Plenty of work to be had on fish farms

James McLeod
Published on July 21, 2011
Tom Day has been working in the Harbour Breton fish plant for 40 years. With the aquaculture industry growing and people like Day retiring, the south coast of Newfoundland is facing a labour crunch in the coming years. — Photo by James McLeod/The Telegram

Looking for a job? Michael Strickland will be happy to hire you, just as long as you don’t mind swimming in the ocean in February.

Strickland is a professional scuba diver who services the aquaculture industry on the south coast of Newfoundland.

He and five other full-time divers spend their days jumping into salmon cages to make sure the nets are intact and pick up any dead fish that sink to the bottom.

Strickland said he would hire another four divers tomorrow if he could find them.

“Ten years ago it was me and one other guy, and we used to do the entire industry,” Strickland said. “Compare that to now, I mean, now I’ve got five guys and there’s another company in Conne River with another couple guys, and between the two of us, we can’t get everything done.”

It’s hard work, wearing 120 lbs of gear climbing in and out of boats. In the winter, the waters of Bay

d’Espoir freeze over so they cut holes in the ice and hop in. After diving, Strickland and the other divers climb up, out and walk across the ice to the next cage.

Across the aquaculture industry, there’s plenty of work to be had, but there’s also a sense that the area is staring down a looming labour shortage.

In Harbour Breton, the fish plant is facing the prospect of an aging workforce.

Eric Day has been working in the plant for 40 years; his wife has been working there for 33 years.

“We’re going to lose a few people every year through retirement. It’s going to be a big change five or 10 years out,” Day said. “You’ve got to have good wages to attract people, and if we don’t do that I don’t know where the industry will go in the long term.”

Right now the Harbour Breton plant is processing the farmed salmon year round. The St. Alban’s fish plant is going flat out, too, and there are plans to reopen the plant in Hermitage.

What’s more, the industry is set to grow drastically in the next few years.

“I’ve always been saying that I don’t think that the area is going to have any problem getting to 50,000 tonnes,” Doug Caines, general manager of Northern Harvest Sea Farms, said casually.

But the prospect of 50,000 tonnes of salmon harvested annually is more than triple what was pulled from the water in 2010.

The prospect of a labour shortage is on the minds of a lot of people on the south coast, but no one seems too worried about it.

For a region that has dealt with more than it’s share of poverty and economic uncertainty, the employment is welcome.

“Will there come a time that we can’t get enough people to fill the jobs? I certainly hope so,” said Eric Skinner, mayor of Harbour Breton. “That means we may have some people moving in here from other parts of the province, country, internationally, whatever it takes.”

Local government MHA Tracy Perry said people are eagerly waiting for the results of the most recent census.

“We’re all anxiously looking forward to this census to see where we are versus 2005,” she said. “We think we were still declining, but we think we sort of stabilized around ’07-’08 and we’re hoping now we’re going to go on an upswing.”

But living in the Coast of Bays region isn’t always an easy sell; several hours’ drive off the Trans-Canada Highway, it’s arguably one of the most isolated places in Newfoundland.

But the hope for the future may come from people like Jennifer Woodland, and her infant daughter Charlotte.

She recently moved back to the province after working away.

“When I graduated, I really had an interest in aquaculture as a means of conservation of wild stocks, and I used to say I was ‘ripped from the rock.’ I really didn’t want to move but in 1998, there was no opportunities for me,” said Woodland, who is president of the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association. “So for me, to be able to come back to Newfoundland, to come back to a rural setting, raise my young family in a rural setting and be close to my family in the career that I choose in an industry that I love, is nothing less than wonderful.”

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