If you follow history in the fishery in Atlantic Canada, there is one undeniable truth that rises above the rubble and makes itself very clear: quite simply, politics and fish do not mix.
Every time politics intervenes in a fishing industry equation it seems to end up being a disaster or a laughing stock. Just think about the politically driven quota setting that helped wipe out groundfish stocks, the cuts to (and ignorance of) science programs, throwing around shellfish processing licences like confetti, the breaking up and selling off of FPI, Raw Materials Sharing — and the list goes on and on and on.
And yet, despite all that failure, politicians just can’t help but stick their pimply noses into the fishing industry in one form or another when it suits them.
We’ve seen a couple of examples just recently.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government has decided to allow Ocean Choice International (OCI) to ship out its redfish quota and 75 per cent of its yellowtail in exchange for the opening of the fish plant in Fortune.
I’m not sure if the deal itself is the right way or wrong way to go — time will tell whether or not the company is successful, if the Fortune plant remains open long-term (five years is NOT long term — just ask the now-unemployed folks in Burin), and if this is going to be the new processing model for fish resources.
What I can absolutely say quite confidently at this point, however, is that politics played a role in the decision. Just over a year ago the former Fisheries Minister, Darin King, staged what now looks like a mock war against OCI over the proposal— and then as time went on, he softened his stance and started talking about how it was better to have some benefit extracted from fish instead of leaving it in the water. (We just learned that the EU is looking for the province to abolish its minimum processing requirements all together as part of a free trade agreement with Canada, but that’s a blog for another day).
At any rate, King was suddenly shuffled out of fisheries and into justice before you could say “conflict of interest” since the Fortune plant — and the 100-plus jobs promised by OCI in return for shipping out millions of tonnes of unprocessed NL fish — sits right in the middle of his own electoral district. And let’s face it folks, there was no way a minister with his sights set on the premier’s seat was going to twiddle away 100-plus jobs in his rural, job-starved district under any circumstances.
Also, consider how the news of the deal was broken. It is perhaps the most meaningful piece of fisheries news in NL in the past couple of years. It has major potentially positive or negative ramifications for the entire future of fish processing and even resource development.
And yet, it was all hurriedly announced after 7 p.m. on a Friday night, after the close of business, the weekend before Christmas at a time when the eyes of the province were focused on the debate in the NL House of Assembly regarding the building of the great Tory monument in Labrador known as Muskrat Falls.
As a relatively veteran journalist I can tell you there are some unwritten rules and guidelines that we all follow as it pertains to our work.
And one of the big ones is that governments, whenever possible, will seek to announce controversial or embarrassing news late on Fridays. The reason for that is that they know the media won’t have a lot of time to turn the story around or advance it, and they hope that most of the working public will be too focused on what they’re doing that weekend to give a crap.
In fairness, I could see a scenario here where the people involved worked to get information out before the actual start of the Christmas holidays, and also because it seems some of the elements of this deal are expected to happen pretty immediately. But surely to God they had to know how such a last-minute, late-night information dump would be perceived?
Another example of how fish and politics don’t mix — this one significantly more humorous — was handed to us courtesy of St. John's South NDP MP Ryan Cleary.
Earlier this month, a little news hit popped up on the local VOCM website with the headline: “Cleary Claiming Victory Over Fleet Separation.”
I thought it was already April Fool’s when I read it.
I mean, sure, politicians are always looking to take forms of credit for things they had little to do with, but this was just outright laughable.
The story stated that Cleary “is claiming victory over the federal government's decision to back down on changes to the owner-operator and fleet separation policies.”
Cleary has painted himself in the past as a Newfoundland separatist (when it suits him), labels himself as the “Fighting Newfoundlander” (egad), and was the most awesomest reporter and writer in the history of newsprint (if you don’t believe me, just ask him. He’ll tell you — just read the line at the end of THIS http://fishermansroad.blogspot.ca/2013/01/dont-forget-to-take-your-knockers-with.html).
But surely, I thought, such an erstwhile political and journalistic demigod would know that it was actually the lobbying done by fishermen across the country that forced the federal government to back away from the idea of messing with the owner-operator and fleet separation policies… right?
And he would also know that it was actually four months ago — on Sept. 21 to be exact as you can plainly see HERE http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/media/statement-declarations/2012/20120921-eng.htm — that then-federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield issued a public statement saying that the policies would indeed stand, right?
I mean, he wouldn’t be so brassy as to try to take credit for something he had little or nothing to do with and something that had happened back when most of us were still barbecuing on our back decks. Would he?
Well, of course he would! He’s a politician!
Sigh… it’s a never-ending cycle this unsightly mix of politics and fish, and one that needs to be somehow eliminated or reduced. The fisheries resource belongs to the people, is harvested by the people, and is supposed to benefit the people — and we need to find a way to keep the self-serving nature of politicians out of that process.
The old joke asks, “What do you call 1,000 politicians at the bottom of the sea?”
The punch line is usually, “A good start!”
I would argue against that sentiment because, quite frankly, we don’t want these political sandbaggers anywhere near our fish.
Even in the form of bait, politicians are hard to swallow.
I have to say I’m pretty excited to be writing this blog for The Telegram.
Obviously my work as managing editor for The Navigator keeps me pretty busy, but hopefully that will only help create more fuel for good content here.
I’ll try to update the blog on a pretty regular basis with some fun, interesting and saucy-faced content geared to amuse and provoke. I’ll try to touch on any number of topics in the public lexicon, using a Newfoundland and Labrador-based focus. I may occasionally draw on the ol’ memory banks to find a story or two for your enjoyment as well.
In case you’re wondering, I chose the name “Longlines” for the blog because it’s a word that relates to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in a very unique and cultural way — and also I am using it as a tribute to the former Telegram fisheries column that used to run every Saturday in the paper, under the name of retired editor Joe Walsh. I learned a lot working with Joe, so call it my way of saying thank-you to a good fellow and a great friend.
I’ll try not to run into one of those dollar-a-dozen rant heads who merely spews venom (though I probably WILL do it from time to time). And I’ll certainly try not pretend I’m Ray Guy (although I will admit that reading “You May Know Them as Sea Urchins Ma’am” when I was 13 is why I’m doing this job today) like FAR too many copycat writers in this province have tried and failed to do in the past 20 or so years.
I’m just going to do what I do best: Be a bayman. In other words, be colourful, be different and be saucy.
The goal is to never be boring and to keep you reading.
Full speed ahead.
Jamie Baker is the managing editor for The Navigator magazine, www.thenavigatormagazine.com