The fish­ery … it’s about guts

The Southern Gazette - - FRONT PAGE -

Once upon a time there was a cri­sis in the fish­ery in New­found­land and Labrador.

This may sur­prise you. Af­ter all, given how smoothly things are run­ning now, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that there were ever any dif­fi­cul­ties in the in­dus­try that first brought Euro­peans to this side of the At­lantic.

Not quite so long ago as that, but still ob­scured in the mists of time at the outer edge of hu­man rec­ol­lec­tion, a cri­sis did oc­cur. Sev­eral fish­ing com­pa­nies were bank­rupt, or tee­ter­ing on the brink. Peo­ple were los­ing their jobs and plants were clos­ing. The fed­eral and provin­cial gov­ern­ments stepped in to re­struc­ture the fish­ing in­dus­try.

Fish­ery Prod­ucts In­ter­na­tional Ltd. was formed from Fish­ery Prod­ucts Ltd., the Lake Group Ltd., John Penney and Sons Ltd. and other seafood com­pany as­sets. The feds owned 63 per cent, the prov­ince 26 per cent and the banks 11 per cent. For the next three years the newly-formed FPI op­er­ated as a Crown cor­po­ra­tion. Things seemed to be go­ing well.

Af­ter a prof­itable year in 1986, the gov­ern- ments did what they so of­ten do af­ter bail­ing out pri­vate sec­tor com­pa­nies un­able to make a go of it - they sold it back to them.

But they tried to make sure FPI wouldn’t go down like its pre­de­ces­sors, couldn’t be con­trolled from away, and would serve the in­ter­ests of ru­ral parts of the prov­ince. To this end, our leg­is­la­ture passed the FPI Act that lim­ited any in­di­vid­ual’s own­er­ship to 15 per cent and pro­hib­ited a num­ber of share­hold­ers join­ing forces to take con­trol of the com­pany.

Most im­por­tant, since it was sim­ply an act of the leg­is­la­ture, any fu­ture govern­ment could change the FPI Act with a ma­jor­ity vote in the leg­is­la­ture. In a mat­ter of days, if things at FPI didn’t seem to be go­ing in the right di­rec­tion, our govern­ment, the peo­ple we elect to man­age our af­fairs, could step in and amend the FPI Act to steer it back onto a path that suited the needs of our prov­ince.

There fol­lowed a very dark pe­riod in the fish­ery, whose bleak­est depths were reached with the north­ern cod mora­to­rium de­clared July 2, 1992, 76 years and one day af­ter the mas- sacre at Beau­mont Hamel, the pre­vi­ous worst ex­am­ple of man­age­ment in­com­pe­tence in the his­tory of New­found­land.

Though the sit­u­a­tion was grave, un­der the able man­age­ment of Vic Young, and the sac­ri­fice of many peo­ple in the fish­ing trade, FPI clawed its way back to prof­itabil­ity. In­deed, its prof­its were grow­ing in the late 90s.

Then, the very sit­u­a­tion the FPI Act was de­signed to pre­vent, oc­curred. A fish mer­chant from away com­bined with oth­ers in a hos­tile takeover bid for FPI. His name was John Ris­ley.

Claim­ing he would make bet­ter prof­its for share­hold­ers than the ad­min­is­tra­tion in charge, he tried, failed, tried again and suc­ceeded in tak­ing over FPI in 2001.

But be­fore that hap­pened, the fish­eries min­is­ter of the day, Gerry Reid, had this to say about the im­pend­ing takeover:

“This govern­ment is deeply con­cerned about and in­ter­ested in any is­sue which im­pacts New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans and the ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in our prov­ince.

“We are un­equiv­o­cally com­mit­ted to the long-term sur­vival of FPI and to en­sur­ing that the as­sets of the com­pany, in­clud­ing ac­cess to fish re­sources ad­ja­cent to New­found­land and Labrador, are uti­lized in a man­ner which en­sures max­i­mum ben­e­fits for the peo­ple of this prov­ince.”

Heart-warm­ing sen­ti­ments. It might have led some op­ti­mists to as­sume the Lib­eral govern­ment of the day would amend the FPI act to stop Ris­ley. In­stead, it sat on its hands.

The sub­se­quent Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive govern­ment of Danny Wil­liams was firmly seated on its hands, too. It watched as Ris­ley not only failed to equal the prof­its of FPI’S pre­vi­ous board, but broke his word that more work­ers would be hired. In­stead, he laid off hundreds. When Ris­ley’s ma­noeu­vers failed to net him the re­turns he wanted, he claimed that govern­ment was in­ter­fer­ing. If only they had. FPI was once more for sale and one of the buy­ers was Ocean Choice In­ter­na­tional. The events of re­cent weeks seem like déjà-vu all over again.

Martin Sul­li­van was in­censed that the Dun­derdale govern­ment would not give him per­ma­nent per­mis­sion to ship fish round to China, send­ing our peo­ple’s jobs along with them. Many New­found­lan­ders ap­plauded the gov- ern­ment’s stand, think­ing that, at long last our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives would stand up for us and not big busi­ness. The union even smiled at the move.

Of course, the Sul­li­van broth­ers are out­raged. They can make more money send­ing round fish to China. How dare the govern­ment step be­tween a cap­tain of in­dus­try and his god­given right to greater prof­its, no mat­ter what. It’s about be­ing com­pet­i­tive. So what if some peo­ple lose their jobs - busi­ness is busi­ness.

Maybe what hap­pened is as pos­i­tive a de­ci­sion as it seems. Darin King and Kathy Dun­derdale are go­ing to turn over a new leaf. I hope so. How­ever, this is just the lat­est chap­ter in a long his­tory of the big mer­chant rid­ing roughshod over the peo­ple who do the work. Al­most cer­tainly not the last.

FPI was an at­tempt to cre­ate an ex­cep­tion, but our gov­ern­ments of both po­lit­i­cal stripes failed then to do their job: pro­tect our peo­ple.

An ear­lier ex­am­ple, much more suc­cess­ful while it lasted, was the Fish­er­men’s Pro­tec­tive Union founded in 1908 by Sir Wil­liam Coaker. At its peak, more than half of all fish­er­men were FPU mem­bers. How ironic it is then, yet so very true to form, that Port Union, the model town Coaker built as the head­quar­ters of the move­ment he formed, ded­i­cated to throw­ing off the shack­les of greedy mer­chants, has just had its heart cut out by one.

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