In­dus­try play­ers fore­cast­ing un­cer­tain year for prov­ince’s main fish­ery

The Southern Gazette - - NEWS - BY TERRY ROBERTS

There’s an­other storm brew­ing in the prov­ince’s trou­bled fish­ing in­dus­try, and one of the vic­tims could be the cru­cial snow crab har­vest.

The up­com­ing 2010 har­vest is be­ing buf­feted by a litany of prob­lems, with some ma­jor play­ers say­ing a timely start to the fish­ery is un­likely. A com­plete shut­down is also not out of the ques­tion, some say.

The prov­ince’s fisheries min­is­ter, how­ever, is not quite as de­mor­al­ized. Hang­ing in the bal­ance is this prov­ince’s most im­por­tant fish­ery, which largely sus­tains about 3,000 fish­ing en­ter­prises and at least 30 fish pro­cess­ing plants.

Earle McCurdy, pres­i­dent of the Fish, Food and Al­lied Work­ers’ union (FFAW) said “I think we’ll be se­ri­ously chal­lenged to get a price that makes sense for peo­ple to go fish­ing.”

Mr. McCurdy re­called prices were not sus­tain­able last year, and con­di­tions do not seem to have im­proved for this sea­son.

The head of the prov­ince’s as­so­ci­a­tion of seafood pro­duc­ers is doubt­ful the in­dus­try, in its cur­rent form, can sur­vive the dou­ble-bar­reled threat posed by de­te­ri­o­rat­ing mar­kets and weak cur­rency ex­change rates.

Derek But­ler said the in­flex­i­bil­ity be­ing demon­strated by the fisheries union is also a fac­tor.

At its an­nual con­ven­tion last fall, union del­e­gates passed a mo­tion say­ing they would not fish crab for less than a $1.50 per pound. They also set a min­i­mum price of 60 cents for shrimp.

Prices last sea­son ranged from a high of $1.55 to a low of $1.35.

Mr. But­ler said such in­tran­si­gence is “com­pletely di­vorced from re­al­ity” and sug­gested there would not be a fish­ery un­der those terms. He said fish­er­men in Alaska are be­ing paid as low as US$1.10 for “ big­ger, bet­ter” crab.

“Right now there’s no rea­son to be op­ti­mistic about a fish­ery on a timely ba­sis given the con­tention of the FFAW and har­vesters this far in ad­vance.”

But Mr. McCurdy said there’s only so far fish­er­men can go be­fore they hit an eco­nomic break­ing point. He said op­er­at­ing ex­penses are enor­mous.

“Con­tin­u­ously drop­ping the price of raw ma­te­ri­als to solve our prob­lem is not the an­swer.”

Fisheries Min­is­ter Clyde Jack­man said it’s pre­ma­ture to be writ­ing an obituary on this year’s crab har­vest. He said early in­di­ca­tors point to a stronger sea­son, and said it’s im­por­tant to main­tain a pos­i­tive mind­set.

But he ac­knowl­edged the global eco­nomic down­turn and a Cana­dian dol­lar that’s nearly on par with US cur­rency are trou­bling fac­tors.

“Our hope is that the 2010 sea­son will open on time, rec­og­niz­ing there will be some fac­tors that will con­tinue to im­pact the state of the fish­ery.”

John Sack­ton, a seafood mar­ket­ing an­a­lyst based in Mas­sachusetts, also re­ported mixed re­sults when ex­am­in­ing the 2010 snow crab fish­ery. He’s heard re­ports of large in­ven­to­ries of crab car­ried over from last year in Asia, and there are in­di­ca­tions the Ja­panese de­mand for crab is on the wane.

But in the U.S. mar­ket, Mr. Sack­ton sees signs of a re­cov­ery, es­pe­cially for large-size snow crab.

“It is very dif­fi­cult to get a feel for what the mar­ket is go­ing to be like this spring.”

The un­cer­tainty was ex­pected to all come to a head Fri­day, when Mr. McCurdy and Mr. But­ler meet with the fisheries min­is­ter for a much-an­tic­i­pated dis­cus­sion about plans to re­struc­ture the in­dus­try.

Mr. McCurdy and Mr. But­ler both con­firmed Wed­nes­day they will be tot­ing pro­pos­als for the min­is­ter to con­sider as part of a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing reached be­tween the groups last year.

Mr. McCurdy has been talk­ing of the need for a com­pre­hen­sive and co-or­di­nated ap­proach to mar­ket­ing the prov­ince’s seafood prod­ucts, while Mr. But­ler has ze­roed in on the need to stream­line the har­vest­ing and pro­cess­ing sec­tors.

He likes to com­pare the prob­lems in the fish­ing in­dus­try to a re­cent stream­lin­ing at Gen­eral Motors, for­merly the world’s largest au­tomaker. GM was forced to cast off sev­eral well-known brands in or­der to avoid bank­ruptcy.

Mr. But­ler be­lieves a sim­i­lar prun­ing is needed in the New­found­land fish­ery. It will be a bit­ter pill for some com­mu­ni­ties, but “ That’s the re­al­ity of the world.”

And un­less there are ma­jor changes in the mar­kets and cur­rency in the com­ing weeks, Mr. But­ler said the crab fish­ery will not gen­er­ate enough rev­enue to sup­port the in­dus­try in its cur­rent form. He said ma­jor changes are needed as soon as pos­si­ble.

Mr. Jack­man plans to for­ward the pro­pos­als to a spe­cial steer­ing com­mit­tee for fur­ther study. But he in­sisted they won’t gather dust.

“I will not sit on this. I want to see what it is and will pro­vide re­ac­tion as soon as I can.”

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