FISH-NL Issues Warning to DFO on Changes to Harvester Registration in Atlantic Canada

The following letter was addressed to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) National Fisheries Policy Office in Ottawa.


As FISH-NL warns the Government of Canada to proceed with extreme caution and to revisit changes implemented years ago in Newfoundland and Labrador because of the conflict of interest created between the Professional Fish Harvesters Certification Board (PFHCB) and FFAW-Unifor, the union that currently represents inshore fish harvesters in collective bargaining.s president of the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL), a union with a growing membership of 3,000-plus inshore harvesters, I’m writing to formally lodge our concern/objection with proposed changes to the requirements for fish harvester registration in Atlantic Canada.

N.L. established the first professional certification regime in 1997, but some harvesters have questioned the validity of the PFHCB from day one, arguing they were never given an opportunity to formally vote the PFHCB into existence.

The PFHCB is a provincial corporation established by the N.L. government under the Professional Fish Harvesters Act, 1997. Prior to that point, Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was responsible for the registration, assessment and categorization of N.L. fish harvesters.

The PFHCB’s objectives are outlined under Section 4 of the Act and include a mandate to: operate and maintain a fish harvester registration system; be responsible for defining the standards for professionalization; assess the qualifications and issue certificates of accreditation to qualifying harvesters and promote the interests of fish harvesters in a professional group.

DFO policy dictates that N.L. residents seeking to fish commercially must be registered with the PFHCB. Likewise, anyone seeking to acquire a federal species licence must be recognized as a professional Level II fish harvester by the PFHCB.

The PFHCB has said it operates “independently, and at an arm’s length basis” from the FFAW-Unifor, but that’s not the case. Most harvesters see the union and PFHCB as one and the same — and in direct conflict of interest.

Not only is the PFHCB located in the same St. John’s office building as the FFAW-Unifor, but the two actually own the property together. As well, while seven of the PFHCB’s 15 board members must be representatives of the FFAW-Unifor, some positions are often vacant, meaning the union effectively controls the Board.

In recent months, and for the first time in recent memory, DFO has held direct consultations with inshore harvesters around Newfoundland and Labrador and one of the issues consistently raised was the PFHCB.

More specifically, how hard is it for new people to break into the fishery.

FISH-NL was told by numerous harvesters who attended those meetings they were reluctant to speak out against the PFHCB, the union, or DFO policy with FFAW-Unifor representatives in the room — fearing it would negatively impact their applications for accreditation.

N.L. harvesters also complain the PFHCB — as gatekeeper into the N.L. fishery — has actually implemented rules that are “eliminating” the inshore fishery, making it incredibly difficult to acquire a fishing licence.

For example, to qualify for a core enterprise, a harvester must first work for five years as a full-time crewman (making $10,000-15,000 a year in the small-boat fleet) and if they hold a full-time job outside the fishing season (May to October) they’re immediately disqualified.

FISH-NL recommends that DFO should not give the PFHCB any more authority than it already has.

In fact, in light of the steady and serious decline in the number of inshore harvesters in recent years and complaints from potential new entrants, DFO should insist the PFHCB modernize its qualifying criteria.

Given declining fish stocks and reduced catches, harvesters are having a harder and harder time relying solely on income from the fishery in order to provide for their families — which too often makes them ineligible for higher accreditation.

Perspective enterprise owners question how they can obtain a Level 1 or Level II certification when there isn’t enough catch for them and their families to live exclusively on fishing.

Bradley Abbott, an apprentice harvester from Lourdes in western Newfoundland since 2005, has been unable to get his Level 1 because he hasn’t been able to rely solely on income from the fishery.

The money just isn’t there.

In Abbott’s words, “I am from Newfoundland, married to a fellow Newfoundlander, raising my children here in our home province, trying to earn and spend in my home province in hopes that one day soon I may obtain a licence and earn my family income solely from the fishery… However, with the current system of the Professional Fish Harvesters (Certification Board) it is literally impossible to do so.”

In summary, FISH-NL recommends DFO be extremely wary of potential conflicts of interests in downloading registration responsibility to private entities linked to existing fishery organizations.

Further, FISH-NL advises DFO to investigate the PFHCB’s relationship with the FFAW-Unifor for conflict of interest, with an eye to making the organization truly independent. DFO must also insist the PFHCB modernize its qualifying criteria.


Ryan Cleary,

President, FISH-NL

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