are not fully—be it wholly or transparently—represented.

Between 2016 and 2019, the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL) had attempted to represent inshore fishers through a few impressive, but ultimately unsuccessful membership drives to collect the signatures (or cards) required by the province’s Labour Relations Board to gain union classification. Some argue the series of unfolding events in recent weeks demonstrate new union leadership is needed—and yet, it was only December 2019 when FISH-NL resigned its efforts to offer such an alternative.

FFAW-Unifor news releases since mid-March show the union has made repeated attempts and significant strides to represent worker issues. However, recent protests at union headquarters and provincial government offices show unrest amid inshore fishers and plant workers who say the union’s efforts failed to reflect their best interests to fish processors and governments at all levels. Fishers and plant workers also say they are let down by the inaction or delayed action of their municipal, provincial and federal government representatives.

Help for harvesters is on the way”

On April 25, fish processing companies learned they were eligible for financial relief when the federal government announced $62.5-million for Canada’s fish and seafood sector. The money was designated for fish processing companies to adapt occupational health protocols by establishing physical distancing measures, equipping workers with personal protective equipment (PPE), and investing in freezers to store unsold product (or, perhaps more accurately, to store product to secure higher prices once global markets show signs of recovery). At the time, federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan said “help for harvesters is on the way,” explaining that processors received help first because fishers cannot sell their product without them.

This rationale holds in theory, but has failed in practice on many levels. While some fish harvesters and plant workers were eligible for benefits as early as March 18 through the $2000/month Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), even those who qualified still worried about their livelihood in the long-term as the 2020 fishery remained closed. Enterprise owners were meanwhile left at the mercy of lenders for payment deferrals.

It was April 26 when fishers learned some processors in NL were expecting out-of-province vessels and tractor-trailers to land catch in this province while the local inshore fishery faced delays—delays which were out of the hands of NL fishers. A petition posted by the FFAW-Unifor last month calling to prohibit fish processing companies from bringing in outside product (e.g. Quebec or Nova Scotia) or outside the country (Saint-Pierre and Miquelon) for processing before the fishery reopened in NL has garnered nearly 5,500 signatures.

But Derek Butler, the Executive Director of the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP), which represents fish processing companies in NL, says shipping in product from elsewhere is not a new practice for processors.

“Producers in the province, whether [ASP] members or non-members, do often bring in raw material from other places in Atlantic Canada for processing,” Butler told the Independent. “It happens most years. As [Ocean Choice International] said, the plant in Triton has relied on crab from outside the province for years. Without that crab, there would be no work.”

In an attempt to thwart the arrival of out-of-province catch this year, FFAW-Unifor and its members organized wharf-side protests and road blockages. But these protests were called off almost as soon as they started when OCI was granted an injunction against FFAW-Unifor by the Supreme Court of NL to end the blockades. The union has continued to argue that processors were “trucking in crab from outside the province in an attempt to pressure NL plant workers back to work,” adding plant workers were particularly concerned processors had not yet put new occupational health protocols in place, despite companies having received new federal subsidies to do so.

“There is no validity to the FFAW argument that we were using federal funds for anything other than trying to get our plants ready to operate safely,” counters Derek Butler. “In fact, we were not using federal funds, those programs were not in place. Plants were appropriately spending their own money, not any money from the federal government, to buy PPE and make modifications to keep our plants safe.”

There are examples elsewhere of processors using funds from the Canadian Seafood Stabilization Fund (part of the April 25 federal government relief program for processors) to implement new health and safety measures, as this British Columbia seafood processor case shows. But COVID-19 outbreaks at the Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alberta and Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. pork processing plant in Perry, Iowa also reveal that while food processing companies are reliable at protecting food from being the source of foodborne illness, they aren’t necessarily equipped to prevent human-to-human disease transmission. And if workers feel their health and welfare are not taken seriously (or neglected altogether), their mental health suffers as well.

The Cost of Crab

It was during this same onerous week back in April that, as part of price negotiations with the union for the 2020 snow crab season, ASP submitted its initial offer of $0.01 cent per pound—an amount the union later called a “token price offer.”

“Typically, when the parties meet each year on a given species, we make initial offers, which are often very low or high, and we kind of chuckle and move on,” Butler told the Independent. “It is just a technicality, and real offers follow. The FFAW certainly milked the 1 cent and what they alleged it represented.”

At the time of this $0.01 offering, ASP was already paying $3.00/lb to Maritime and Quebec fishers. On April 29, when the union offered $3.50/lb as the price for crab, ASP submitted its final offer $2.90/lb ($3.00 minus the $0.10 Employment Insurance and workers compensation deduction required in NL). On May 4, the Standing Fish Price-Setting Panel, which operates under the province’s Fishing Industry Collective Bargaining Act and sets fish prices when negotiating parties reach a stalemate, set the price for crab at $2.90/lb.

That price did not go over well with fishers in the province—last year’s price reached $5.07/lb—sparking protests at union offices. While a new decision from the Panel on May 14 set prices at $3.50/lb, FFAW-Unifor’s Keith Sullivan acknowledges this year’s crab prices remain one of the concerns surrounding the 2020 fishery.

“Crab prices are down significantly over last year and prices for lobster are also expected to be down compared to last year,” Sullivan told the Independent. “This translates to tens of millions of dollars that will be lost in our coastal communities.”

Sullivan adds that ASP’s actions in the price negotiations have undermined the collective bargaining process, while also criticizing the provincial government for their inaction.

“The provincial government has been notably absent, especially as harvesters face bad faith bargaining and a lack of transparency from processing companies,” said Sullivan. “FFAW has been calling on the provincial government to mandate increased transparency from processing companies for a number of years to no avail.

“These companies will continue to operate in bad faith if there are no consequences for their actions—something the provincial government is responsible for. It’s the right of harvesters to collectively bargain and right now those rights are not being protected by our provincial government.”

(“Minister Byrne has held frequent discussions with [federal minister] Bernadette Jordan… to highlight the need for federal support across the Newfoundland and Labrador fishing sector,” the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources told the Independent when reached for comment. “On April 24 Minister Byrne submitted three detailed proposals to Minister Jordan which outline specific income security, industry and safety support initiatives to assist [provincial] fishery and aquaculture industries mitigate the challenges associated with COVID-19.” FLR has also “facilitated the organization of meetings between fishing industry stakeholders.”

“Minister Byrne continues his advocacy for the province’s seafood sector including specific income support benefits for plant workers to offset the impacts associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”)

Another major bone of contention has been ASP’s decision to limit trip (catch) limits for NL fishers operating small vessels to 1,500 lbs trip limits (later upped to 3,000 lbs) every two weeks. FFAW-Unifor calls these trip limits “uneconomical” and “a violation of the collective agreement between ASP and FFAW-Unifor.”

The entire ordeal raises speculation by the union that processors hold too much control over the province’s inshore fishery. Since April, FFAW-Unifor has argued the above examples—as well as ASP’s push for an early opening to the fishery—show the influence wielded by processors in the province.

“ASP and its members were not trying to control the fishery,” counters Derek Butler. “When seafood plants were opening in the rest of Atlantic Canada, we were also wanting to open. The FFAW said they wanted a fishery, and every time we tried to move forward, they delayed it. Harvesters fished in every province in Atlantic Canada before NL started.”

The union has denied that they were trying to shut-down the fishery, further arguing that processors are privileging profits over people’s safety. ASP has previously discussed the challenges processors face as it relates to marketplace volatility, for example, accommodating significant restaurant and retail revenue losses. But they contend processors are continuing to implement measures to keep their workers safe.

Fishing in the Time of COVID-19

Those who work in this industry are resilient to their core. But they are not immune to this pandemic and, arguably, face greater uncertainty than many other workers. COVID-19 has added to the fishing industry’s existing challenges by making a precarious source of employment even more precarious.

Workers cite a number of pandemic-related issues. First and foremost is workplace safety, be it on fishing vessels or in processing plants, where physical distancing is near impossible—and in an industry where the average age of workers is over 50, they are more vulnerable to the pandemic. The Newfoundland and Labrador Fish Harvesting Safety Association (NL-FHSA) issued a COVID-19 Safe Work Practices Document for fish harvesters on April 19 in partnership with the union, the Professional Fish Harvester Certification Board (PFHCB) and input from the Provincial Chief Medical Officer of Health, among others.

But enforcing these protocols on vessels, which is the responsibility of owners/operators/skippers, has proven difficult. One of the major concerns facing fishers is the size constraints of small fishing vessels.

“Social distancing is nearly impossible on a 30- or 40-foot fishing boat,” Keith Sullivan explained. “Fish harvesters are in such close quarters aboard their boats that when they sleep in their bunks, they say they share the same dreams.”

“Overall, the biggest challenge for fish harvesters is physical distancing given all hands are generally required to be on deck where crews work in close quarters in limited space,” Brenda Greenslade, Executive Director of NL-FHSA, told the Independent. “Plexiglass barriers that are commonly seen in the service industry are not practical on the deck of a moving platform in varying weather conditions with gear and equipment that is in constant motion. Facemasks, which are recommended when physical distancing or barriers are not possible, have also been met with resistance as they become uncomfortable when they get wet from the sea spray and water.”

Greenslade says the variation from vessel to vessel adds a complicating factor. “No two vessels or crews are alike. Many enterprises are family-run or have had the same crew for years, while others have crews that change up every trip.”

One measure some fishers are taking is creating a “crew bubble:” restricting access to only those personnel required, including limited interaction with dock workers—with some crews opting to offload their own product to further protect their bubble. Greenslade says she’s also heard from some large-vessel operators who have also installed barrier curtains between crew bunks.

Other issues with regards to workplace safety is limited PPE supply and a lack of training for implementing the new safe work practices. To help with equipment, PFHCB notified fishers on May 11 that they have limited supplies of face masks, thermometers and hand sanitizer available to certified professional fish harvesters at subsidized prices. Greenslade says the requests for those items have been overwhelming, which she sees as a positive sign for the industry response to COVID-19. To help with the latter, NL-FHSA is responding to inquiries from skippers and crew—some of whom are forging ahead, while others feel debilitated by the safe work practices.

“I have spoken with many fish harvesters during this pandemic and have gotten a mixed reaction,” Greenslade explains. “There were those, who began earnestly looking at ways they could fish safely during this pandemic while others were in despair, that the season would be lost as the standards for protection from COVID-19 were too great and impossible to attain.”

Other COVID-19 issues cited by fishers include the poorly coordinated response across an industry with multiple interests and regulators—mainly the delays in opening seasonal fisheries and granting comprehensive financial support to those forced out of work. Another is the significant decline in demand for seafood both at home and abroad, and how to carry the weight of that financial worry this season.

Last but not least, fishers face misrepresentation of their viewpoints. This is perhaps best articulated in a message from inshore fisherman Clifford Kenny of Fermeuse to the NL media via FISH-NL’s communication channels amid recent protests at FFAW-Unifor’s headquarters and the Confederation Building.

There are other, often sidelined challenges in this industry too—challenges which disproportionately affect women, young people, foreign workers, and others.

Issues related to gender equity and youth opportunities in a male-dominated and aging-worker industry are not new. Nor is reliance on temporary foreign workers, who are often paid less but expected to assume greater risks than their domestic counterparts—who in turn may feel undervalued when passed over for work opportunities. Seafood processors in New Brunswick are scrambling to fill the gaps left behind by their government’s decision to ban temporary foreign workers amid the pandemic. Processors in that province are reaching out to the unemployed as well as adolescents to fill more than 600 job vacancies at the plants.

Dealing with the effects of climate change, especially at a time when every marine species is significantly below its levels of abundance, is yet another ongoing challenge. In the Northwest Atlantic, capelin (or caplin)—arguably the most important forage fish in these waters—are the most recent example of a species in decline.

Then there’s the issue of food sovereignty, whereby communities enjoy the right to “healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and . . . define their own food and agriculture systems” (Food Secure Canada). Too often, big company profits are prioritized over small community prosperity. These profits are increasingly reaped by out-of-country companies. This is strikingly demonstrated by the plan from Royal Greenland (owned by the Greenlandic Government) to purchase Quinlan Brothers Ltd. at the end of the processing season—despite Ottawa’s concerns about selling off Canadian companies to foreign governments amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Community prosperity in this case is not a financially-laden term, but one signalling the vitality of coastal communities—communities that without their inshore fishery are susceptible to total ruin. That’s a legacy Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know all too well.

Supporting Newfoundland and Labrador Fishery Workers

Previously, the Independent has covered many of these issues—see examples here, here and here—to bring attention to a fisheries “economy of care” rather than an “economy of capital.” A fishery built on care would privilege an ecojustice model by: respecting fish as species and sources of nourishment for communities as well as supporting the livelihood of local fishers; respecting fishers and fishmongers as food providers carrying on traditional practices; and respecting peoples and communities by easing their access to local, nutritious seafood.

A fisheries economy of care would likewise question our current food supply chain and its complex web of processing, storage, transportation, marketing and more—especially how current approaches limit local access to fresh fish. (The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations offers a helpful Q&A on this matter as it relates to COVID-19.) Meanwhile, DFO has not yet announced season open dates for the recreational fishery— which many in NL prefer to call the food fishery, as a more accurate description of its purpose.

The fishery issues garnering (and not garnering) attention at this time should create widespread concern in this province. Yet major issues in the fishery regularly go unnoticed by the broader population, even when covered by local media. Take for example the April culling of 450,000 juvenile Atlantic salmon exposed to fish infected with Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) in the Stephenville aquaculture hatchery operated by Northern Harvest Smolt Ltd, subsidiary of Norwegian-owned Mowi. This is not the first such incident by this company—the Independent wrote about this issue here—and die-offs are common in the aquaculture industry. Another example is the influence of oil and gas development (e.g., seismic activity and oil spills) on the fishery—repeated claims by those in the oil and gas sector that these activities do not negatively impact the fish or the fishery defies reason and fisheries science.

With these examples in mind, one has to wonder why Newfoundlanders and Labradorians don’t riot in the streets—present pandemic situation excluded—over the issues facing the inshore fishery. Instead, the primary focus on fishers involved in recent protests at union offices and Confederation Building in St. John’s is criticism for disrespecting public health restrictions.

The public criticism prompted Meagan Careen to offer “A fisherman’s daughter’s perspective” to humanize the protests. This essential workforce—often first out of their homes to start work in the wee hours of the morning—are rightly concerned they were relegated last in line for federal relief payments. But it’s not just their governments, union or processors letting them down: the rest of us are culpable too. As the fishery reopens and inshore fishers and plant workers begin to receive much-needed financial relief, let’s consider offering them our encouragement and support.

Let’s also consider what we want and expect of our fishery. Its future—and the province’s future—depends on the actions we take now.


Timeline of Major Events

March 11. World Health Organization declares COVID-19 pandemic.

March 13. FFAW-Unifor issues first statement regarding COVID-19 outlining their recommendations “have included, but are not limited to, an extension of Employment Insurance (EI) benefits, an immediate analysis of seafood markets and the impact on Newfoundland and Labrador seafood exports, and an expanded strategy for marketing of Newfoundland and Labrador seafood.” Further, they reported urging “provincial and federal governments to immediately outline a plan to support [the] province’s fishing industry and the families and communities who depend upon it.” FFAW-Unifor’s second statement reinforced these recommendations, adding greater specificity, for example, “increasing the EI income replacement from 55 [per cent] to 90 [per cent].”

March 18. The application process for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) opens with options for fish harvesters or plant workers with an expired EI claim and no income, and who cannot return to work due to COVID-19. It also includes an option to apply for an EI extension for those fish harvesters impacted by season delays due to COVID-19. But those currently receiving fishing benefits whose EI claims will soon expire remain uncertain as to their eligibility. In addition to these clarifications offered by DFO and FFAW-Unifor, the union encourages enterprise owners to reach out to their lenders to inquire about payment deferrals. A week later, the union additionally requests that DFO immediately waive all licensing fees for the 2020 season.

March 25. Snow crab fishery is postponed until at least April 20 (this date is later moved back to May 1). Soon after, the herring and halibut fisheries are recommended to be postponed (to April 11 and April 26 respectively), and a conversation regarding lobster is initiated. The same concerns surrounding COVID-19 and the safety of workers (fish harvesters, plant workers, dockside monitors and transportation providers) prompted the postponement discussions. “Notices to Fish Harvesters” for all commercial fisheries soon become available online under the Fishery Notices link on the DFO NL Region webpage.

March 30. DFO offers further clarification of financial supports and credit programs available to help harvesters, processors, and aquaculture to deal with loss of markets and revenue. The information points to measures to help individuals employed in the industry deal with loss of employment income, including self-employed fish harvesters and harvesters employed in the industry. It also includes general measures that could also apply to individuals in the industry such as Canada Child Benefit, Indigenous Community Support Fund, Canada Student Loans, tax flexibility, and mortgage default management tools for homeowners.

April 1. FFAW-Unifor indicates fish harvesters are eligible to apply for the CERB once their current EI claim runs out. Citing outstanding concerns for fish harvesters and enterprise owners, the union tells members: “Rest assured, we will continue to advocate on your behalf to ensure you and your families are taken care of as the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold.”

April 3. The Association of Seafood Producers (ASP), which represents NL’s fish processing companies, calls for the crab fishery to reopen on April 20. FFAW-Unifor argues that “Fish Processors Put Profits Over People in Push to Open Fishery.” On the same day, the union’s Inshore Council recommends all inshore fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador be postponed until at least May 1, and until steps can be taken to protect the health, safety and security of inshore harvesters and plant workers in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Over the next week, the snow crab fishery dominates discussions with harvesters expressing concerns over fair pricing and protecting the snow crab industry. Meanwhile, DFO issues a Fisheries Management Order temporarily banning at-sea observer coverage. (Under usual circumstances, the role of the Canadian Fisheries Observer is to record and report on the activities of fishing vessels, mainly to monitor fisheries regulation compliance.)

April 9. DFO accepts the request to delay inshore fisheries until at least May 1.

April 19. The Newfoundland and Labrador Fish Harvesting Safety Association (NL-FHSA) issues its COVID-19 Safe Work Practices Document, offering advice on creating and maintaining a bubble for physical distancing on a fishing vessel as well as other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The document was carried out in partnership with the FFAW-Unifor, the Professional Fish Harvester Certification Board (PFHCB), input from fish harvesting safety associations across the country, as well as the Provincial Chief Medical Officer of Health. Meanwhile, with pressures from ASP to reopen the NL fishery mounting (including calls from the association to allow different fishing fleets to start catching crab before others), processors turn to out-of-province/country vessels and tractor-trailers to land catch in the province to supply their plants. FFAW-Unifor issues a call to governments to prohibit these efforts, while ASP counters that this is not a new practice. The union later works with its members to block out-of-province/country vessels from landing product in NL while local fisheries are closed. The union also rejects ASP’s proposals to stage-gate a reopening to the crab fishery. On April 19, the union announces the crab fishery will delay opening until May 11.

April 25. The federal government announces $62.5-million for Canada’s fish and seafood sector. The support particularly targets processors to enable: purchasing PPE for workers; adapting to current health protocols; supporting physical distancing measures; and investing in freezers or new equipment to store their unsold product in response to the changing market. FFAW-Unifor president, Keith Sullivan, says the news is encouraging but not enough, failing to address harvester support. He warns governments that harvesters will be in trouble. Federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan acknowledges help for harvesters is on the way.

April 26. Wharf-side protests by local fishers and the union stop out-of-province/country boats from unloading their catch. The vessels were on route to local processing companies. Meanwhile, FFAW-Unifor releases a statement that “Plant Workers Raise the Alarm on Inadequate Safety Procedures as Companies Push to Begin Processing,” and argue that “Rather than negotiating a fair price for NL harvesters or responding to the concerns of workers, processing companies have pocketed subsidies from the federal government and are trucking in crab from outside the province in an attempt to pressure NL plant workers back to work.” (Derek Butler of ASP told the Independent: “There is no validity to the FFAW argument that we were using federal funds for anything other than trying to get our plants ready to operate safely.”)

April 27. Word circulates that ASP has submitted an initial offer of $0.01 cent per pound for snow crab for the 2020 season, while paying $3.00/lb to Maritime and Quebec fishers. This news gains particular traction on social media (perhaps best demonstrated by this tweet from inshore fisher, Jasmine Paul, who asks how much people are willing to pay for snow crab at a restaurant). The conversation raises questions about why fishers face restrictions in selling fish directly to the public (e.g., there are limits on the number of species and where fishers can sell seafood). This is an especially timely conversation as food security and sovereignty issues become more prevalent amid the pandemic.

April 28. Ocean Choice International is granted its injunction forcing FFAW-Unifor and its members to end blockades preventing out-of-province/country vessels and tractor-trailers from landing catch. On the same day, the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters’ Federation (CIFHF) calls on the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans to reconvene for an emergency session to limit the damage COVID-19 will cause the industry and coastal communities.

Price negotiations for crab stall. ASP submits a final offer of $2.90/lb (a price they say is comparable to what’s offered to Maritime and Quebec fishers, minus the $0.10 Employment Insurance Worker Compensation deduction required in NL). FFAW-Unifor offers $3.50/lb.

May 4. The Standing Fish Price-Setting Panel accepts the ASP offer. Their report concludes that given “the review of the market information available, other extraneous considerations and the submissions of the parties, it is the decision of the Panel to accept the final offer of the ASP” of $2.90/lb for crab. They note, however, that “the Panel feels a reconsideration request(s) is likely and will be available to expeditiously deal with any that come forward.”

May 9-12. Inshore fishers stage a protest in front of FFAW-Unifor offices in St. John’s. The rally involves some 100-200 fishers (many of whom have driven hours to participate) protesting— among other issues—the union’s initial decision to settle for a low price for crab in the 2020 season. Other grievances include high levels of fear and anxiety regarding safe workplace practices (both on processing lines and aboard fishing vessels) in the time of COVID-19. Fishers additionally argue the union failed to give them a chance to vote on season open dates, crab prices, and trip limits for smaller vessels that limit crab catch per trip—thereby requiring more trips and operating expenses. They also argue the union opened the fishery before the federal government revealed what would be available by way of financial supports, and that preferential treatment is granted to large-boat operators versus smaller boat crews (particularly related to trip landing limits).

Public feedback of the protests criticized the large gatherings, concerned protesters were breaking physical distancing requirements. Others contend that is entirely the point: if the protest breaks public health protocol, it underscores both the severity of the situation and the difficulty of social distancing on a processing line or small fishing vessel. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary breaks up the May 9 protest, while the union responds saying they’re doing their best. The provincial minister responsible makes no attempt to address the situation. By May 12, there’s a general consensus among protesters—who have now moved to Confederation Building—that the federal government has waited too long to offer real financial relief for fishers.

May 11. The Professional Fish Harvester Certification Board notifies fishers by email they have limited supplies of face masks, thermometers and hand sanitizer available to certified professional fish harvesters at subsidized prices.

May 14. The federal government announces $469.4-million for fisheries. $267.6-million will cover 75% of losses for fish harvesters who expect an income drop of 25% this season, and who are unable to hire the necessary labour (e.g. via temporary foreign workers). $201.8-million will go towards a non-repayable grant program of up to $10,000 for fish harvesters who own their own business. These benefits will also allow some self-employed harvesters—those who wouldn’t qualify for EI due to low earnings this year—to access EI benefits based on insurable earnings from the previous year. Critics say the announcement leaves many questions unanswered:

  • Conservative MP Mel Arnold asks: When will fish harvesters be able to apply for these benefits? Will family-run businesses qualify? Does the offshore sector qualify? He also notes Conservatives are proposing the creation of a program to match students and youth with jobs in the agriculture and fish/seafood sectors.
  • NDP MP Gord Johns says getting seafood into Canadian markets is more important now than ever, especially since the US is tightening its restrictions on seafood entering that country (and the US has traditionally been a major buyer of NL seafood).
  • FFAW-Unifor’s Keith Sullivan says the measures do not address every recommendation made by the union, particularly those that address concerns about EI benefits.

The Standing Fish Price-Setting Panel also sets a new price for crab at $3.50/lb. ASP told the Independent they are “watching the market and will apply for a reconsideration if there is merit.”

With files from Drew Brown.

Jenn Thornhill Verma is a freelance journalist from Newfoundland living in Ottawa. She is the author of Cod Collapse: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland’s Saltwater Cowboys.

Photo by the author.

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