‘With­out the fish­ery, I’m no good’

Celebrity fish­er­man says he’s pre­pared to die on hunger strike against Ot­tawa

The Intelligencer (Belleville) - - NATIONAL - SUE BAI­LEY

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Richard Gil­lett is a bull of a man, with hands that make the bot­tle of wa­ter he’s hold­ing look small. He’s thick-necked, stands al­most six feet tall and weighed 250 pounds be­fore he stopped eat­ing al­most a week ago.

On Wed­nes­day, this tough-guy New­found­land fish­er­man, known for his three sea­sons on the re­al­ity show Cold Wa­ter Cow­boys, fought back tears out­side the fed­eral fisheries head­quar­ters in St. John’s.

“I’m pre­pared to go as far as I’ve got to,” he said.

He started a hunger strike last Thurs­day, and has slept in a tent here in freez­ing tem­per­a­tures and bit­ing winds ev­ery night since. He holds up a slushy bot­tle of urine, the only toi­let he needs on a wa­ter-only diet.

Gil­lett is protest­ing what he says is dire mis­man­age­ment of stocks rang­ing from crab to capelin. His home is now a do­nated can­vas Girl Guides cook’s tent with a small wood stove in the cor­ner for warmth.

Gil­lett said he will die if he has to. It’s a pledge he made re­peat­edly dur­ing an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day as his par­ents, John and Linda, sat lis­ten­ing. They have been at his side along with his wife, Joyce, and sup­port­ers who’ve dropped by of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from fire­wood to blan­kets. Gil­lett thanked them all. His de­mands in­clude a tele­con­fer­ence call with fed­eral Fisheries Min­is­ter Do­minic LeBlanc and an in­de­pen­dent re­view of sci­ence and man­age­ment for all provin­cial fish stocks. He also wants a re­view of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Fish, Food and Al­lied Work­ers union, rep­re­sent­ing har­vesters, and the fed­eral Depart­ment of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

Gil­lett is vice-pres­i­dent of the Fed­er­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Sea Har­vesters of New­found­land and Labrador (FISH-NL), a splin­ter union group seek­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. But he said his protest goes far be­yond any po­lit­i­cal wran­gling.

“It has re­ally been com­ing to this for a long time,” Gil­lett said of fisheries tur­moil stretch­ing back to and be­yond the on­go­ing com­mer­cial mo­ra­to­rium on north­ern cod that threw thou­sands of peo­ple out of work in 1992.

He said he de­cided to do some­thing dras­tic last week af­ter LeBlanc re­fused to meet with him and FISH-NL pres­i­dent Ryan Cleary as they vis­ited Ot­tawa.

“We should have had the min­is­ter’s ear — even if it was only for five or 10 min­utes.”

As Gil­lett spoke, pass­ing driv­ers fre­quently honked in sup­port. The fish­ery, he says, is “a mess.” And he fears that af­ter six gen­er­a­tions ply­ing the North At­lantic in ev­ery type of weather it could all end for his fam­ily with him.

“With­out the fish­ery, I’m no good,” said the 45-year-old father of two daugh­ters, aged 18 and 19, and a 16-year-old son who fishes ev­ery sum­mer with him. He took an­other long pause to col­lect him­self. “I’m no good to no­body.” Fed­eral fisheries of­fi­cials re­cently an­nounced sharp cuts to shrimp and crab quo­tas as stocks dwin­dle. Har­vesters who say they need pri­or­ity ac­cess to what’s left — with more flex­i­ble li­cens­ing rules and more in­put to help mon­i­tor stocks — have ramped up protests.

About 50 demon­stra­tors streamed into fed­eral fisheries head­quar­ters in St. John’s ear­lier this month af­ter kick­ing in the Plex­i­glas win­dow of a locked door. In an­other in­ci­dent Tues­day, har­vesters set fire to their own fish­ing gear in Port au Choix as a show of frus­tra­tion.

In an e-mailed state­ment, Kevin An­der­son, re­gional di­rec­tor gen­eral for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, says he un­der­stand it’s a dif­fi­cult time and the depart­ment is will­ing to lis­ten.

“It is of course con­cern­ing when any­one takes a course of ac­tion such as the one Mr. Gil­lett is pur­su­ing, and we share the pub­lic’s con­cern for his health.”

An­der­son said sci­en­tific stock as­sess­ments are shared pub­licly and that fish har­vesters are con­sulted.

Last year’s fed­eral bud­get in­cluded $197 mil­lion over five years for oceans and fresh­wa­ter sci­ence, cre­at­ing 18 new re­search po­si­tions in the prov­ince alone, he added.

“Our fisheries man­age­ment de­ci­sions are ev­i­dence-based, and their ul­ti­mate goal is to con­serve our im­por­tant pub­lic re­sources so that they are avail­able now and for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Cana­dian fish­ers.”

An­der­son said LeBlanc “has been kept ap­prised” of re­cent protests and Gil­lett’s hunger strike. But spokes­woman Laura Gareau said Wed­nes­day the min­is­ter was not avail­able to com­ment.

Gil­lett’s father, fish­er­man and au­thor John Gil­lett, said his di­a­betic son has had past heart is­sues. He wants him to eat, but also stressed that he sup­ports his push for change at Fisheries and Oceans.

“They’re go­ing to have to step up and have a cap­tain that’s go­ing to run the ship, and run it prop­erly.”

“It breaks my heart to see these towns, fish­ing vil­lages, all dy­ing,” he added.

“Our New­found­land should be one of the rich­est prov­inces in Canada.”

Richard Gil­lett can’t imag­ine a life on dry ground.

“Once you’re a fish­er­man, you’re al­ways a fish­er­man.”

PAUL DALY/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Hunger striker Richard Gil­lett, vice-pres­i­dent of the Fed­er­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Sea Har­vesters of New­found­land and Labrador, sits in the tent that he set up out­side of the Depart­ment of Fisheries and Oceans of­fices in St. John’s.

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