Da Legal Stuff...

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

NL Fisheries – 500 Years of Turmoil

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.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Newfoundland & Labrador Fills Federal Void

In 2010 the government of Newfoundland & Labrador, under then premier Danny Williams, made a decision that might one day prove to be a turning point for the Atlantic fishery. It decided that the province could no longer trust the federal government, or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), as the sole source of fisheries science data.

Thanks to an initial $14 million allocation by the province’s taxpayers, research began this year into the state of North Atlantic fish stocks.

The Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research (CFER) was created by the provincial government in partnership with Memorial University and the Marine Institute. Their mandate is to study fish stocks and the environmental conditions that affect them.

Under the direction of noted marine biologist, Dr George Rose, the Centre will provide research data on groundfish, finfish, pelagics and shellfish through the use of acoustic surveys and satellite tracking.

As the first steps in this effort, the CFER has chartered an Irish research vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer, as the platform for this season’s research. The team hopes future funding will make it possible to purchase a dedicated vessel going forward.

Fisheries science is of critical importance to the province. The wide spread moratorium that followed the collapse of groundfish stocks in the early nineties left the province’s economy in tatters. Little recovery has been seen in those stocks and while the provincial economy has grown, largely through non-renewable resource revenues, many small towns directly affected by the closure continue to struggle for survival.

Ottawa and DFO are often singled out for their mismanagement of the industry and for the quality of their scientific information before and since the moratorium came into effect.

The initial closure of the fishery in 1992 led to the loss of employment and way of life for 10’s of thousands of people. This resulted in the biggest out-migration from any province in Canadian history with some estimates placing the mass exodus at more than 65,000, or about 15% of the population.

To provide some perspective on the scale of the personal and economic disaster involved consider a comparison to the province of Ontario.

Ontario has a population of 12 – 13 million people. Now imagine if you can that every single person, without exception, in the cities of Mississauga, Brampton, Hamilton and Windsor suddenly lost their jobs without warning. Every business there is shut down and every family has left those cities completely. Now imagine that those 1.8 million people don’t just move somewhere else in Ontario and continue to work, go to school or pay taxes, but instead leave the province completely.

The scale of the disaster is difficult to comprehend by most of the Canadian public.

When the moratorium was first announced by Federal Fisheries Minister, John Crosby, those who lost the livelihood their families had practiced for generations were told it was a temporary measure that would last only a few years. In the intervening 19 years since that announcement stocks have failed to recover in any significant way and DFO has provided few answers to when, if ever, the situation might improve.

While fisheries management is a federal responsibility, years of sustained budget cuts at DFO and few answers finally led to the province take action if even in this small way.

The creation of the CFER isn’t the first time Newfoundland & Labrador has been forced to unilaterally take responsibility by shouldering the costs associated with poorly managed federal programs.

A number of years back the province hired its own inland fisheries officers to ensure the protection of salmon stocks. The limited number of federal officers provided for the province had led high levels of poaching forcing the province to hire its own officers and fund local programs to protect the stocks.

Just this year Ottawa, as part of its current cost cutting measures, announced the upcoming closure of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in St. John’s. That announcement led to massive protests in the province, where a high incidence of marine emergencies each year has the public worried the closure will lead to slower response times for search and rescue missions.

During a conversation with the Prime Minister recently Premier, Kathy Dunderdale, put forth the public’s concerns and offered to cost share the $1.2 million dollar budget for the Centre. Her offer was flatly refused by Prime Minister Harper.

While the future of the Rescue Coordination Centre remains up in the air (scheduled closure date is the spring 2012) the province’s inland fisheries management officers have had great success in reducing poaching activities through direct enforcement and public awareness campaigns. And now, in addition to its ongoing research efforts, the new CFER team is in the process of setting up an advisory committee to assist in prioritizing research activities for the province going forward.

While Ottawa continues to misallocate fishing quotas and turns a blind eye toward illegal fishing practices by foreign vessels it’s hoped that data gathered by the team will at least help the province in understanding the environmental impacts affecting stocks. It’s a small step but a step none the less.

The fact that such a vibrant and sustainable fishery, the backbone of the province’s economy for 500 years, could be decimated after only 50 years of federal mismanagement is disheartening. Perhaps just as discouraging are Ottawa’s ongoing spending cuts in the area of fisheries science, enforcement ensuring the safety of those who work on the Atlantic. None of that appears to have dampened the determination of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians however when it comes to protecting their province.

The responsibility for managing and maintaining a number of services throughout Canada still rests with Ottawa, at least on paper, but in the case of Newfoundland & Labrador that hasn’t stopped the provincial government from taking action or provincial taxpayers from footing the bill for those federal programs.

It would seem that Ottawa’s abdication of responsibilities has left few other options for Newfoundland & Labrador if it is to have any hope at all of undoing the damage inflicted under the watchful eye of federal agencies and decision makers.