Be Careful What You Ask For

There is an old saying that comes in many different variations.

A common one is, “Be careful what you ask for, because you may get it in greater measure than you expect.” It is a warning that what you ask for may not actually be good for you.

The origins of that idea go back at least to the book of Elijah in the Old Testament of the Bible. It is also in Aesop’s Fables, the world’s best-known collection of morality tales, dated to around 260 B.C.

But Elijah and Aesop likely just echoed thoughts that had been around for a long time before them. The idea has persisted over time, because it contains wisdom people recognize as true. There are many examples.

Nearly everyone would like to have more money, thinking life would become easier, more comfortable and more enjoyable. That is why many people buy lottery tickets, even though the likelihood of winning is very small — in most cases, even less than the chance of being struck by lightning. Nevertheless, some people do win and a few win really big prizes, so a lottery ticket offers hope for a better future. As they say, you can’t win it, if you are not in it.

But it seems that winning a big lottery prize is not likely to lead to happiness.

According to a story in the New York Daily News, “Nearly 70 per cent of lottery winners end up broke within seven years.” The internet is full of stories of lottery winners who went broke, were cheated out of their winnings, were killed by people who wanted their money or committed suicide. These stories illustrate the truth in another old saying, “money doesn’t buy happiness.”

Some people wish for fame instead of money but that, too, has its problems.

According to Bill O’Reilly, an American political commentator, author and television host, “One of the downsides of being famous is that folks pay far more attention to you than they should. American celebrities are constantly under surveillance and every word they say is subject to scrutiny. So, be careful what you wish for if you desire fame. No human being should be a goldfish.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has both money and fame, but do you think he is happy these days? It seems doubtful.

So, what does all this have to do with the fishery?

Unfortunately, there have been many examples of people involved in the capture fishery asking for — even demanding — things that were not in their best interest.

Let’s start with fish.

It pretty much goes without saying that every fish harvester would like to have more fish to catch. And that has translated into demands for more fish even when the resources are not in good condition.

That is what led to a series of moratoriums on catching cod and some other groundfish species that started in 1992 and are still continuing today, after nearly 30 years.

In recent years, there have been some signs that stocks are rebuilding. That has led to renewed demands for more fish to catch, even though the resource is nowhere near historical levels and is not ready to support a significant commercial fishery. Furthermore, harvesting more fish now will slow down the rebuilding process and reduce the size of the stock for a long time to come.

Be careful what you ask for.

After the moratoriums were imposed, the offshore trawler fleet practically disappeared. That opened up new fishing opportunities for smaller fishing vessels. Because the smaller inshore and near-shore vessels began to fish much further from shore, they needed more space to hold larger catches and carry more gear and supplies, so they could extend fishing trips.

But vessels were limited in length by DFO regulations, so harvesters started building them wider and deeper. That made them less fuel-efficient and more difficult to handle, because of the way water flows around the larger hulls. It also led to more onboard injuries and fatalities.

Be careful what you ask for.

We have a similar problem with government-issued licences, both to harvest fish and process them. Demands for more licences to allow more people and communities to participate in the fishery have led to more licences being issued than we have fish to support, so we have way too much capacity for the amount of fish we have available.

But too much capacity means many fishing enterprises and fish plants cannot sustain themselves from the revenue they earn from the fishery. That has led to a high degree of dependence on Employment Insurance in both the harvesting and processing sectors.

The EI-dependent business model has supported the Baby Boom generation for decades. But they are gradually retiring from the industry. Their offspring are not interested in that lifestyle, so they have left rural communities in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Policies intended to provide jobs in rural communities have had the effect of endangering the existence of those very communities.

Be careful what you ask for.

Too many licences that have limited access to fish lead to demands for more fish, to improve the economics of fishing enterprises and fish plants. But giving in to those demands endangers the future of the resource, as was indicated above. As this illustrates, the greatest threat to resource sustainability is excessive economic dependence.

Be careful what you ask for.

Because it is difficult or impossible to sustain fishing enterprises and fish plants based on the quantities of fish available, that puts a lot of emphasis on the other variable in the revenue equation — price. Just as harvesters always want more fish, they also want higher prices for the fish they do catch. But higher raw material costs push processors to seek higher prices from their customers.

It isn’t always possible to get higher prices, because someone has to be willing to pay them. Consumers — the people who ultimately buy our products — have many options available to them for creating a nice meal and they do not have to choose ours or pay higher prices simply because we need more money. Higher prices for our products make them less attractive to consumers, reducing demand for them. When demand decreases, we inevitably have to reduce our prices to attract more customers to buy our products.

Be careful what you ask for.

Along the same theme, harvesters always want to be paid the highest prices, regardless of the quality of the raw materials they provide to processors. And mostly they are able to get the same price regardless of quality, because many processing companies struggle to obtain enough raw materials to support their operations and are willing to give in to the demand.

Unfortunately, everyone is worse off, because of that. Differences in raw material quality lead to different product yields, different output products and different markets and prices for those products. Anyone who doesn’t understand that or thinks those rules shouldn’t apply to them is living in a dream world. The rest of the world does not work that way and we are not exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else. By thinking we can be different, we are only hurting ourselves.

Be careful what you ask for.

In many ways, it is understandable why people want the things they ask for — and why they buy lottery tickets or hope to become famous. They are simply trying to improve their situations. It is part of being human.

David Greening photo

None of what I have said above means we shouldn’t be trying to find ways to improve our industry. We absolutely should be trying to do that. The problem is not with the desire; it is with how people hope to satisfy it.

There is little to be gained by solving one problem by creating another one that may be even worse. We can’t improve our industry or our own situations by taking too many fish out of the water, building boats that are inefficient and unsafe, trying to support too many people and communities with too few fish, seeking prices that will drive away customers, or thinking we have avoided accountability for producing poor quality raw materials or products.

The common thread running through all these expectations/demands is trying to get a short-term benefit that leads to something worse over the long term — short-term gain for long-term pain.

In our fishery, the Baby Boomers have taken the short-term benefits and essentially driven most of the younger generation out of the industry, because of the long-term impacts. Is that really the legacy we want to leave behind?

There are things we can and should do that will bring more benefits. But our industry is stuck in an old-fashioned way of thinking that simply has to change.

If you look around and think about what you see, you can see that what we have been doing has not been working for anybody — harvesters, processors, customers, communities or governments. Doing more of the same will not make things better, it will make them worse.

We need to think differently. As Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Our industry was built on an assumption that we had abundant fish resources. Even if it was true then — which is questionable — it certainly is not true now. Our resources are limited and becoming even more limited over time. There is no point in demanding access to more fish to catch when there are no more fish.

But there are species in the ocean that can provide opportunities. In Newfoundland and Labrador, we now have a substantial fishery for sea cucumbers that didn’t exist 10 years ago. And the snow crab and shrimp fisheries that have been the main commercial species since the mid-1990s didn’t get started until the 1960s. Before that, the industry was almost totally dependent on cod.

Development of the new fisheries based on other species required people to think outside the box. They were not part of our traditional way of doing things.

Similarly, our industry was also built on an assumption that people were abundant in rural communities.

We created a labour-intensive model in an effort to provide as many seasonal jobs in rural communities as possible. But we now compete with companies in other countries that use labour-intensive business models and pay their people a fraction of what we pay ours. Or we compete with companies in other high-wage countries that use much more technology to obtain more value from their catches and maintain competitive labour costs.

Because of that, our rural communities are steadily losing their young people and it is increasingly difficult to attract new people to work in our industry to replace retiring Baby Boomers. The fact is we will not have access to the same numbers of people in the future that we had in the past. We need to reorganize the industry to take that into account.

Because we believed fish were abundant, our focus was on catching more, not getting more value from what we caught. But when fish are not abundant, the focus must change to getting as much value as possible from the fish we are able to catch. And we can only do that by putting more emphasis on improving quality, not by demanding to be paid the same price, regardless of the quality.

Our industry was also built with a heavy dependence on the market in the United States, when our competitors were mainly other high-wage countries in the North Atlantic.

But the world has changed. The U.S. market is larger, but we also have many more competitors looking for a share of the market, including products from aquaculture and capture fisheries in low-wage countries.

Our sales have also been heavily dependent on markets represented by restaurants, casinos and cruise ships. All of these markets have suffered major impacts from COVID-19 and it seems likely it will take a while to rebuild them. Some of our traditional customers may not even survive, so rebuilding may be difficult.

All of this is to say that, when you ask for something, it is always a good idea to think about what the potential outcomes might be and whether you will really be better off, if you get it. Sometimes, there is only a short-term benefit, at best and it comes at the expense of greater problems in the long term.

Mostly what we ask for — and think we need — are things that try to perpetuate the old ways of thinking and doing things, ways that do not work in today’s world. Instead, we should be working to reinvent the industry, to build a better future.

As I have been saying, repeatedly, be careful what you ask for.

Robert Verge

Managing Director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation — Newfoundland

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