It's been a wild couple of weeks, to the degree that it's almost impossible to get one's head around all that's been announced and said. But it's safe to say at this point there is not hardly enough detail available to make any kind of final assertion about whether or not it will add up to a better fishing industry for everyone involved.
I've already had a look at the handful of details we have thus far about the proposed Canada-European Union trade agreement.
Earlier this week, another shoe dropped as Premier Kathy Dunderdale gleefully announced a federal-provincial $400-million fund for the fishery. All we know is that, generally speaking, the fund will apparently be used for research and development, new marketing initiatives, fisheries research, and enhancements to provincial fisheries infrastructure.
In the end, the only thing we can say for sure, once you get past all the soothe-saying, hand-clapping and head-nodding, is that these deals raise some opportunities, but also some very tough questions about the plan for the province's fishing industry.
Reducing trade barriers and tariffs, and gaining access to new seafood markets are all good things. So, too, is having a sizeable amount of money from which to draw to do the things that a successful industry needs (seafood marketing council, anyone?).
But what have we really given up to get it? The answer differs depending on who you ask.
'Surrendered its authority'
Earlier last week we had George Joyce of the Seafood Processors of Newfoundland and Labrador on the Broadcast. Like most folks, he agrees that improving trade and opening markets is a good thing. But he is among those who fear the province may have lost more than it gained in the long term.
"The provincial government has basically surrendered its authority for the future," Joyce said, also adding that, "any changes in (provincial) public policy in the future or legislation has to conform to the new CETA agreement, which we have not seen at that point. Everybody has their hands in the air talking about how good this deal is, and nobody has seen the text of it yet."
Another concern Joyce had is about the future of the small processing sector. It sounded awfully familiar to the concerns I've been hearing in the small boat fishing sector.
"We are on the path now with the CETA agreement ... where there will be no small processing sector," he said. "There will be large companies with large infrastructures in place. CETA agreement facilitating the restructuring of the industry to make it more feasible for multinational corporations."
Status quo not working
Also last week we had FFAW president Earle McCurdy in the studio talking about the deal. He sees things differently.
McCurdy feels the fishing industry returns from having access to an open, duty-free EU market will far outweigh the tradeoff in eliminating minimum processing requirements (MPRs) for products going into Europe.
At the root of all of it, he makes the point that the status quo is not going to make for a successful future industry. He noted that we currently have MPRs in place, and yet there's a lack of stability in the shrimp fishery, there's thousands of pounds of cod being left in the water because there's no buyer, and lots of fisheries and plants are being challenged to provide halfway decent incomes for the people involved.
Conspicuous by their absence
On the political side, one of the weird things in all this is the continued absence of the federal government, even though they are pumping 70 per cent of the money — $280 million to be exact — into CETA. Now, some folks suggested that the feds simply don't want Canadian taxpayers to see them handing out money to the fishing industry after the TAGS and NCARP experiences in years past.
But critics of the deal suggested the reason they didn't show up is because the money isn't a contribution. Rather, they say it's a ransom payoff for the province relinquishing the only real industry control it has by removing minimum processing requirements (MPR) as part of the Canada-European free trade agreement.
It does seem curious that the feds would hand over nearly $300 million in return for doing away with MPRs. One person I spoke with last week suggested that this federal money is either one monumentally expensive "thank you," or else the province really gave up something of value.
The province keeps saying that doing away with MPRs for fish bound for Europe won't have any impact, but then the premier herself said something in the scrum following the announcement that is hard to figure.
"We don't see that there will be any impact as far as MPRs are concerned. If somewhere along the line there is an impact, there is a capacity to address it within this fund," she said, adding another layer of intrigue.
Look, the only thing I know for sure about all this is that we don't know nearly enough. And the devil is always in the details.
It is an opportunity that has presented itself. But as always, it remains to be seen if the industry can actually capitalize on it. And it will be several years before we have even an inkling of whether that might be the case.
There will always be critics of good ideas. There will always be supporters of bad ones. History tends to sort the right from the wrong. The table has been set. But for what, nobody yet knows.
We've heard all the sizzle. The question now is, will there be any steak, er, fillet? And who'll get to eat it?