Rebuilding Groundfish Stocks Must be Made a Priority

During recent months I have been in contact with friends and former associates in Iceland, Norway and other advanced fishing nations regarding the present state of their fishing industries.
In these discussions I have raised a number of matters including fisheries management, processing technology, customer demands for fresh, primary, and secondary processed fish products and ongoing technical advances in their respective fisheries sectors. I also raised the important issue of how these developments are impacting prices paid to fishermen and processing plant labour.

Having maintained frequent contact with some of the most reliable industry leaders and individual fishermen (inshore and offshore) and with people marketing fish in Europe and the U.S., I assumed I was reasonably close to present trends and conditions on a global basis.

In recent days I received videos of one of many newer processing plants with details of production lines and the latest developments in the harvesting and delivery of fish for processing to those plants and the delivery of various seafood products to markets in Europe and the U.S.

As a result of impressive technical advances made in Iceland, Norway, Alaska and other advanced countries in resource management and other key areas ranging from processing higher quality fish and market development, their industries are now paying far higher prices to fishermen and higher wages to processors. Of even greater significance is the enormous economic contribution which the fishing industry is making to their respective economies.

It has been stressed to me the key to these advances in the delivery of diverse high quality seafood products to global markets would not be possible without the best possible scientifically-based resource management regimes in which disciplined attention and adherence to regulatory regimes are critical. This has been accomplished principally through well-grounded national and state fisheries policies developed in full cooperation with communities, harvesters, processors and scientists.

When Newfoundland and Labrador entered Confederation in 1949, we delivered to Canada one of the largest and most diversified fisheries in the world. We immediately elevated Canada from 14th to 6th place in the world as a fish-exporting nation. This illustrates the important contribution we made to the Canadian Federation through this valuable renewable resource alone.

By 1992, 43 years later, virtually all of our major groundfish stocks collapsed under a seriously flawed Federal Government fisheries management structure that failed hundreds of coastal communities and over 40,000 industry participants miserably. To date (2016) there is little real evidence of recovery and we lost 80,000 residents or 15 per cent of our population to other provinces in Canada.

The development of crab and shrimp fisheries have provided seasonal jobs in some communities but both these resources are in decline and unfortunately a large portion of the shrimp resource is harvested by factory freezer trawlers. In a current public advertising blitz, the Canadian Association of Prawn Producers (CAPP), dominated by non-N.L. offshore license holders, is aggressively attempting to eradicate the inshore sector’s role in the Northern shrimp fishery through its support of a terribly flawed and incomprehensible DFO Last In-First Out (LIFO) policy.

To make matters worse, the DFO presence in the province is being abandoned along with the all-important scientific capability of DFO which is being systematically stripped in terms of effective and well-maintained research vessels, PhD scientists, biologists and support personnel. Moreover and especially sad, is that morale amongst its competent regional staff complement has plunged.

The resulting impact is less adherence to fishery regulatory measures including the continued misreporting or non-reporting of foreign catches within the NAFO Regulatory Area. Astonishingly, scientists have indicated they are unable to properly assess the true state of groundfish stocks, including the vulnerable 3PS cod stock and it has been a decade or more since a dedicated capelin survey has been conducted.

In the case of the Northern shrimp fishery, DFO has adopted a policy approach which has treated the inshore sector with a measure of disdain and which is driven by a long-standing symbiotic relationship at the Ottawa headquarters of DFO and the offshore shrimp sector which is dominated by licenses held outside this province. Yet, the public of this province are being led to believe that only Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have a presence in this fishery through a near deceptive TV advertising program funded by the offshore sector showing the province’s flag encased in shrimp.

Its background statements point to a statement saying that the offshore sector has had a presence in the shrimp fishery for generations. Given that the inshore shrimp fishery actually predated the offshore shrimp fishery in this province for which offshore licenses were first issued post 1977, it can be assumed that included in this inter-generational offshore reference is the family history of some offshore participants in their Nordic homeland fishery before the offshore shrimp fishery was “Canadianized” several or more decades ago.
Major concerns were raised by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador over this “Canadianization” and the exchange of correspondence records within the Government of Canada and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador make for interesting commentary on this matter.

One might be inclined to conclude that it’s late in the day to rectify the long-term mismanagement of our fisheries. However, it’s not too late for our elected politicians at both the provincial and federal level to wake up to the reality that we can take a page from what’s happening in Iceland, Norway, and Alaska with respect to competent fisheries management. This will require competent and effective political leadership driven by the reality that interests outside this province will be driven by their own agenda.

As a province and a people we have to be far more strident at safeguarding our own interests and in this context our municipal leaders and other community-based organizations such as Chambers of Commerce, the NL Federation of Labour, the NL Federation of Municipalities and Memorial University also have leadership responsibilities with respect to effective fisheries management.

The harvesting and processing sectors of the fishing industry must accept this reality if we are to reach a point where the Government of Canada is fully compliant with its obligations inherent in the Terms of Union when we transferred fisheries management to our national government in 1949.

Clearly, the single most important challenge which has to be addressed by our political leadership is the rebuilding of our key groundfish stocks. In the absence of leadership on this objective it is absolutely farcical for our elected representatives to be making boastful commentary on global market development initiatives simply because we have so little groundfish to market in the absence of stock rebuilding.

This resource depletion didn’t happen overnight. All too often the blame for resource depletion has been directed at our own people. The impact of foreign overfishing is well documented in DFO files and the files of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. These clearly document that the overall impact of local fishing effort on this resource depletion compared to foreign overfishing was similar to that “of a flea on the rump of an elephant.”

A.A. (Gus) Etchegary
St. John’s, N.L.

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