BLOG: NL Fisheries | 500 Years of Turmoil

When the youth are gone who’ll work in the fish plants and who’ll catch the fish? Where will the industry be then?

Turmoil in the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery has been around since John Cabot dipped his basket over the side and pulled up that first startled cod fish. 500 years later little has changed.

This year once again processors complain that they can’t make a decent profit if they have to pay fishers a reasonable price for their catch. Fishers say they’re being robbed blind by processors and can’t afford to keep their boats in the water. Plant workers are caught in a vicious cycle of low wage, dead end, part time employment and countless small towns are dependent on worker salaries and EI subsidies to support economies offering little hope for the future.

Isn’t 500 years of turmoil long enough?

The Province has no authority to issue licenses or set fishing quotas. That authority rests with the federal government. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can lobby, yell, protest and scream but in the end quota decisions will be made in Ottawa.

Processing and labor regulations are a different story and since the Province controls these it makes them the most logical catalyst for change without ending up in a perpetual game of hot potato with Ottawa.

At the risk of being stoned to death the next time I walk down the street I’m going to suggest that it’s time for our provincial leaders use their powers to cut the B.S. and treat the fishery like an actual business instead of a social program.

Unlike many urban dwellers I’m well aware of how much larger towns in this Province benefit from the fishery. It isn’t just small fishing communities that depend on it. Car dealerships, big box stores and grocery stores alike all profit thanks to the industry. Any upheaval will affect the entire provincial economy.

I’m also aware that most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians would love to see the historical small town way of life we’re all so proud of thrive, but thriving is one thing, surviving on infinite life support is another.

The fishing industry, in fact the entire province, is in need of a large dose of reality. It won’t be easy for anyone to go through but it’s a necessity.

When you’ve worn a band-aid for a long time just the thought of pulling it off can almost as traumatic than actually doing it. Sometimes it’s best to simply pull it off quickly and put up with the blinding pain that follows. There’s no doubt it will hurt like hell but at least it will be over and the healing can begin.

We could start by getting a firm grip on one corner of that band-aid. This would require the provincial government telling the FFAW to pick a side and stick with it or they’ll no longer be recognized as an official union.

Where else could a single union represent both harvesters and plant workers? Talk about a conflict of interest. If the FFAW forces higher wages for plant workers it means processors have less revenue to pay harvesters. Forcing a higher price for harvesters leaves less for plant workers. The entire situation is insanity on a grand scale and the FFAW only serves to muddy some of the muddiest waters in the business world.

Plant workers and Harvesters need separate and effective representation, not a middle man sitting on both sides of the fence at the same time and collecting union dues from each.

With the bandage firmly in hand we need to pull quickly and forcefully until it breaks free.

Legislation currently requires fish landed in the province to be processed (at least partially) here. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact it’s the only hope plant workers have of remaining in the industry at all. The measure also ensures that the province sees some benefit from the resources.

Over the years there have been exceptions to the local processing rule, such as in the case of OCI and yellow tail flounder. Those exceptions should stop and reasonable incentives for industry to undertake additional value added processing need to be brought forward.

While we’re at it, let’s update the legislation to be more reflective of the real world most of us live in.

We want fish to be landed and processed here, no problem. But if that’s the law then we need to be fair about it. Let’s ensure harvesters are free to sell their catch directly to anyone in the province they wish, whether to processors, middlemen, stores, restaurants or individuals. Let’s also ensure that processors are not obligated to process fish only in areas where it’s landed. It isn’t the government’s role to pick which towns should be winners or losers. As long as the fish is processed or sold inside the province that should be good enough.

These changes alone would do a lot to level the playing field.

With the bandage now removed government should get out of the way and let nature take its course.

Yes there’ll be a great deal of pain and suffering but anyone who believes a solution will ever come without pain is living in a dream world.

Allowing fishers to freely market to customers will give them more say in how much they get for their catch and force processors to pay a reasonable price if they want to remain in business. If that means some processors have to close smaller plants and consolidate into fewer, more efficient ones, then so be it. If it means some plants simply can’t afford to operate then they’ll have to shut down and move on.

The same holds true for harvesters.

If harvesters are permitted to sell at a profit, either to processors or the public, then they’ll have the final say in how much they are willing to accept. If, on the other hand, they price themselves out of the market and their fish is left to rot on the wharves then they’ll have to sell their boats and get out of the business as well.

No bail outs, no work programs, no provincial or federal subsidies for unprofitable plants or harvesters, just the same business reality everyone else lives with in the real world.

Plant workers will be the largest group of casualties but what else is new. It’s the same for employees in any industry undergoing change and, as with harvesters and processors, reality needs to be injected here as well.

As employees, plant workers have no control over what happens around them but neither do cashiers at Walmart, workers at paper mills or waiters in restaurants. Such is the life of a wage slave like yours truly.

Workers who qualify for EI will take advantage of it while they can and those who don’t will end up on social assistance or find work elsewhere, either in their own home town, somewhere else in the province or even outside it. That’s how the world works outside the fishery.

It’s a painful proposition but in the end fishers and processors will wind up on an equal footing. If either of them can sell their product for a profit then they will do it, if they can’t then they will go out of business. That’s free enterprise.

If a business isn’t viable then it shouldn’t be in business. Artificially propping it up in an effort to ensure low paid seasonal employment and EI benefits for remote communities isn’t a valid business model, it’s a recipe for disaster where nobody wins.

Even the towns involved suffer. The artificial industrial environment set up to keep them alive makes them dependent. It lessens the urgency to find new opportunities and novel approaches to diversification. In the end it might be far more humane to pull that band-aid off and let these towns either sink or swim. Leaving things the way they are is only causing communities to slowly bleed to death as the younger generations depart for greener pastures and older residents die out.

When the youth are gone who’ll work in the fish plants and who’ll catch the fish? Where will the industry be then?

If, as a result of introducing reality into the fishery, some towns are unable to survive then that’s what has to happen. Whether they try to attract new industry to their towns or compete with each other to attract the more efficient fish plants that remain, there will be winners and losers. At least they’ll have the opportunity to work toward their own future and those that survive will be far better places to live in the long run

Towns around the world have suffered similar fates in the past just as they will in future. When faced with the closure of key industries towns normally face two options. Either they diversify (find another industry to sustain them) or they disappear into the mists of history. That’s been the natural order of things since time began but in Newfoundland and Labrador we’ve denied this reality by introducing the cultural custom of long term life support.

As things stand processors are encouraged to keep barely viable plants open with limited profit margins. This leads to a dependence on seasonal workers supplemented by EI funding. Those workers have no hope of ever improving their lot in life and the generations coming behind them are faced with a bleak future.

Because of a limited ability to grow efficiencies in their businesses processors also push down the price they pay to fishers in an effort to improve profitability and viability. Those harvesters in don’t have a lot of options for where they can sell their fish leaving them at the mercy of the plants and faced with an ongoing battle for survival.

Under the status quo the processors, fishers and plant workers are never going to be happy with their lot in life thanks to the artificial environment that’s been created around them.

A more realistic fisheries model may bring with it uncertainty but it can also bring innovation.

Perhaps there will be fewer but bigger plants. It might mean fewer but larger fishing vessels or it could even lead to a return to more small boat community based fishing. Who knows, but whatever the outcome at least it will be a natural result born of reality rather than from the virtual reality that exists today.

Free enterprise can have unexpected outcomes and not all of them are bad, just ask the people involved in “Community Sustainable Fisheries” in Maine or Nova Scotia. Closer to home the the Fogo Island and Labrador Cooperatives prove that new models can make a difference.

Newfoundland and Labrador needs to come to terms with is a daunting future. Either we have the stomach to pull off that band-aid and suffer the pain or we can continue ignoring the problem while hoping the infection beneath it doesn’t get worse as we keep treating the symptoms.

Read more of the author’s blog at Web Talk – Newfoundland and Labrador

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