Port Union -
While hundreds of workers around the province are winding up the summer season without enough weeks on the job to qualify for Employment Insurance, tonnes of shrimp caught in the Newfoundland region is bypassing the plants that would employ those workers.
Figures provided by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the provincial fisheries department show that just a quarter of the shrimp caught in the Newfoundland region is actually processed in this province.
The bulk of the shrimp is frozen at sea onboard factory freezer trawlers owned by Canadian companies - Ocean Choice International (OCI) and Clearwater Seafoods among them.
According to Ben Baker, chief industrial negotiator with the Fish Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union, the frozen shrimp is stored at Harbour Grace, Bay Roberts and Argentia from where it is shipped by container to places like Korea for final processing - cooking and peeling.
Baker contends the amount of shrimp being shipped out for processing would be more than enough to provide work for the plant workers who won't have any income once this year's shrimp fishery ends.
Jim Dalton agrees.
The FFAW local representative at the OCI plant in Port Union contends, "There's actually enough shrimp being landed in this province to keep two or three processing plants going for eight or 10 months of the year."
And in a year that has been brutal for shrimp plant workers, that knowledge is frustrating for Dalton and his co-workers.
With the shrimp season winding down for the inshore fleet - the 35- to 64-foot longliners land pretty well all the shrimp processed in Newfoundland and Labrador plants - Dalton says over 100 workers at that plant don't have enough income or hours to qualify for EI.
Even those that will qualify for EI, he says, don't have enough hours to ensure the maximum weekly EI benefit during the off-season.
It's particularly rough for those households where both breadwinners are OCI employees.
"We have people here who haven't had any income since July," Dalton says. "I know people there - husband and wife - who have loans and everything else based on two incomes."
He says some of them stand to lose all the things they've worked for over the years - their homes, cars and personal belongings.
In many cases, he says, workers have already run out of funds. Their EI claim from last year has expired, work available at the plant has slowed up and they don't have enough hours to file a new EI claim.
"It's pretty desperate around here," he says of the emotional toll the worry is taking on individuals and families.
As the union rep at the plant, Dalton is one they turn to first for answers.
"I can tell you, the stress level is unreal," he says. "I have over 100 people depending on me to help them out. I've talked to people who have actually cried, saying, 'Jim, what am I going to do?'
"It's a hard position for anyone to be in. I can only imagine what it's going to be like to have no income this winter."
There are hundreds of shrimp plant workers around the province in the same boat.
According to Baker, the plant in Jackson's Arm has already shut down and while workers at some other plants might get sufficient hours to qualify for EI, they won't have enough weeks to qualify for the maximum benefit.
He agrees that it would be a very different situation if some of the shrimp being caught by the freezer trawlers was being processed here, adding the offshore fleet appears to have fared far better in terms of catches than the inshore longliner fleet.
Baker notes there are about 60 million to 80 million pounds of shrimp left in the water simply because the inshore fleet can't catch its quota. Bad weather hindered fishing and low prices - an average of 42 cents a pound - made it economically impossible for some to fish.
Meanwhile, the offshore fleet has been doing well, in terms of both price and landings.
"I know one boat that offloaded in Bay Roberts after 14 days (fishing) had about 700,000 pounds of shrimp on board," says Baker.
This year, the offshore fleet fetched 90 cents for each pound of shrimp.
Landings and production
According to statistics provided on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) website, shrimp landings in the last three years were: 117,144 metric tonnes for 2008, 128,665 t in 2007 and 120,172 t for 2006.
In those same years, the plants in the province produced 28,280 tonnes, 25,982 tonnes and 24,660 tonnes of cooked and peeled shrimp, respectively, for 2008, '07 and '06, according to the provincial Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture website.
That amounts to just 20-25 per cent of the shrimp landed being processed in the province.
The Packet posed several questions to the provincial department, asking how much of the shrimp landed by vessels fishing the Newfoundland region is being processed outside the province, given the discrepancy between the landed round weight statistics and the production.
Public relations officer Lori Lee Oates, responded in an e-mail: "To date this year, 13 shrimp plants in the province have produced 11,610 tonnes of cooked and peeled shrimp.
"Note that these amounts are final product weight, which differs from landed weight in that it is cooked and peeled and hence loses some of its landed weight."
The industry standard factor used to equate it back to an estimated landed weight (round weight), she explained, is 1.6; one tonne of processed weight, cooked and peeled shrimp is equal to approximately 1.6 tonnes of round weight shrimp.
"We do not collect information on where the processed shrimp was landed," she added.
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), however, did provide that information.
That department says there are 17 licences held by 14 licence-holders in the greater than 100-foot fleet. Six of the licence-holders are Newfoundland and Labrador companies.
All of these vessels are factory-freezer trawlers, freezing the catch on board.
Most of the catch by these trawlers is landed in Newfoundland and Labrador - with a few landings in Quebec - mainly land at St. Anthony, Bay Roberts or Harbour Grace, where freezer facilities exist.
Provincial policy demands fishermen that land their catch in the province must sell it to buyers for processing in the province. That policy does not apply to the offshore fleet.
In her e-mail, Oates wrote, "It is a requirement, as with all other species, that shrimp landed in the province is also processed in the province with the exception of the factory freezer trawlers, as they do their own processing at sea."
Provincial Fisheries Minister Tom Hedderson says the problem is that the rules and regulations that govern the offshore fleet are set by Ottawa.
"Our (provincial) general principal is adjacency and minimum requirements for processing for the benefit of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador," said in an interview.
"But the offshore is a different animal; it falls under federal jurisdiction. It is processed offshore, landed here and shipped from here to other places."
Over the years, he says, the province has asked for special consideration to force the offshore fleet to process here, but Ottawa has consistently said, "No."
This has been a longstanding issue, according to the provincial department. From 1998 to 2005 the province made representation to Ottawa on the issue of restrictions to having processing done in Canada. There was also an internal committee of officials working on the issue. Since 2005, the department says, there has been industry representation on the matter.
Time to fight
While the export of tonnes of shrimp from Newfoundland waters for processing elsewhere has never been a big secret to plantworkers or the FFAW, says Baker, it hasn't been a problem in the past because shrimp plant workers were always getting enough work to qualify for EI.
On that point, Dalton and Baker part ways on opinion.
Dalton argues there's a bit of a difference between sufficient work to qualify for EI and enough work to keep you busy for most of the year.
"The offshore shrimp, if it was processed here, would provide work for plantworkers for eight or 10 months every year," he says, noting the factory freezer trawlers are fishing nearly year-round.
He contends that given the potential employment the offshore shrimp could create for this province, the union and province should be fighting harder to ensure the offshore shrimp is not only landed here, but processed here as well.
As for the immediate future for him and his fellow plantworkers, Dalton is not impressed with the province's plans.
"They have none," he says, noting that during the shrimp fishery shutdown in the spring the government said it would come up with a plan to take care of plantworkers and harvesters affected by the poor season.
Now, with the longliner fleet about to finish fishing and with some shrimp plants slowing, or shutting down altogether, Dalton is not optimistic that workers won't be facing some dismal economic times.
"Plan B should have been done before now," he says. "Right now we have a lot of people whose EI will be run out in October from last year's claim, and they haven't got 420 hours (of work) to be able to file another claim."
Even if there are make-work projects, he says, the minimum wage pay is much less than a person could make working on the plant floor.
"We don't want projects paying $9.50 an hour. If we have to rely on projects, we want projects that will give us the same rate of pay that we were getting at the plant."
In his mind, the provincial government has an obligation on that score - seeing how it was the government that handed out additional processing licenses a few years back, resulting in less work at many other plants.
Foremost in Dalton's mind, however, is the thought that while plant workers might have to depend on government for help, tones of shrimp are being loaded onto cargo ships to provide jobs at plants in other parts of the world.
"There's no way we should be in a job where you all you say is, 'I hope I get my 14 weeks.' We got people now that there's no way in the world they're going to get EI unless OCI is willing to bring in industrial shrimp."
On that score, the FFAW has mentioned that idea to an official of OCI.
According to Baker, the matter was raised when he and FFAW rep Allan Moulton were at a meeting that included OCI president Martin Sullivan and the province's deputy minister of fisheries, Allister O'Reilly, a few weeks ago.
Baker says Sullivan argued at that meeting that they couldn't afford to cook and peel the offshore shrimp in Newfoundland because of the tariffs on the product going into the European Union.
"The companies always make the argument with shrimp that it's going into the EU and the tariff is costing them money," says Baker, adding, "We (the FFAW) have been on that issue for years." Sullivan could not be reached for comment.
Baker hinted the FFAW will be pushing this issue a little harder in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, he says he has heard the provincial cabinet met on the matter last week and he is expecting an announcement soon regarding help for shrimp industry workers.