Fish monopolies and the government prepare to fillet whatever remains of fishermen's livelihoods

Volume 32 Number 067, April 8, 2002

Fishery workers from outports along the south coast of Newfoundland and in Canso, Nova Scotia are increasingly up in arms. The fish plant in Canso, employing one-third of the town, closed in January. Employment insurance payments end in June. The people have been turning out in large numbers at public meetings demanding action from provincial and federal authorities and results from their local and other elected officials.

Earlier this winter, public hearings were conducted by a select committee of the Newfoundland House of Assembly in the province's main fishing outports. Thousands came to denounce the high-handedness of the new management and the ruinous conditions that have worsened since most of the province's fish plants fell into the clutches of Clearwater Fine Foods, a monopoly based in Bedford, Nova Scotia.

Last May, Clearwater took over Fishery Products International (FPI), the biggest fish processor in Newfoundland, aiming to turn profits on its extensive shrimp business. Unable to overcome a 20 per cent tariff last summer in the markets of the European Union, however, FPI last June through September shifted some of this burden onto the fishermen by ceasing to purchase their shrimp catches. Then, at Christmas, this shark took a big bite out of the fish-plant workers by slashing their annual "profit-sharing" cheques from $750 to $53 -- i.e., by 95 per cent -- after recording a loss of only 30 per cent on its own books from the downturn in shrimp sales.

Amid an atmosphere in the fishing communities that even the Globe and Mail noted was "acrimonious," the leading fish monopolies and the Canadian government have struggled to regain the upper hand. Their solution to the crisis on the corporate balance-sheet is to redivide the fish stocks -- the fishing communities' present and future livelihoods -- inside and outside the 200-mile limit. So, in order to acquire a free hand to sell out Canada's offshore sovereignty even further, the monopolies and especially the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) have left no stone unturned to set fishery workers at one another's throats.

The fishery workers are instinctively clear about the threat posed by the monopolies. However, in September 1999, following the Marshall decision, certain elements from DFO, Clearwater and the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance created some temporary confusion. Briefly, they engineered the appearance in southwestern Nova Scotia of a so-called racist split between non-Native and Native fishermen over access to fish stocks.

In fact, after months of subsequent work by aboriginal and non-aboriginal fishermen's groups, as much as possible away from the eyes and ears of DFO and the RCMP, new accommodations were reached consistent with the Marshall decision's proviso that Mi'kmaq fishers enjoy a treaty right to a moderate livelihood. A federal government program to buy up fishing licences from retiring fishermen and reassign them to Native bands, left dormant from earlier years in eastern Canada, was revived.

On March 25, media across Canada carried sensational headlines that the $400-million expended to buy up these licences carried no "guarantee" that any individual surrendering a licence might not seek to re-enter the fishery at some time in the future. This revelation was attributed to the report of an audit of the Canadian Fisheries Adjustment and Restructuring Program, obtained by the Canadian Press (CP) under the federal government's Access to Information law.

The first implication left unstated but hanging palpably in the air is that, if non-Native fishermen sought to re-enter fisheries that had now been converted into aboriginal band licences, there could be another "war" on the waters between Native and non-Native fishermen. Television reports carried prominently by the Maritimes regional affiliate of CTV (owned by Bell Globemedia) went so far as to suggest, in addition, that the Membertou Reserve in Cape Breton was "already" taking "advantage" of the federal government's licence recycling program to become an increasingly major player in the snow crab fishery.

The second implication is that this "truth" is so sensitive that only an Access to Information request could have uncovered it. But the raving about the lack of a guarantee is out-and-out disinformation. Elsewhere the audit itself pointed out that licences are transferable as private (capitalist) property. Thus the government could not have redefined as a special "prohibited" class the ex- licencees that its buyback program was creating without also redefining the transferability of any other fisheries licences -- something that would have opened it to major lawsuits.

A fisherman surrendering a licence would usually also be selling off a boat. Re-entry would be expensive: the current estimated cost (in 2001) of acquiring a boat and a fishing licence in a commercially viable parts of the east coast fishery, such as the Scotia-Fundy region, stands at $300,000. This amount -- too inconvenient for CP to include in its report -- is about four times the average $74,000 value of the licences surrendered in this region under the adjustment-and-restructuring program, which CP did report, along with the telling fact that "the auditors did not identify any examples of ... retirees returning to sea."

TML denounces in the strongest terms the latest sleazy efforts via the so-called Canadian Press to revive a racist hysteria and psychosis that would split the fishing communities at the very moment the government and the fish monopolies, desperately seeking superprofits, are preparing to fillet what remains of the fishermen's livelihoods. Canadian workers know a rotten piece of fish -- especially one that has already been flogged to death -- when they smell one.

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Copyright New Media Services Inc. 2004. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications.