A $16-million provincial fund that was created to provide funding for all aspects of the fishery has almost exclusively benefitted academic institutions, unions and big players on the processing side of the industry, not the harvesters who work directly on the water.

CBC News Investigates

The Fisheries Technology and New Opportunities Program (FTNOP) was established in 2008, to “provide support for harvesting, processing, and marketing initiatives in order to diversify these activities and increase the overall viability of the Newfoundland and Labrador seafood industry.”

As of October 2014, a total of 261 different projects had been approved under the fund.

A CBC News analysis has found that almost all of FTNOP’s funding to date has been spent on projects led by institutions like Memorial University/Marine Institute and the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation (CCFI); the Fish Food and Allied Workers (FFAW); and companies like Ocean Choice International (OCI), Quinlan Brothers, and the Barry Group.

Independent fish harvesters have not been as successful securing money from FTNOP, with only seven such applications ever approved.

In fact, the last green light for a fish harvester’s project came nearly four years ago, back in June 2011.

Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Vaughn Granter insists the program has been a “tremendous success” for the industry as a whole.

Vaughn Granter fisheries minister N.L. CBC

Vaughn Granter is Newfoundland and Labrador's minister of fisheries and aquaculture. (CBC)

But he acknowledges the low number of harvester projects, and says it’s something he wants to change.

“Harvesters are in a very specific role they play in the province — often they are very small and they don’t have the time and the energies to be able to put into the application process,” Granter told CBC’s Fisheries Broadcast.

“I’ve noticed (the low number of harvesters) since I came into the department and I’ve said to officials in the department that as we move the program forward we really need to have a focus on some of these smaller harvesters in the province.”

University study raised questions

Granter isn’t the only one to have noticed a disproportionate amount of money flowing to larger processing and industry entities instead of actual harvesters.

A report done by the University of Ottawa in February 2014 noted that there was “no conclusive evidence that the FTNOP program has provided equal benefit to the majority of boats in the inshore fishery sector,” but also offered that “undoubtedly some projects directly benefitted the under 35-foot commercial fleet."

'Funding opportunities that require shared investment are judged to be biased towards those with the capital means (cash, labour, and time) to carry out the innovation, i.e., typically the larger fish harvesting and processing operations.' - University of Ottawa study

The big problem identified by the report is that FTNOP appears to favour those who already have money to spend.

“Funding opportunities that require shared investment are judged to be biased towards those with the capital means (cash, labour, and time) to carry out the innovation, i.e., typically the larger fish harvesting and processing operations,” the report states.

“Few inshore fish harvesters received access to direct funding, and there was limited participation of processors among awarded applications in the program.”

Jigger system proposal rejected

Albert Wells is one of those harvesters.

The fisherman from Wild Cove, White Bay, came up with a proposal for an automated jigger system, but was turned down.

Albert Wells fisherman CBC

Fisherman Albert Wells of Wild Cove, White Bay, unsuccessfully applied to the FTNOP program. (CBC)

Wells says he called the department to ask why, and was told it had been previously tried.

“I asked when it was tried. I knew when it was tried. He told me the late ’70s. That’s like comparing the whole dial up phone to a new phone now. It’s a crock.”

Wells thinks government officials need to revisit the program, and what it is meant to do.

“They’re going to have to sit down and take a different look at this,” he said.

“They need to start helping the small guy, not the big guy all the time. His pockets are deep enough.”

Some applicants prolific

In terms of processing companies that did access the program regularly, OCI is easily the most prolific, with 17 projects approved to the tune of $1.26 million since 2008.

In fact, the University of Ottawa report noted that by the end of October 2013, OCI had taken 13 per cent of the entire FTNOP program’s cash.

FTNOP home page N.L. government CBC

The Fisheries Technology and New Opportunities Program, or FTNOP, was created in 2008. (CBC)

The researchers also noted that OCI received an average of $82,885 per grant — tens of thousands more than the next highest average (Quinlan Brothers received an average of $54,788 per project).

Granter says OCI’s FTNOP success is based on the sheer quantity of applications.

“They might put 15 or 16 applications in, and get one or two approved,” he said. “We look at every one of the applications they put in on its own merit.”

Other major fish companies approved for multiple projects include the Barry Group, Quinlan Brothers and Icewater.

Funding also used for marketing

While the fund has been used for everything from fishing surveys to plant equipment, it is also used extensively for marketing.

Companies and groups have been approved for funding to travel to seafood and industry shows around the world.

Granter makes no apologies for that.

'As we move the fishery forward… we need to be there to put products on the world stage that are high quality. To do so we need to bring in the best technologies available on the world market and have them ready in Newfoundland and Labrador. That’s what FTNOP does.' - Fisheries Minister Vaughn Granter

“As we move the fishery forward… we need to be there to put products on the world stage that are high quality,” he said.

“To do so we need to bring in the best technologies available on the world market and have them ready in Newfoundland and Labrador. That’s what FTNOP does.”

FTNOP is set to run out in 2016. Granter says he has “no idea at this present time” what might happen then.

“It’s too early in the game to speculate on how much funding will be available,” he said.