Will the PERT Report Highlight Our Fishery?

By Barry Darby and Helen Forsey

*(Published in The Independent, April 30, 2021)*

The following is a slightly condensed version of a December 3, 2020 submission on the fishery to the Premier’s Economic Recovery Task Force.

While it is unclear when a report (interim or otherwise) from Dame Moya Greene’s Economic Recovery Team (PERT) will be released, our question is: Will it highlight the fishery as the key element it is for the Province’s recovery from the current perfect storm?

We have little way of knowing what most of the input has been to the PERT so far. The lack of transparency has been noted repeatedly, with only bits and pieces emerging as people or groups report on their meetings with Dame Moya or parts of her Team. Equally fuzzy is the path for citizens to follow in order to provide such input, as no contact information is given for the Team. The Terms of Reference merely suggest that anyone interested should offer their views through the online EngageNL portal; however, submissions there “will not be accepted … until after the caretaker period concludes following the 2021 provincial election.”  

Fortunately, we had a special opportunity to submit our suggestions several months ago, after Helen’s critical Sept. 9th letter to the media gained Dame Moya’s attention and led to a phone call. We were hoping for some sort of follow-up, but since that has yet to happen, we think it’s now time to make what we said public. The following is a slightly condensed version of our December 3, 2020 submission to PERT.


The Fishery – Key Element of NL’s Economic Recovery

This submission to the Premier’s Economic Recovery Team focuses on the fishery as a critical element of our economy and society, where recovery measures can be taken at zero cost to the Province. This paper sets out the framework for some specific recommendations, which are discussed and then listed at the end. The changes proposed here will not cost the Province a penny; in fact, many of them should result in modest reductions in expenditures and/or increases in tax revenues.

The fishery and provincial responsibility

The fishery, in all its aspects, is central to the life, economy and culture of Newfoundland and Labrador, and it must also be central to the work of the PERT. As our centuries of harvesting have proven, the rich marine life in our waters constitutes an economic resource that can sustain thousands of people and their communities. Moreover, unlike oil and gas or minerals, the life of the ocean is renewable – and the fisheries it supports can and must be as well.

Although fishery management comes under federal jurisdiction, provincial silence on this front is not an option. Our fishery sector needs the full attention of the Newfoundland and Labrador government if it is to thrive and optimize its contribution to our economy in the near future and beyond. The Province must treat the fishery as one of its top priorities, not just leave it with the federal government, where it too often takes a back seat – neglected, mismanaged or traded off in favour of other federal agendas. For our provincial government to abdicate its proper role in this crucial area is the height of folly.

[To quote from] a recent article:

…’The Province’s governing parties have apparently given up on the fishery, choosing instead to focus on hydro and offshore oil – two bets that they are now losing. The government’s downgrading of the fishery’s importance to the province has been reflected over the past several years in the changes to the name of the corresponding ministry: from “Fisheries and Aquaculture” to “Fisheries and Land Resources” to the present “Fisheries, Agriculture and Forestry.” This puts what once was (and still should be) the mainstay of Newfoundland and Labrador’s society way down the priority list, tucked in with a struggling forest industry and a small but valiant farming sector. Meanwhile, our fishing communities continue to struggle for survival.’

When asked recently about the controversy over the caplin harvest, Premier Furey reportedly brushed off the question, saying, “Sounds like a federal issue.” But that’s not good enough. Dr. Furey is now the premier of this province, and there is nothing more important to the economic and cultural survival of Newfoundland and Labrador than the fishery. The provincial government must take a much greater role in regard to this crucial sector, actively representing our interests and asserting our collective point of view as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

It’s true that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is constitutionally in charge of the entire wild fishery – research, planning, management, harvesting, costs and revenues, harbours, environment, safety and more – as well as sharing jurisdiction over aquaculture. This appears to leave processing, marketing and harvester certification to the Province, but overlap and complexities limit provincial powers even in those domains. When things like trade agreement requirements, environmental regulation, foreign ownership, corporate concentration, or food safety are involved – as they often are – provincial jurisdiction is less than complete even where it theoretically holds sway.

These factors represent a major challenge, but they are not insurmountable, and giving up is not the answer. The fishery is what Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have been doing for hundreds of years, and we should demand that our experience and recommendations carry the corresponding weight in decisions at the national level.

What must the Province do?

Given all the factors noted above, [we] offer the PERT some suggestions for recommendations to the provincial government regarding the fishery. These fall into two categories:

  • A. Measures the Province can implement directly, within its own exclusive jurisdiction, and
  • B. Actions the Province can take towards achieving needed changes in matters of federal and shared jurisdiction that are vital to Newfoundland and Labrador.

A. Actions on fishery matters within exclusive provincial jurisdiction

1. Stop micro-managing

Our provincial government must seriously take on its political and moral responsibilities towards this rich renewable resource of ours. Instead, it seems to be trying to compensate for its relative powerlessness on the water by imposing the wrong kind of control on land. For years it has been micro-managing the processing, marketing and farming of fish in ways that favour big corporations at the expense of local small busineses, harvesters, and the rest of us. That has to stop. The government must step back from elaborate efforts at control, which stifle local initiative and community enterprise. In particular, it must remove existing bureaucratic and regulatory barriers to the local construction or expansion of processing facilities, so that entrepreneurs or existing companies can make their own business decisions, raise their own capital and take their own risks. The government should also stop obstructing harvesters’ direct fish sales to consumers, and encourage small-scale artisanal processing by harvesters. If unnecessary barriers are removed, diversification and innovation can thrive and contribute to the Province’s treasury.

2. Stop spending public money on private enterprises

In regard to government expenditures, the Province must end public subsidies, loan guarantees and investments that hand over taxpayer dollars to fish processing and aquaculture companies. It must also end tax breaks that do the same by reducing provincial revenues. We need profitable businesses to employ workers and provide much-needed taxable income, but well-managed businesses make their own profits and should take their own risks. It is not government’s job to pick winners and losers or to prop up private enterprise with public money.

3. Inhibit transshipment for processing elsewhere

In addition, the provincial government must use every means at its disposal to discourage transshipment of whole fish for processing elsewhere. NL’s Minimum Processing Requirements (MPRs) are supposed to restrict this, but they are inadequate and subject to many exemptions, and CETA may make the problem worse. Under current practice, our port facilities and cold storage plants can continue to be used to enable companies to ship our ocean harvests out of province. This may serve corporate interests, but it robs Newfoundland and Labrador’s workers and entrepreneurs of important economic opportunities, and cheats government coffers of what should be provincial income.

4. Maintain support for small coastal communities

The coastal communities and indigenous people of Newfoundland and Labrador are the carriers of the traditions and knowledge that have sustained them for generations. Our governments, both provincial and federal, need to recognize the economic and social potential of that fishery-related knowledge, located in small, resilient communities scattered along our coastlines in geographic proximity to the resource. With appropriate government policies and continued support for infrastructure and services, people in such localities could capitalize on those inherent advantages to establish community-scale enterprises that would be innovative, efficient and profitable. The Province should help by actively encouraging fishery co-operatives, local entrepreneurs and community-based initiatives.

5. Encourage consumption of local fish and seafood

With the ocean at our doorstep, fish and other marine life should constitute a major element of food security in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, various inappropriate policy and regulatory barriers prevent most people from drawing on these vitally important food sources. Our province has a high level of food insecurity, yet our per capita fish consumption is low in comparison with other ocean nations. The government should facilitate direct sale of fish by harvesters to consumers, which is still hampered by unnecessary restrictions. It should also explore further ways to encourage and enable greater utilization of our own marine food sources to build food security across the province.

B. Actions on fishery issues in federal and shared jurisdictions

6. Take an assertive, united stand vis-à-vis Ottawa 

Our provincial leaders must kick their bad habit of leaving the fishery to the feds. We have a unique point of view on fishery matters, and our legislators and government must keep it strong and visible. We must be proactive with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, advising them on an ongoing basis as to how we think they should do what they are constitutionally charged with doing – i.e. managing the fishery. In the past, on other fronts such as oil and gas, Newfoundland and Labrador has taken a much more assertive stand with the government in Ottawa – with some success. As we begin our process of economic renewal, the Premier, cabinet and all provincial parties should agree to confront the federal government with a united voice, and to work with our neighbouring fishing provinces to demand long-overdue action on the Atlantic fishery by the federal Minister.

7. Press DFO for effort-based fishery management

What should that federal action look like? A paradigm shift is urgently needed in how we approach fishery management, particularly in regard to harvesting. Barry Darby’s innovative proposal to start replacing the current quota system with one based on fishing effort, which may initially have seemed unrealistic, now appears to be gaining some traction among informed people fed up with the endless litany of mismanagement, buck-passing and denial that we see so much of in DFO. Harvesters, coastal communities and the fish stocks themselves would benefit in multiple ways from a transition to effort-based management, instead of the current slavish adherence to a quota-based approach that clearly doesn’t work. That transition is a key policy shift that the Province should be pushing the federal government to consider for implementation.

8. Improve professionalization and labour market policies

The Province should work with the federal government to update and improve the policies and procedures regarding the fishery workforce, in order to maximize the efficiency and sustainability of the sector. It is essential to ensure that all professional harvesters have the right to fish commercially, that only professional harvesters have that right, and that new entrants are trained and certified. Likewise, labour market policies must foster employment and self-employment in the fishery, and creatively address the challenges of labour shortages, seasonality, and an aging workforce. Specific measures towards these ends are proposed in Barry Darby’s “Changing Course – A New Direction for Canadian Fisheries“, cited above, and inA Future for the Fishery – Crisis and Renewal in Canada’s Neglected Fishing Industry“, by Dr. Rick Williams (Nimbus Publishing, Halifax, 2019).

9. Aim to maximize net economic returns

The goal of our economic policy in regard to the fishery should be to maximize the net economic returns to the people of fishing communities, while ensuring sustainability both for the resource and for the sector itself. Assessing both provincial and federal policies and proposals through this lens will enable a multitude of direct economic and social benefits and spin-offs to accrue, as good ideas are developed and implemented and mistakes prevented.

10. Ensure full involvement of community people

The men and women of Newfoundland and Labrador – especially harvesters and their communities – must be directly involved in developing and implementing the necessary measures at all levels to restore the incredibly rich renewable resource that Canada took over from us decades ago, ensuring that its benefits flow to those who work and live from it. Their wisdom and experience are a resource whose value cannot be measured in dollar terms, but without it, economic recovery could not work.

Summary of recommendations for the Province:

  • Make the fishery a top priority for the province’s economic recovery. Strengthen the capacity and profile of this key sector by restoring it to full status under a Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture. Reassert the provincial government’s role in maximizing the fishery’s economic and social benefits to our people.
  • Stop micro-managing the processing, marketing and farming of fish and other seafood. Facilitate construction and expansion of processing enterprises by removing unnecessary licensing barriers and allowing them to make their own business decisions. Stop obstructing direct fish sales by harvesters to consumers.
  • End public subsidies, investments and tax breaks for processing and aquaculture companies. Implement and enforce major restrictions on the transshipment of whole fish for processing elsewhere.
  • Maintain infrastructure and services for small coastal and indigenous communities to enable them to build prosperous futures with their own marine and human resources.
  • Provide technical and advisory support to encourage fishery co-operatives and community-based initiatives that enhance the value and viability of the sector. Develop policies to increase local utilization of our own seafood resources, enhancing NL’s food security.
  • Work across party lines to develop a united voice wherever possible for dialogue with the federal government on key fishery issues. Press the federal government to actively consider transitioning to effort-based fishery management (see www.barrydarby.com/the-proposal/)  
  • Work with the federal government to develop and implement optimum professionalization measures and labour market policies for the fishery. Prioritize the goal of maximizing net economic returns to the people of fishing communities and to the provincial economy, and apply this lens to both provincial and federal policies.
  • Ensure that the men and women of fishing communities are fully represented and listened to in fishery-related policy development at all levels, to maximize fairness, practicability and effectiveness.

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the important work of your Team.

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