Time to re­think the way we fish


Once upon a time in a pre­vi­ous life, I sat on the board of direc­tors of an art school in Ot­tawa. Like most arts or­ga­ni­za­tions, the school was chron­i­cally un­der­funded, stag­ger­ing from one cri­sis to the next, al­ways scram­bling for cash.

Does that sound like any in­dus­try you know?

I re­mem­ber clearly a board meet­ing which, for me, put into sharp fo­cus hownotto man­age a fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

The pres­i­dent of the board stated that ex­penses for the com­ing month would ex­ceed in­come and some­thing had to be done im­me­di­ately. He con­cluded that re­gret­tably he could see no way out. We needed to lay off the part-time jan­i­tor. This was a man whose years of frugal man­age­ment and abil­ity to in­no­vate on a shoe-string bud­get had kept the plumb­ing and heat­ing in the school func­tion­ing and the lights on.

The pres­i­dent of the board was an im­pos­ing fig­ure, a lawyer with a grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion in one of the cap­i­tal’s top law firms. His dark, pin-striped suit cost the equiv­a­lent of the jan­i­tor’s monthly pay­cheque.

It was a time to take the hard de­ci­sions, said the pres­i­dent. At the time I thought of the wis­dom in the ob­ser­va­tion that those who boast they are tak­ing the hard de­ci­sions are usu­ally sitting in the soft seats.

I was re­minded of that ob­ser­va­tion again last week by the im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion when the fish­eries MOU on re­struc­tur­ing was made pub­lic.

Fish­eries and Aqua­cul­ture Min­is­ter Clyde Jack­man re­fused to take the MOU to cabi­net. He in­sisted that it made no sense to close plants and buy out work­ers in the fish­ery for large sums of tax­pay­ers money with­out iden­ti­fy­ing the shape of the fish­ery that would be left once they were gone.

The fish­eries union re­ferred to the min­is­ter’s re­ac­tion as “un­set­tling” and “ baf­fling.” The seafood pro­duc­ers were ini­tially silent, wait­ing to see which way the wind would blow. Then they be­gan to grum­ble.

The CBC, who seem to have lately stum­bled upon a wind­fall sup­ply of funds to ask the pub­lic their opin­ion, brought out a poll that stated 60 per cent of those ques­tioned were in favour of down­siz­ing the fish­ery ver­sus 25 per cent who thought ev­ery­thing was fine as is.

Leave aside the fool­ish­ness of as­sum­ing those are the only two op­tions avail­able in this very com­plex prob­lem, it was in­ter­est­ing to me that in all the me­dia flurry over the find­ings, I heard it stated only once that these poll find­ings were the re­sult of ask­ing 402 peo­ple their opin­ion.

I live in a tiny vil­lage. Those poll find­ings rep­re­sent two Sal­vages.

On the CBC web­site which over­whelm­ingly re­hashed the con­dem­na­tion of the fish­eries min­is­ter for not adopt­ing the MOU, the most sen­si­ble com­ment I could find was posted by a per­son who calls her­self Swi­ler­girl:

“ The only de­vel­op­ment that would in any way be pos­i­tive is a re­turn to the small-boat in­shore fish­ery, rec­og­nized world­wide as the most sus­tain­able. Our meth­ods of pur­suit and pro­cess­ing are an­ti­quated and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive; mis­man­age­ment on both fed­eral and pro­vin­cial lev­els along with con­tin­ued for­eign over­fish­ing have left us in a com­pletely un­ten­able sit­u­a­tion and with­out a com­plete change of direc­tion, the fish­ery in this prov­ince is doomed to fail­ure in just a few short years.

“ We con­tinue, how­ever, to stum­ble blindly along us­ing larger and larger boats and less and less efficient meth­ods of har­vest. Ef­fi­ciency (doesn’t) mean just catch­ing more, it means catch­ing the right quan­tity of the right species, with quo­tas set to max­i­mize sus­tain­abil­ity and not sim­ply for the con­ve­nience of the pro­ces­sors. Un­til we can do that con­sis­tently, we’re just flail­ing around in the dark.”

Ab­so­lutely. But this would re­quire that small boats land their fish near where they swim and al­low the peo­ple to re­main in the towns where the fish are landed, where it seems log­i­cal to process them, pos­si­bly us­ing fewer ex­pen­sive ma­chines and larger amounts of hu­man-power.

A high-end value-added prod­uct that will fetch a higher sale price could be the re­sult. Fewer fish would need be taken thus re­duc­ing pres­sure on the stocks, en­abling them to re­bound. A mar­ket­ing strat­egy aimed at high-end mar­kets and em­pha­siz­ing the pu­rity of our fish har­vested from our frigid waters would com­plete the pic­ture.

Our peo­ple and their off­spring could stay in their homes for the fore­see­able fu­ture, long past the day when our cur­rent cash cow, oil and gas, dries up. Alas, the MOU in its 325-plus page re­port, among other top­ics it short­changed, de­voted a mere 10 pages to mar­ket­ing.

Elab­o­rat­ing on that point was MUN so­ci­ol­o­gist Bar­bara Neis, the prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor with the Com­mu­nity-Univer­sity Re­search for Re­cov­ery Al­liance. This group’s five-year pro­gram is look­ing to de­velop strate­gies for the re­cov­ery of fish stocks and fish­eries com­mu­ni­ties.

Said Neis: “I think the prob­lem with this process is that it only fo­cused on down­siz­ing. The MOU is very nar­row, and by it­self, I am con­cerned that it could have quite sub­stan­tial neg­a­tive con­se­quences, and I’m not con­vinced it would ac­tu­ally im­prove the long-term sus­tain­abil­ity of the in­dus­try.”

Clyde Jack­man has a lot to think about. He has hard choices to take. The chair he is sitting in is not soft. He should take the time he needs and lis­ten to voices whose in­ter­est is cen­tred less on per­sonal gain and more on the goal of sus­tain­ing this place we call home.

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