Hundreds of fish harvesters pounded sticks against the DFO building in White Hills Monday, making enough of a racket to be sure they were heard.
With a red bullhorn, Fish, Food and Allied Workers union president Earle McCurdy delivered his message: don’t even think about touching the fleet separation and owner-operator principles that are currently part of the foundation of fisheries regulation.
“They wanted to hear from people. Well, they’re hearing from us today that we’re not prepared to let those fundamental principles go,” McCurdy told the media.
“They should be strengthened, not weakened,”McCurdy said.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) fleet separation policy stipulates that licences cannot be issued to fishing vessels under 65 feet, to limit corporate control of inshore fishing vessels.
The owner-operator policy attempts to make sure fishing enterprises are independent, with the licence holder being the person who operates the vessel.
The federal government is doing a comprehensive fisheries policy review, and held a consultation session in St. John’s. McCurdy said the consultation session was by invitation only, and the people in the room were overwhelmingly processors and large corporate interests.
McCurdy said he asked several times whether the fleet separation and owner-operator policies were off limits, or whether they’re part of the review. He said he couldn’t get a clear answer from the DFO officials.
“That told me all I needed to know, that this thing is up for grabs,” he said.
In a statement Monday afternoon, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said the government is taking a hard look at fisheries regulations to improve an industry that isn’t performing as well as it should be.
“I continue to hear that Canadian fishermen remain among the lowest earners in Canada. Despite our natural access to the resource, Canada’s fishery is becoming a smaller and smaller player on the world stage,” Ashfield said. “Now is not the time to shutter the debate on how to improve how we do business. We are engaging with all stakeholders across the country to explore how we can better manage Canada’s fishery for the long-term use of the resource and how Canadian fishermen can earn more from it.”
Earlier in the day, the FFAW held a public meeting at the Holiday Inn, where the tone was downright angry.
“We, the fishing industry, is under attack,” said George Feltham, a harvester from Bonavista Bay, and vice-president of the FFAW inshore division. “They’re taking away my fish and they’re taking away the jobs from this province.”
In New Zealand, sometimes touted as a successfully deregulated fishery, McCurdy said the government is investigating allegations of outright slavery among foreign workers on fishing vessels.
“We’re not talking about Somalia here, we’re talking about New Zealand, a country very similar to Canada,” McCurdy said. “People might say, you’re kind of going off half-cocked talking about slave labour. I guess the question is, if that’s where it ended up — where radical deregulation took them — in New Zealand over a period of time — and that took a number of years to get to that stage — why would it be any different here?”
Harvesters at the meeting said this has the potential to be a pivotal fight for the union.
“You only have to look at the numbers that turned out today and that will prove that it is a big thing for the fishing industry,” said John Ralph, a fisherman from Bellevue, who fishes in Trinity Bay.
Ralph said he worries that if the industry becomes corporate controlled, the large companies will push the government to set quotas and regulations based on profits, as opposed to what’s best for fish stocks.
Jason Sullivan, a harvester on the Southern Shore, said as far as he’s concerned, the government needs to get corporations out of it altogether, and move towards a co-op system.
“It’s a sin what’s going to happen to the industry. Somebody’s got to stand up,” he said. “We’ve got to eliminate the merchants. That’s the only way it’s ever going to work.”