Situation grim

Terry Roberts
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Crab fishery players at loggerheads

Despite repeated calls by Fisheries Minister Clyde Jack-man for compromise and leadership, hope continues to fade in the crab industry as processors and harvesters continue their feud over prices, and restrictions on where harvesters can sell their catch.

Derek Butler, the executive director of the Association of Seafood Producers, put it bluntly Tuesday afternoon when asked if there's any hope for a successful harvest this season.

Derek Butler

Despite repeated calls by Fisheries Minister Clyde Jack-man for compromise and leadership, hope continues to fade in the crab industry as processors and harvesters continue their feud over prices, and restrictions on where harvesters can sell their catch.

Derek Butler, the executive director of the Association of Seafood Producers, put it bluntly Tuesday afternoon when asked if there's any hope for a successful harvest this season.

"I'm not optimistic. At this point it is pretty grim," he told The Telegram.

Fish, Food and Allied Workers' union (FFAW) president Earle McCurdy also described the situation as "very serious" and suggested the soul was being ripped out of rural Newfoundland.

He again called for Premier Danny Williams to get directly involved.

The crab industry is the backbone of the industry, and had a landed value of more than $400 million in 2009.

Disputes are not uncommon in this industry, but this year's discord sees both sides at polar opposites.

Harvesters are refusing to fish for the set price of $1.35 per pound, saying it's not viable. And with the Canadian dollar nearly on par with the U.S. dollar, and markets still recovering from a global recession, processors say the price is too high and they won't buy any crab.

Butler said it's not about showing leadership or compromise. He said it's about simple math. The margins are just not there for either processors or harvesters to make money.

He repeated his calls for a dramatic overhaul of the industry, resulting in fewer players and more efficient, viable operations.

The rhetoric has been heated in recent days, with both sides hurling accusations and laying the blame on the other.

The intensity ratcheted up a notch Monday when roughly 150 harvesters protested in St. John's. They were demanding the government kill legislation that requires seafood landed in this province to also be processed here.

Harvesters want the option of selling their catch to outside buyers, and believe increased competition will drive up prices.

The government has hesitated on that request because of the consequences it could have on thousands of processing jobs in this province.

The fisheries union has agreed to the lifting of the restriction on crab, but only if processors in this province refuse to buy.

Butler raised the stakes Monday when he agreed to a change in the outside buyer rules. But he called on the province to ensure a "level playing field" by removing a requirement that local processors must pay employment insurance premiums and workers' compensation benefits for fishermen.

"We're talking $20 million paid by Newfoundland producers that producers in Atlantic Canada don't pay," he said.

Processors also do the payroll for fishing crews.

"All of that must go," Butler added. "We say if an Atlantic producer doesn't have to live by those rules, why should we?"

Processing licensing fees should also be lowered to rates comparable to those in the rest of Atlantic Canada, and minimum processing rules should also be lifted, Butler stated. "Let us decide what works in the marketplace - free market, free trade. Let us decide that," Butler said.

McCurdy responded Tuesday, but with a different definition of a level playing field.

He said outside buyers should have to abide by the same requirements that local processors do, including the price set by the provincial price-setting panel.

"That's a level playing field that doesn't try to turn the clock back to the 19th century," McCurdy said.

McCurdy agreed with Butler on one point: processing licensing fees are too high.

"It's an unnecessary tax that should be removed," he said.

The debate over outside buyers, however, may be unwarranted. With a quota of roughly 120 million pounds of crab, it seems unlikely that any outside buyer could handle such a volume.

"The best you'll get is a small percentage of the total landings shipped out that way, purely based on logistics," McCurdy said.

Butler added, "The money is not there that people allege is there."

troberts@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Association of Seafood Producers, The Telegram, Allied Workers

Geographic location: Newfoundland, U.S., Atlantic Canada St. John's

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