As an individual who grew up in the trap skiffs of a flourishing outport six decades ago — and one whose heart and soul today aches to see, in that same little village, all the closed up houses, broken down fences and fields where no children play — I am sending you what may be the first of a series of memos on what I view as possible ways and means to save the inshore fishery and, in turn, our priceless fishing communities.
My concern and my question today is simply this — how can a fisherman fish if he has no one to buy his product?
The big lie in the fishery, which has been propagated by those whose insatiable greed and narcissism leads them to wish for absolute monopoly in fish processing, is that there are too many fish plants.
I concede that there may have been too many plants of the model which catered to the great offshore trawler fleets of the ’60s and ’70s, but today there are countless communities where fisherpeople have no opportunity to sell their product (other than crab) unless they are capable of bringing 40,000 pounds to the wharf at one time.
Here’s a personal example: last fall, we had our mackerel trap out, and only once did we succeed in landing a longliner load, sufficient to bring in a tractor trailer.
Numerous other times we turned several hundred to a few thousand pounds of mackerel or herring over the heads, because there is no multi-species fish plant or buyer in the Twillingate area.
Just consider how we have regressed in this vital area of the fishery. When my father hauled his cod trap in the ’50s and ’60s, every pound of fish could be sold, either fresh to the local plant, or salted, dried and sold to the fish merchants, prevalent in most fishing areas.
Last fall, dozens of people set mackerel nets but could not sell their hundred or so pounds of fresh mackerel either fresh, smoked or salted because, in effect, the major fish merchants have persuaded the government to make such transactions illegal.
The solution is simple: bring back democracy to the fishery. Free enterprise and competition are the cornerstones of any democracy and both are sadly lacking in the fishery.
Just for example, if a family decides that they would like a small processing business where they smoke herring and mackerel for local, domestic or foreign markets, then they should be permitted in the same manner as I am permitted to open a family restaurant, food catering business or gas station, for that matter.
Of course, governments’ involvement in such an operation should merely be one of safety inspections, as in any food establishment.
It was the lack of free enterprise, competition and democracy in the marketplace that eventually brought the great communist and socialist nations to their knees, and that same lack of opportunity for visionaries in the fishery has all but killed our precious outport villages.
Given the greed that has existed since West Country fish merchants first set foot on our island, it will take a courageous minister of fisheries to save out outport villages, so vital to the survival of our identity, our culture, our fishery and our tourism. But then again, most of the great achievements of the past have been spearheaded by a single individual with clarity of purpose, standing resolute against those who speak not for the common good.
I repeat: How can a fisherman fish, if government does not allow for buyers of his catch?
David Boyd writes from Twillingate.