It was a day of increasingly tense rhetoric in the fishery, as the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union (FFAW), fired back at Ocean Choice International (OCI) for plans to close two major fish plants.
Earle McCurdy, president of the FFAW, accused OCI of pushing towards eliminating processing in the province, and said the government has to be more directly involved in the restructuring of the fishery.
Essentially, McCurdy accused OCI of pushing towards a fishery structured around maximum corporate profits, instead of maximum employment for the people of the province.
“Which fishery is broken? Is it the community model that puts people’s jobs and communities first? Or is the corporate model?” he asked.
“There’s too much at stake for a hasty decision, and we believe there’s an alternative that would provide more jobs for the next generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in the fishery,” McCurdy said.
OCI is pushing for a permanent exemption on the regulatory requirement to process redfish in the province — instead shipping it out whole — and is hoping to expand the amount of yellowtail flounder it can ship out unprocessed.
Martin Sullivan, CEO of OCI, said that the current exemption for redfish expires at the end of the year, so the clock is ticking.
“By catching this quota, by processing at sea, and selling some product in different product forms that customers want and processing some on land, we’re creating economic spin-offs — you know, direct and indirect — in the economy of $150 million per year,” he said. “We’ve already been two and a half years, and it’s time now to make decisions.
“If they don’t, we’ll have to tie up our boats and lay off 200 fishermen, and we won’t have the 110 year round jobs in Fortune and we won’t have $150 million going into the economy.”
The current OCI plan involves closing down its Marystown fish plant, processing some yellowtail at the smaller plant in Fortune at a loss, and shipping out redfish and yellowtail to try to break even.
McCurdy said the union would rather have both the Fortune and Marystown operating on a seasonal basis, as opposed to one plant running year round.
Sullivan said that’s just not going to happen.
“That’s the type of thing that has put the industry in crisis for decades — the seasonality and the money-losing ventures.”
In a news conference Tuesday, Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Darin King rejected McCurdy’s suggestion that the provincial government is partially to blame for the plant closures, and accused the FFAW of “institutional paralysis.”
“The only constant in the last 20 years besides upheaval in the fishery, is that we’ve gone through numerous fisheries ministers, numerous governments. Mr. McCurdy and his hierarchy have been there through all of that. So you tell me what the constants are. You can’t blame me. I just came into the job three weeks ago.”
King said there’s no question fishery restructuring will be difficult.
“You have to be prepared, first of all, to accept change means heartache. It means people are going to be hurt. This is a very tough debate to get into without hurting people further,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is we cannot force businesses in this province to operate at a loss. We cannot force Ocean Choice to operate Marystown. I can simply say no to exemptions, and we may do that — who knows where we’ll be at the end of this process — but what does that achieve, is the question I’m raising, because this is becoming a public debate. I’m raising the question for the public to engage in that.”
The question at the heart of the debate, he said, is 110 50-week jobs in Fortune versus 240 18-week jobs in Marystown.
“If the will of the people and the will of the FFAW is that we throw all that away on the principle that Marystown shouldn’t close, then we’re prepared to support that. But I want to know very clearly where the FFAW stands on Fortune and on the harvesters, and I want to know where the people of the province stand,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is point out that the tough decisions are going to get a lot tougher if we’re not prepared to accept the compromise of shipping some fish out of the province for processing in the short term.”