Prov­ince’s fish pro­cess­ing sec­tor at a cross­roads

The Southern Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BY EARLE MCCURDY

Quota al­lo­ca­tions and the rules sur­round­ing them are crit­i­cally im­por­tant to peo­ple who live in coastal com­mu­ni­ties.

The fish­eries is­sue that has dom­i­nated the news in re­cent weeks has been the decision by Ocean Choice In­ter­na­tional (OCI) to close its plants in Marys­town and Port Union while adamantly op­pos­ing any public dis­clo­sure of the very ba­sis for this de­mand.

It al­ways gets dan­ger­ous when peo­ple start think­ing they own fish in the water.

In the old days, fish har­vest­ing en­ti­ties, whether in­di­vid­ual owner/op­er­a­tors of small to medium-sized in­shore en­ter­prises or large ver­ti­cally-in­te­grated cor­po­ra­tions, were is­sued li­censes and the right to fish in com­pe­ti­tion with other sim­i­lar li­cense hold­ers. No­body had quo­tas to ped­dle; what ev­ery­one had was the sim­ple right to fish.

Com­pany quo­tas, known as En­ter­prise Al­lo­ca­tions, were in­tro­duced into the At­lantic fish­ery in the early 1980s. Un­for­tu­nately, the ap­proach was fa­tally flawed in that in­di­vid­ual com­pa­nies got huge al­lo­ca­tions of a public re­source, with no real obli­ga­tion to use them in a man­ner that was con­sis­tent with the public good.

But one thing that came out of the re­struc­tur­ing of the deepsea fish­ery in the 1980s was the Fish­ery Prod­ucts In­ter­na­tional Act, which placed re­stric­tions on FPI in or­der to pro­tect the public in­ter­est in the re­source.

And well it might, be­cause FPI re­ceived a re­mark­able bounty of fish­ing priv­i­leges, not be­cause the man­agers of FPI were a great bunch of guys, but be­cause of the im­por­tance to ru­ral New­found­land of the jobs in com­pany plants and aboard com­pany ves­sels. It was the largest pri­vate sec­tor em­ployer in the prov­ince at the time.

The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment scrapped the FPI Act in 2007 to fa­cil­i­tate the sale of the pri­mary di­vi­sion of the com­pany to OCI. Part of the deal was a nine-year ‘Im­ple­men­ta­tion Agree­ment’ be­tween the prov­ince and OCI, which ap­par­ently re­quired the com­pany to land the catch from spec­i­fied fish­eries (in­clud­ing yel­low­tail floun­der and red­fish) in the prov­ince.

I say ap­par­ently, be­cause our union has never had the op­por­tu­nity to see this im­por­tant doc­u­ment. Nor have we had the op­por­tu­nity to see the Deloitte re­view of the Marys­town op­er­a­tion. The com­pany has re­fused to re­lease any in­for­ma­tion con­tained in the Deloitte re­view, ex­cept the ex­ec­u­tive sum­mary, which tells us vir­tu­ally noth­ing.

It is our un­der­stand­ing that red­fish mar­kets have im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly in re­cent months, but we have had no op­por­tu­nity to cross ex­am­ine Deloitte to de­ter­mine how cur­rent their mar­ket in­for­ma­tion was when they re­viewed the com­pany’s in­for­ma­tion.

In any event, it was not an au­dit they did. The only in­for­ma­tion they had to go on was what the com­pany sup­plied.

The com­pany’s goal is clear - they want to­tal free­dom to do as they see fit with that fish, in­clud­ing ex­port­ing ev­ery pound of it out of the prov­ince with­out any shore­based pro­cess­ing jobs. It’s the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment’s job to pro­tect the public in­ter­est. It’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say we are at an ab­so­lute turn­ing point in the fish pro­cess­ing sec­tor in this prov­ince. Once the nine-year Im­ple­men­ta­tion Agree­ment is up (in 2016), there will be no re­quire­ment on the com­pany to land one pound of prod­uct in this prov­ince, ei­ther in Marys­town, For­tune or any­where else.

They demon­strated re­cently in the case of a red­fish quota they leased in the Mar­itimes that they are quite pre­pared to land fish out­side our prov­ince to avoid min­i­mum pro­cess­ing re­quire­ments laid down by the Min­is­ter of Fish­eries and Aqua­cul­ture.

Ground­fish has dom­i­nated the news be­cause of the com­pany’s brazen re­quest to ship more than 75 per cent of the yel­low­tail and 100 per cent of the red­fish out of the prov­ince with­out any pro­cess­ing con­tent.

This is what the work­ers in Marys­town voted against last Au­gust. They did not vote against 18 weeks of work. They voted against the com­pany’s ex­ces­sive de­mand for ex­emp­tions in pro­cess­ing reg­u­la­tions, re­al­iz­ing that it would be per­ma­nent and would be the be­gin­ning of the end for their plant. Per­ma­nent and sweep­ing ex­emp­tions is ex­actly what Fish­eries Min­is­ter Darin King ruled out in early Jan­uary.

We also shouldn’t lose sight of the shrimp is­sue. That re­mark­able bounty I talked about in­cluded two off­shore shrimp li­censes. The larger sizes of shrimp from the off­shore fleet, which make up the bulk of the catch, are sold to shell-on mar­kets, and ac­cord­ingly are not suited to go through our peel­ing plants. But about 20 per cent or so of the catch (it varies from year to year) con­sists of smaller, so-called ‘in­dus­trial shrimp’, which is cur­rently ex­ported to other coun­tries, notably Ice­land, for pro­cess­ing, at the same time that Port Union is per­ma­nently closed based on “lack of raw ma­te­rial.”

The peo­ple in Marys­town and Port Union de­serve bet­ter af­ter 30, 40 and more years of ser­vice with the com­pany than to be tossed to one side. Af­ter all, it was the sweat of their brow, along with the crew mem­bers on the trawlers, that es­tab­lished the his­toric catch shares which formed the ba­sis of the com­pany’s En­ter­prise Al­lo­ca­tions in the first place.

It’s par­tic­u­larly galling to hear com­pany ex­ec­u­tives talk about “mod­ern­iz­ing” the fish­ery by al­low­ing them to de­cide in their sole judge­ment whether any pro­cess­ing will be done in the prov­ince from al­lo­ca­tions of fish that were ini­tially is­sued to se­cure jobs in tra­di­tional fish pro­cess­ing com­mu­ni­ties. There’s noth­ing mod­ern about the fish com­pa­nies get­ting the lion’s share of the ben­e­fit from our fish re­sources.

It is equally galling when the CEO of the com­pany bla­tantly mis­leads the peo­ple of the prov­ince by claim­ing that 80 per cent of our fish and shell­fish ex­ports (in dol­lar value) leave the prov­ince in whole form. That is sim­ply not true. Crab sec­tions alone amount to at least 40 per cent of the to­tal ex­port value of our fish­ery, and they sup­port more than 3,000 jobs in the crab plants scat­tered around the prov­ince. Ev­ery sin­gle pound of crab landed in our prov­ince goes through a plant where it is weighed, graded, butchered, cooked and packed, pro­vid­ing badly needed jobs.

The decision cur­rently be­fore the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment is about hun­dreds of jobs and the im­pact on hun­dreds of New­found­land fam­i­lies. It is also about whether we will have a mean­ing­ful ground­fish pro­cess­ing sec­tor in the fu­ture. The peo­ple of Marys­town should not be pe­nal­ized for fight­ing to en­sure that we do.

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