Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why changes to fisheries rules matter

The following letter to the editor appears in today's (March 15th) St. John's Telegram. The above picture was taken last fall in Petty Harbour with fishermen Doug Howlett and son Jonathan Howlett after a morning on the water.

Dear editor,

No wonder fishing people on the Atlantic coast of Canada are up in arms over the federal government’s dangerous new effort to mess with the fishery.

They know what happened on the other side of the country, up and down the B.C. coast, where fishing boat graveyards litter the scene. These boats were abandoned as a result of disastrous fishing licence rules that led to the fishery being controlled in too few hands.

In fact, licences and fish quota are now often owned not by fishing boat operators but by seafood corporations.

Today, a fishery that had been the key engine of the rural coastal economy is instead, believe it or not, largely controlled out of B.C.’s cities.

This sad situation decimated many coastal communities that no longer have their historic connection to the fishery, nor their main economic engine.

Why care?

So, what does that have to do with Atlantic Canada, and why should you care?

Well, there are signs that the same foolishness is coming east, and that could duplicate the disaster.

So far, those who fish on the Atlantic coast, and those who live in coastal communities, have been protected by a couple of operating rules put in place by the federal government, going by the catchy names of “fleet separation” and “owner-operator.”

The first of these says that the fishing licences needed to be in the fishery should only be held by those who do the fishing (makes sense, right?), not by fish processors, who can focus instead on what they do best, processing the fish. Each to their own expertise.

The second rule, owner-operator, is related to the first, saying that if you hold a fishing licence (as the owner), it should be you who goes fishing (as the operator).

This keeps professors like me, or any other non-fishers, from buying up fishing licences and hiring others to do the fishing.

Fishing people keep their role as entrepreneurial business people, rather than turning into hired hands.

Helpful rules

We need rules to make life work, and these two little rules have very much saved the East Coast from the fate of the West.

The result has been a profitable fishery spread out across the Atlantic coast, with thousands of people making a good living by fishing for lobster, crab and other species.

These small-business entrepreneurs are making profits, and that matters to you because it makes the overall economy healthier, with economic spinoffs from the fishery keeping coastal communities going.

Critical industry

Rural life in Atlantic Canada depends on this fishery.

So if the federal government disregards all logic and cuts those key fishery rules, we will likely see decimated communities and an increasing need for social assistance.

Not a pretty picture. Let’s be clear here. Canada’s natural resources, including fish in the ocean, provide enormous value for our country.

How we make use of those resources and the wealth they create is a key question.

We can use our resource wealth to keep rural life vibrant and healthy, or give it to just a few while leaving hardship for rural communities.

The right path to follow is not hard to find.

Indeed, we already have a fishery that works, guided by a few good rules.

While the reality is that “it ain’t broke,” politicians and bureaucrats seem to have been lobbied and misled into shifting from what works to what might suit a small minority.

For the sake of our economy and rural communities, we need to be sure that isn’t allowed to happen.

Tony Charles,
Professor at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax

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