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President's Column Summer 2017

Message From the President

It is very hard to put the cod moratorium into proper context. Trying to relate the moratorium to one issue ignores a whole host of others, rendering any effort at setting a proper context incomplete. I think as more time goes by and the full perspective of the moratorium is understood, we will come to look at it as a defining turning point in the long history of our province.

In thinking about how to mark the 25th anniversary of the announcement of the moratorium, I thought it appropriate to focus on the time since the announce­ment and the uncertainties that have arisen since.

On July 3, 1992 fish harvesters and plant workers did not envision experiencing a 5th or 10th, let alone a 25th, anniversary of the moratorium announcement with the northern cod fishery still under moratorium. That sort of long term shutdown of the cod fishery was not the plan in July 1992 when NCARP payments began. Plant workers and fish harvesters thought the fishery would rebound after a couple years and the moratorium would pass into history as a particularly bad few years that was little different than the rough times of the past.

Of course this did not happen but there was no plan in place to account for this change. Time continued to pass by and harvesters and plant workers were stuck getting a subsidy and often “retraining” with question­able prospects for success. In relatively short order, plant workers and fish harvesters just started to leave. Between the beginning of 1994 and the middle of 1998, nearly 60,000 people, mostly from rural NL and mostly connected to the fishery, moved away. Most stayed away when they left.

As time continued, however, things got better without cod. By 1998 the inshore was in the shrimp fishery and more harvesters were involved in the crab fishery. FFAW members who were leaders in their communities through these challenging times deserve credit for their conviction and realization that the fishery had real value and it was worth fighting for. Somewhere along the way, the moratorium just became the norm. It no longer was a crisis holding people back and defining their existence. Thousands of harvesters and plant workers returned to work, this time focusing on shellfish.

The moratorium passed its 10th anniversary in 2002 and there were articles in the media on its impact and providing retrospectives, but the cries from harvesters or plant workers to move back to the cod fishery were not as loud.

The wages provided by the shrimp and crab fishery were, and still are, very good. These are the two most valuable fisheries ever in the history of our province and they arose in the wake of the cod fishery collapse.

As more time passed, many harvesters began to view cod in a different light. Cod was thought of as a poor man’s fish and you could read news headlines like, “Cod, Cod Stay Away,” which appeared in the Gander written in 1990.

Twenty-five years is a long time and history and memories are hard to move away from. The long 25 years of the groundfish moratorium have provided us the opportunity to draw perspective and understand how things needed to change. If the moratorium had lasted only four or five years, we quite likely would’ve moved back to the same routine in the cod fishery – landing huge volumes to feed the cod block market that made fish sticks and other low value products.

Twenty-five years has taught us a lot, particu­larly to fish harvesters. It has shown that fishing can be prosperous, that it can provide good wages, that it is a profession that should be promoted to young people, and that it is not temporary and a gateway to out-migration.

These lessons don’t end because groundfish has returned. Value is not derived simply because of the species that is fished; it is established by those who do the fishing and how they ply their trade. We are not held captive by the resource. In large part, we will determine the value of the cod fishery along with other groundfish. I have confidence that FFAW members, the leaders in your communities will again emerge as you did in the aftermath of the cod moratorium announcement, to find new innovative ways to build a fishery that has value.

History does not always repeat itself. The new cod fishery is already much different than it was in 1990 and it will likely continue to diverge from its predecessor. This is good and necessary.

The new cod fishery is the most considered and analyzed fishery perhaps in the entire history of our province. We are cognizant of what happened up to 1992 and what occurred since. My hope is that in 2042, we will not be recognizing the 50th anniversary of the moratorium but instead celebrating the 25th anniver­sary of the new cod fishery.

The cod moratorium and the new cod fishery also show us that change is hard, especially when it is unplanned. Just a few weeks ago we witnessed the closure of Twillingate’s shrimp plant because of changes to the marine environment that harvesters and plant workers have no control over. We are facing challenging times as a result of these environmental changes, but we are also looking for new opportunities to diversify and find value in new areas.

We can’t accept these challenges as simply being the new economics of rural Newfoundland and Labrador. That would ignore the job losses, the worry lines that appear on people’s faces, the vacations untaken, the nest egg not put away for a rainy day, or the support that can no longer be given a child starting out on their own.

The Union must work to stay ahead of the curve. We need to mitigate the impact of change on harvesters through direct policy and encourage processing compa­nies to adapt and preserve their operations so that the value of our resources stays here in our coastal communities.

Twenty-five years ago we faced a change that we were entirely unprepared for. We are not making the same mistake today. We are at the opening pages of a new chapter in the story of this province’s fishery, and this time we will be writing about triumph and not tragedy.

Have a safe and happy summer