Baker: The year that cod could not be sold at any price
"How are all the little fishes?" former Fisheries Broadcast host Kathryn King asks me now and again when she passes by the disaster zone otherwise known as my desk (which I'm told is made of wood fibre, but am unable to confirm).
"Still swimming," I usually respond.
The only thing more sure than fish swimming is that the folks on shore will be singularly like-minded in their effort to scoop them up. It has always been this way around here: Fish swim, and we catch them.
What continues to change though is how we catch them — and what we do with them once we catch them. And this year provided some rather eye-opening changes to how the fish business is changing and will change in the future.
Shellfish humming along
In the fishery you can always tell if something is going pretty well because you don't hear a lot about it, and that was the case this year in both the crab and shrimp fisheries. They make up about 80 per cent of the entire industry's wealth in this province, and it seems things went well on the water and in the market for the most part in 2013.
That said, it is clear there are some resource challenges coming: the ocean is changing, groundfish are returning and we may see crab and shrimp stocks taking dips as a result.
A scientist once told me that it is an anomaly that we ended up with commercial-level crab and shrimp and shrimp fisheries here, and that the ocean environment — along with the effect of some man-made activities that nobody wants to talk about (but we will be talking about it on the Broadcast in the new year I can promise you) — would correct to that fact in time.
Fishermen on the water are already seeing signs of it.
The trouble with groundfish
The big troubles this year were in the groundfish sector, particularly cod and halibut.
Cod numbers are showing some growth and cause for optimism in some cases (although it is still barely a fraction of historical stock numbers). The problem is that cod is only worth 50 cents per pound at the best of times (and about $10 million annually in total to the entire industry here).
But this year there was an extended period where fishermen on the south coast could not find anyone to buy their cod — never thought I'd see a time when cod could not be sold at any price in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The end result was thousands of tonnes were left in the water because it was either uneconomical to fish, or else nobody was buying it.
And halibut was an interesting case where the problem was too many fish. No, that's not a misprint. Halibut is the most valuable thing in the water in this province, fetching about $3.70 per pound, and there's apparently lots of it.
But the way that fishery is set up, only a few folks on the south and west coast can fish it, and those who can only have small quotas.
What's worse, the abundance of halibut has actually caused other fisheries to shut down — like turbot in the Gulf of St. Lawrence — because fishermen are getting too much halibut as by-catch. Thousands of dollars worth of halibut was thrown overboard this season due to those by-catch rules.
The final insult? With the way halibut is shared based on historical attachment, once the small local quota was caught, fishermen here had to watch while boats from places like Nova Scotia and St. Pierre came in, fished it and sold it right in front of their faces while they sat on their hands.
If nothing else, the way halibut is managed is in desperate need of sweeping changes.
Policy and Trade
And finally, 2013 saw some huge shifts in policy and associated trade news for the fishery. The provincial government continues to move towards a regime whereby minimum processing requirements are being removed like the layers of an onion.
First it was allowing OCI to ship out thousands of tonnes of unprocessed yellowtail and redfish in return for 110 jobs at the Fortune fish plant (but also at the expense of jobs in Marystown). Those jobs finally materialized on Dec. 18, even though it was thought the operation would be up and running by April.
Of course then the fishermen on the south coast asked — no, begged — the province's fisheries minister to allow them to bring in outside buyers or to ship cod out whole when nobody here was buying it even at a measly 50 cents per pound. They were turned down on that request because the province said cod had implications for the free trade negotiations between Canada and Europe.
As we found out shortly thereafter, those negotiations led to the third encroachment on processing, and that would be the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), followed by a directly related $400 million fisheries fund.
In return for the elimination of trade tariffs on nearly all Newfoundland and Labrador seafood going into Europe, the province agreed to relinquish its minimum processing requirements on all fish destined for that market within three years of the deal being official.
What that means is fish going from here to Europe will no longer have to pass through Newfoundland and Labrador fish plants. It's not even clear it even has to be landed here. The premier and others have said that's no big deal because wages and energy costs in Europe mean they can't process our fish any more economically than we can. That's nonsense of course.
If you've been to places like Vigo in Spain you will realize quite quickly what the job market is like and also, what a huge fish processing industry exists there. And besides, all the European literature on CETA indicates quite clearly they intend to process Canadian fish.
As I said previously, there's absolutely no doubt that the reduction of tariffs on any number of products, in particular shrimp, is a good thing. But the big questions remain: what did we really give up to get it?
Jobs will be lost here. It's a given. But nobody seems to worry much about it. The general attitude is that the processing industry is dying a slow death because the workforce is aging and the workplace is not desirable in terms of working conditions or remuneration for young folks. Nobody will say that out loud of course because it would be political suicide.
The federal government didn't give the province $280 million for its $400 million fisheries fund to say thanks. They did it to compensate for the jobs that will be lost now and in the future. That's why nobody from the federal government wants to go near the money, or even talk about it.
The events we saw in 2013 leave a lot of questions and concerns, but also a few undeniable truths.
Undeniable truth No. 1: The fishery, like it or not — and ignore it all you want — is the lifeblood of everything beyond the Avalon Peninsula. Take away the fishery, and all you've got left for a living culture is a George Street pub crawl. So please stop acting like it doesn't matter. It matters hugely.
Undeniable truth No. 2: it's the only thing in the province right now, save for some forestry and agriculture, that is absolutely renewable. Long after the mines are emptied and the oil reserves sucked dry, there will be fish (if properly managed).
Undeniable truth number three: When done right, the fishery can be an excellent means of employment and economic benefit.
At this point the question is, does anyone have the balls or brains to tackle number three to enable numbers one and two?
Can't wait to see what we learn in 2014. But at least we know, for now, the little fishes will continue swimming.