Saturday, November 14, 2009

Telegram opinion piece, Nov. 14th


John Crosbie once asked, who hears the fishes when they cry?

The answer apparently depends on the species of fish, and the political weight of the shores they frequent.

The federal Conservative government has heard the sobs of sockeye salmon in British Columbia's Fraser River in recent weeks, calling a judicial inquiry into their vanishing numbers - which was the right thing to do.

But it's been 17 years since groundfish stocks collapsed on the Grand Banks, and successive federal governments have been deaf to the cries of cod and flatfish. Indeed, it's been 18 years since Newfoundland's commercial salmon fishery was shut down, and - despite the fact Atlantic salmon numbers are reportedly lower now then they were in 1991 - still no inquiry.

Why the double standard?

Good reason to review

The Fraser River's once-prodigious sockeye salmon runs have undergone a shocking decline, so much so that commercial and recreational fisheries were halted. Natives weren't even able to catch salmon for ceremonial purposes.

That should sound familiar in Newfoundland and Labrador, where groundfish stocks are in such perilous state that it's illegal for a child to jig a cod from the end of a wharf.

The disaster on the Fraser River is said to be of epic proportions. Tens of thousands of B.C. families have suffered as a result.

The pain is no less in our outports.

The Pacific and Atlantic coasts have eerily similar stories. The common thread is the manager - the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

An inquiry was never held into the destruction of the 500-year-old East Coast groundfish fishery. Not a single DFO employee was reprimanded or fired for the decisions that gutted the fishery and threaten a culture; not a single politician was taken to task for what was (and may still be) the biggest layoff in Canadian history.

But this isn't about retribution or blame.

This is about a fishing industry that is in perpetual crisis, the complete loss of faith in a management regime, the failure of fish stocks to rebound after almost two decades, and the slow, agonizing death of the outports.

Starting again

This is about how to heal, how to rebuild, how to start again.

DFO's management decisions are as controversial today as ever: proposed changes to the NAFO Convention may allow foreign nations to have a management say inside 200 miles.

The federal government was right to call an inquiry into the disappearance of B.C. salmon stocks, but the decision is also an example of the inequity that exists in this country.

Which is more important to the government of Canada: fish from the West Coast, or fish from the East?

The answer is irrelevant - B.C. has 36 seats in the House of Commons; Newfoundland and Labrador has seven.

Who hears us when we cry?

Ryan Cleary,
St. John's

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