Wednesday, March 1, 2017

'Life's blood of Newfoundland'

Former federal Fisheries minister James McGrath
says inshore fishery only thing that can save outports

The following story was published in the Oct. 31st, 2004 edition of the now-defunct Independent newspaper, as part of a six-part cost-benefit analysis of Confederation (Part 3, fisheries).

Oct. 31st, 2004
By Stephanie Porter
The Independent

When James McGrath first became Fisheries minister for Canada in 1979, one of his middle managers — who happened to be a Newfoundlander — paid him a visit, with one piece of advice to offer.

“He said, ‘When you receive recommendations for total allowable catches, you should shave them by 25 per cent,’” McGrath says. “That’s how inexact the science is.”

One of the first decisions McGrath had to make as minister was whether to reopen the Gulf fishery to trawlers. Although it was unpopular at the time, he took the 25-per-cent-less advice he was given. Later, he maintains, it was recognized he did the right thing. 

“Who’s right?” he asks. “Is it the fishermen or the scientists? Somewhere in between, I figure, you have the truth.”

McGrath paints an uncomfortable picture of fisheries management: “inexact” or incomplete science people don’t trust; fishermen and women who aren’t always listened too; political pressure from many levels; and, at the head of it all, “the draconian power of the minister.”

“Within the Fisheries Act, one of (Canada’s) oldest acts … lies absolute power with one person,” McGrath says. “So that when we became a province of Canada, total say over our fisheries were vested in the hands of the Government of Canada. As a result of that, our fisheries were destroyed.”

“Our fishery was literally squandered. We had no say in the management of it and we don’t to this day.”

McGrath says Newfoundland and Labrador’s greatest, original renewable resource became the victim of competing interests — treated not as a Newfoundland and Labrador fishery — but as a common-property resource open to all Canadians.

McGrath first ran for politics in 1956 and lost. But he tried again, this time successfully, one year later, and won the St. John’s East seat for the Progressive Conservatives in 1957. He held the seat until 1963, then regained it in 1968 — keeping it, this time, until the mid-1980s. 

Through those years of politics, through his five-year stint as lieutenant governor of the province, and in the years since, McGrath has stayed informed, opinionated and, from time to time, incensed.

As a Yo Yo Ma Cd plays in the background, McGrath relaxes at the dining room table in his St. John’s apartment. The pink, white and green Newfoundland flag sit as a centrepiece. 

Although McGrath favoured responsible government over Confederation back in 1949, he’s not certain Newfoundland and Labrador should not be part of Canada.

“But, if we’d had our own parliament restored to us, as was promised, it would have negotiated with Canada, not a panel appointed by an English governor. We may have ended up in Canada … but if we had ended up part of Canada, we would have done so under better terms.”

That could have been the key to still having a cod fishery. But hindsight, as they say, is perfect.

“Fish was not the lucrative commodity then that it is now, but it was important enough I think we could have said to Canada, look, we want to negotiate. We don’t want to hand our fisheries over willy-nilly without certain conditions attached.

“That we want to be consulted on the awarding of quotas and using our precious fishery resources as bartering tools for the fisheries trade.”

But nobody questioned at the time what would happen to Newfoundland’s fisheries, once brought under the Canadian flag. And so decisions related to offshore fisheries were made in Ottawa, thousands of kilometres away from the people — and fish — they impacted.

McGrath says the next big chance for Canada to manage the fish properly was in the late-1970s, when the country implemented the 200-mile limit.

What should have been an opportunity for careful thought, McGrath says, Canada looked at it as a “bonanza, as a gold strike.” 

More fish plants were built, an aggressive Canadian offshore fleet was developed (in part, to feed the plants), and the foreign freezer trawlers were out in force. 

Cod were fished 12 months a year.

“You don’t have to be a marine biologist to know if you don’t give the animal time to reproduce it’s going to disappear.” And disappear it did. Even now, McGrath says, he doesn’t think DFO should “every contemplate sustaining an offshore trawler fishery.”

But he does think there’s room — even a necessity — for an inshore, hook-and-line fishery.

In 1979, when McGrath was Fisheries minister, he was quoted as saying this about rural Newfoundland: “for these people, for the people working in processing plants, for their families and the communities in which they live, the right and the ability to reap the (inshore) harvest is indispensable, because they have a  special, a very special relationship to these stocks.”

It’s a belief he holds today — strongly.

“I think there’s enough fish in our bays to sustain a hook-and-line fishery … however, the mindset in Ottawa is that the inshore is a “social fishery,” people fishing for stamps. 

“Not the life’s blood of Newfoundland, which it is, and has been for hundreds of years. They would like to see this social fishery, the inshore, disappear. And this is where we should be digging in our heels. Because the inshore fishery is the only thing that can save rural Newfoundland.”

Without federal-provincial joint management, McGrath says theres’s little hope for the fishery of the future. Admittedly pessimistic, he wonders aloud whether the current media excitement surrounding Danny Williams and the Atlantic Accord could, in the end, give Newfoundland and Labrador a leg up on other negotiations.

“We don’t have much clout in the federation and that’s a real problem,” he says. “We have to get their attention.”

“I think out of this oil thing, perhaps we have their attention. Openline shows are now talking about separation and its doesn’t surprise me.

“Maybe the offshore oil situation has shown us the way .. we have an offshore management board which has federal appointees, provincial appointees, and industrial appointees.

“The same could work for our fishery. But it would mean opening up and amending the draconian Fisheries Act.”

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