As is evidenced from two recent articles in The Telegram (the letter, Jan. 23 “We need to enhance Atlantic Canada’s fisheries” and the Jan. 26 editorial “Fisheries madness”), the corporate-owned processing and offshore sector is in full fear-mongering and misrepresentation mode. Faced with a minister of Fisheries and Oceans who is willing to speak the truth about the challenges to the inshore fishery, the corporations that have aggressively endeavoured to shape the economics of this fishery for the past 20 years are now being told to play by the rules and they are enraged at the prospect.
Both articles were right to highlight the speech given by federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc in Nova Scotia last August in which he acknowledged that two crucial policies for the inshore fishery and the economic health of coastal communities — fleet separation and owner-operator — had not been adequately enforced for some time. The minister committed to changing that, and said his government would enshrine both policies into legislation to give them the force of law.
What the minister understands is that the lack of enforcement of these two policies has contorted the economics of the inshore fishery into an unsustainable and debt-ridden beast. This beast was created by controlling agreements which vest all of the rights of a fishing licence in a processing company while leaving the licence in the name of the harvester. The infusion of processing company money into the inshore marketplace for fishing licences has fuelled massive inflation in the cost of fish licences.
It is for this reason only that “fishermen work for years to pay off the debt attached to their licences,” as the Jan. 23 letter stated. The “years to pay off debt” is a new phenomenon in the inshore fishery that started with controlling agreements, which hearken back to the old truck system that kept harvesters in perpetual poverty.
The comments by Minister LeBlanc on reviewing the automatic renewal of licences was aimed directly at the heart of the controlling agreement system put in place by the processors. The minister has no intention or motivation to place time limits on active harvesters holding licences; after all, these are the people the minister is trying to protect as they are the economic engine of coastal communities. And every harvester will one day retire and his/her licence will be transferred to someone else (hopefully a young energetic harvester).
But as the minister knows, a company does not die, and has the capacity through its controlling agreements to move licenses around indefinitely. Once a licence is in a controlling agreement, it will never again be transferred to another harvester in the fair manner envisaged when licence transfers were established. The minister wants to take a sledgehammer to the chains that bind licences and controlling agreements together; that was the point of his statement.
The proposed changes to the Fisheries Act have the potential to safeguard the future success of coastal communities. The removal of corporate interference and their controlling agreements allows young harvesters in coastal Newfoundland and Labrador fair access to fishing licences.
What the Fisheries Council of Canada is really concerned about is the bottom line of its members, and maintaining and expanding corporate control of the fishery. If their concern for the inshore harvester is genuine, I invite them to join us in our call for the federal government to entrench the owner operator and fleet separation policy in law.
Keith Sullivan, president