You would think the majority of a fish harvester’s troubles would occur where that person does most of their work — miles out on a heaving sea, working a boat and fishing gear for long, tiring hours, searching the grounds for shellfish or groundfish while chancing sudden piercing winds and oncoming storms.
Yet, ask most any fish harvester and that is where they are most at ease — plying their trade off the coasts of the land where they live.
Fish harvesters Peter Leonard of Southern Harbour and Jeff Collett of St. John’s — both of whom fish in subdivision 3Ps off the province’s south coast — said when they are at sea, they are left alone to concentrate on making a living. It’s when their boats are tied up that their frustration with the fishing industry sets in.
“We like to see things done in a rational manner, but when you are just getting pushed around, it’s total chaos amongst the harvesters,” Collett said.
As a result of the failure of the cod fishery in 3Ps in 2013, fish harvesters formed a group to push for changes to the way decisions are made in their fishery.
Last year, most fishermen could not catch their full cod quotas because most plants in the province were not buying cod — or not buying cod at times the fishermen could catch it — and those that were buying cod offered a very low price.
Because the total allowable catch wasn’t taken, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans extended the cod fishing season in zone 3Ps, which allowed larger companies to continue to fish.
“Every year on Feb. 28, the cod season ends. Right now it’s extended for a month to drag cod, so they (large companies) are out there fishing it during the spawning season and we don’t hear any uproar from the union, from scientists or the provincial government,” Leonard said.
Collett added that the way things are going, history is repeating itself as the same mistakes are occurring as in pre-moratorium days.
“(At that time) we were dragging on the Hamilton Banks and the Funk Island Banks in the spawning season, because that was the time of year the fish were heavily concentrated on the bottom and made a real appetite for otter trawl technology,” he said.
“They are not taking into consideration the fish are there to spawn and regenerate.”
The bottom line for the fish harvesters is that if local processors are not going to buy cod for a fair market price, harvesters should be allowed to sell their catch to buyers outside the province.
For that to happen, the provincial government has to drop minimum processing requirements (MPR) and let plants in the province export cod unprocessed or outside buyers come in.
In January, Fish, Food and Allied Workers union president Earle McCurdy said he believed minimum processing requirements are a relic of a different era. In 2013, he noted, the regulations made it uneconomical to fish, which meant part of the quota wasn’t caught.
He said that by being allowed to ship cod whole and unprocessed to the U.S. marketplace, fish harvesters in the province might be able to compete and make a decent income.
Fisheries Minister Keith Hutchings issued a statement at the time saying the provincial government was open to relaxing minimum processing requirements on cod if compelling pilot projects were proposed.
Leonard and Collett said while their group supports pilot projects, they want to see a firmer commitment on paper.
“He didn’t specify exactly what date he would lift the restrictions, but he did verbally commit to doing that,” Leonard said.
“But, after 2013, verbal committments are not what fish harvesters in 3Ps want. With the expectation of cuts coming to the crab quota, we want to be able to go out and fish our cod, and we also are asking for fair market price.”
Another issue the fish harvesters find frustrating is that, in 2011, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans took away a 10 per cent halibut bycatch allowance in the cod fishery.
“In our efforts of harvesting groundfish, we have the trouble of catching halibut and having to dump it over the side, dead or alive,” Collett said.
“Halibut might not sound like a lot, but at the end of the day, (selling it) makes up for a lot of the expense cost.
“Having to dump our halibut is also a question for conservation reasons. If you get 50 to 100 boats fishing those grounds and having to dump halibut on all those vessels, what kind of destruction is that?”
Leonard added that there is room in the fishery for all parties, but a better system has to be worked out.
“If we the fish harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador had any guts today, we would be asking for crab, shrimp, groundfish, pelagics ... (minimum processing requirements) lifted for all species,” Leonard said.
“But we are only asking for groundfish because our fish plants are not interested in it and not interested in paying any price for it.”