I wonder how many people casually dismissed the news this week about northern shrimp quota cuts as just more "fishermen crying and whining" about their lot in life. A good many I'd say. And that's too bad because in doing so you missed something that has huge ramifications. For everyone.

I don't think people fully understand how huge the decision is. The shrimp fishery was worth one third — ONE THIRD — of the entire landed value of the province's fishery in 2013. There are upwards of 3,000 direct jobs linked to northern shrimp in Newfoundland and Labrador on vessels and in the plants. This decision could begin to wipe all of that out.

And that means less retail action in the major centres, no more truck sales, reduced industrial activity, less eating out, less spending on creature comforts and toys, less fuel and travel, less disposable income and more belt tightening.

Piece of the action

There are two big players in this issue: the smaller boat inshore fleet, which supplies all the plants on shore; and the larger boat offshore fleet, where processing is done onboard the ship.

Late on Friday of April 4, (a typical time for governments of any type stripe to spit out bad news in the hopes the impact will get lost during the weekend) the federal government announced an 11,500 tonne cut for the inshore boats, putting their total quota at about 34,000 tonnes. The offshore fleet had its quota cut by less than 3,000 tonnes to put it at about 64,000 tonnes total.

To truly understand why this has people so angry, you have to consider how we got here.

What happened?

The shrimp fishery in our waters had been exclusive to large offshore factory-freezer boats since the late 1970s. In the mid-1990s, with the resource showing tremendous growth, then-federal Fisheries Minister Fred Mifflin opened the doors for inshore boats — the smaller 65-footers — to get a piece of the action.

And what a piece it was. It proved to be one of the saviours for the industry in the wake of the cod collapse.  But there was a caveat, and it came in the form of a policy called "last in, first out." That policy was geared to protect the offshore fleet who had been there first. It wasn't a big deal, the stock was quite abundant at the time. 

Everything carried on until 2007. It was then that the Conservative government through then-Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn came to the province with a new plan for shrimp. The temporary licences that had been issued to inshore shrimp harvesters in the 1990s were made permanent. They were urged to rationalize the industry through combining. 
Licences and boats were bought for huge amounts of money. Fishermen mortgaged themselves to the hilt because they believed it was the right thing to do for the business and the resource. In essence, they paid the bill to rationalize the industry.

But then...

So, what's happened since 2007?

The fishermen who were encouraged to invest in their enterprises have had their quotas cut in half from 65,000 tonnes in 2007 to the 34,000 tonne quota we see today.

The offshore factory-freezer fleet hasn't lost a pound of quota in that same time frame: they had 63,535 in 2007, and they have 63,789 today. That's actually a GAIN of 254 tonnes. 

Think about it: If a trusted advisor told you to invest a lot of money in a business venture he/she controlled, only to have the exact same advisor pull the plug and cost you all your investment and security later, what would happen? They would likely be accused of fraud. That's certainly a hyperbolic comparison, but it's close.

The final hand-wringer? That offshore northern shrimp fleet for areas 0-7 is made up of 17 shrimp licences and only eight of them are held by Newfoundland and Labrador-based companies: two each for Ocean Choice and  the Labrador Fishermen's Union Shrimp Company, while the other four are held by Torngat Fish Producers Co-op, Pikalujak Fisheries, Newfound Resources and the Harbour Grace Shrimp Company.

The remaining nine offshore northern shrimp licences for areas 0-7 are held by Mersey Seafoods in Lunenburg, NS (which has two), Lameque Offshore in New Brunswick, Crevettes Nordiques in Bedford, NS, the Atlantic Shrimp Company in Lunenburg, NS, Caramer in Caraquet, NB, Makivik Corp in Lachine, Quebec, Qikiqtaaluk in Iqaluit and Unaaq Fisheries in Kuujuaq Quebec.

Minister has the final say

So what is DFO saying? Well, officials are saying the resource is in trouble and cuts are needed. I'd have to agree with that, and everyone else on all sides of the equation would probably do the same.

But it's how the recent cut was distributed that is the real problem. DFO says it has to follow policy, and "last in, first out" and that means the little guys must bear the brunt of cuts. Their hands are tied. 

It's hogwash of course. Everyone knows — and it's even been re-stated in court cases — that the fisheries minister has absolute power on fisheries management decisions. She could have decided that "last in, first out" was a dated policy that no longer had any relevance given the permanent nature of inshore shrimp fishing licences granted by her own government in 2007. She could have said that adjacency was important and that people living next to the shrimp deserve to benefit as much as the offshore fleets. She could have decided to share the pain of quota cutbacks along more equitable lines. 

She chose not to, and here we are. 

If you think this year is bad, wait until next year when science shows there hasn't been any growth in the resource and the quotas are chopped again, following the "last in, first out" policy.

Gail Shea didn't take the "god-damned fish out of the water" as John Crosbie once famously said. But her decision to cut the inshore shrimp quota so dramatically may end up removing a great many harvesters — and a sizeable piece of the province's economy along with them — from the equation.