Province’s fish processing sector at a crossroads
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.