Reversal of fortunes

Restructuring may see crab licence taken from Little Bay Islands; St. Joseph's poised to benefit

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on May 11, 2010
The future is uncertain for the fish plant on Little Bay Islands. The owner has applied to transfer the crab licence to a plant on the Avalon Peninsula. - Photo by Jim Forward/Special to The Telegram

A tiny island community in Notre Dame Bay could be one of the first to feel the effects of some tough times to come in the troubled fishing industry.

And another struggling settlement on the Avalon Peninsula could see its fortunes improved.

It all has to do with the location of a very valuable crab processing licence, and a company's desire to consolidate operations.

A tiny island community in Notre Dame Bay could be one of the first to feel the effects of some tough times to come in the troubled fishing industry.

And another struggling settlement on the Avalon Peninsula could see its fortunes improved.

It all has to do with the location of a very valuable crab processing licence, and a company's desire to consolidate operations.

Here's how it could play out.

Cold North Seafoods, which is owned by the Daley family, wants to transfer its crab licence from Little Bay Islands to its plant in St. Joseph's.

The Daleys have their roots in St. Joseph's.

It's a move that could devastate one community and boost the fortunes of another.

"If we lose our licence, we're finished," said longtime plantworker and Little Bay Islands resident Ruth Roberts.

St. Joseph's Mayor Tony Healey is careful not to sound too excited, but is clearly pleased.

"I'd like to make it clear that I'm not wishing anybody ill on Little Bay Islands. But this could benefit us," Healey said.

Cold North has applied to the province's Fish Processing Licencing Board for permission to transfer the crab licence.

If approved, the company would process both shrimp and crab, two of the most lucrative species in the Newfoundland fishing industry, in St. Joseph's.

It would surely boost production at the St. Joseph's facility, and mean more work for the estimated 100 seasonal employees, who come from all over the St. Mary's Bay area.

Healey hasn't had any meetings with the company, but has heard rumours of the possible transfer.

Without the licence, the future of the fewer than 100 people who live on Little Bay Islands - and dozens more who commuted there for work last year - is in doubt.

The plant operated from May to November last year by another company, Golden Shell Fisheries of Hickman's Harbour, processing crab, herring and mackerel.

News of the transfer request is not a complete surprise to those who follow the industry.

Most of those who live on the island are seniors, and nearly 40 of the 70-80 people who worked at the plant last year came from places such as Springdale, Leading Tickles, Beachside and Little Bay.

And the island is only accessible by ferry from Shoal Arm, which poses transportation and other logistical challenges.

But it doesn't make the situation any easier for Roberts.

"The community will die. We're going to have to move," she said.

Little Bay Islands is a popular tourist destination. But it's essentially a one-industry town, with its roots in the fishery going back many generations.

So the loss of the fish plant will suck much of the remaining life out of the place.

There are only five school-aged children, and the declining population is gradually getting older as the younger generation leaves for opportunities elsewhere.

What's ironic is that after several hard years in which the plant was dormant, 2009 was a good year.

Cold North Seafoods is headquartered in Mount Pearl. The company also has a plant in La Scie.

Officials with Cold North could not be reached for comment.

Public notice of the transfer request was published in The Telegram on May 8. Those who want to comment on the request have until May 22.

The board will make a recommendation on whether to grant the transfer. The ultimate decision rests with Clyde Jackman, Minster of Fisheries and Aquaculture.

The request follows months of public discussion and debate about the future of the industry.

There's been general acknowledgement among key players - including Jackman - that there are too many processing plants and fishing enterprises.

The government, fisheries union and seafood producers signed an agreement last year, with a view toward restructuring the industry in a practical, organized manner.

When asked if the transfer request was a sign of things to come, Jackman emphasized that the fishery will always be the backbone of rural Newfoundland.

It's structure remains to be seen, he added.

"I'm not saying one thing yea or nay right here, but the structure of the fishery is evolving before us," Jackman said.

"We can attempt to manage it, or let it unfold."

Little Bay Islands Mayor Perry Locke could not be reached for comment.

troberts@thetelegram.com