The more I observe the machinations of today's fishery, the more I have this sinking feeling about its future.
It's best summed up by quoting one pithy remark from former fisheries minister John Crosbie: the problem with the fishery, he said, is that it is completely surrounded and governed by politics.
Not all politics is bad, mind you. Some people benefit greatly from political decisions.
Take, for example, the City of Mount Pearl. Some people feel that Mount Pearl is no more a city than the City of Mundy Pond or the City of Marystown.
Mount Pearl was simply the beneficiary of a very astute politician, Tory Neil Windsor. He also happened to be Mount Pearl's former "Town" Engineer, and happened to become the province's minister of finance.
He delivered a big, fat political gift that people in Mount Pearl must still be grateful for; that it became a city! A town with city status that has no industry, no hospital, no bus service, no fire department of its own, no airport, no waste disposal system, no water supply, few buildings over five stories, and until recently, the best restaurant in town was at the local Irving service station in Donovans.
The Fisheries Broadcast
Listen to "the Broadcast" each weekday at 5:30 p.m. NT on CBC Radio One.
Most people in the City of Mount Pearl get up in the morning and go to work in the City of St. John's. Nearly everyone "from" Mount Pearl was actually born in a hospital in St. John's!
Mind you, there's nothing wrong with that. People in "the Pearl" aren't hurting anyone, so who cares!
It's just politics. If only the politics in the fishery could be as beneficial, if not inconsequential.
But fishery politics comes with a higher price. The most telling is what happened in 1992. The Year of the Cod Moratorium.
A bitter legacy of inaction
In his exhaustive and heart-wrenching account of what happened to our cod, Lament for an Ocean, journalist Michael Harris recounts how the feds knew what was happening, knew what they should have been doing with quotas, knew how people would react, and then decided to do nothing.
The legacy of the moratorium is that it cost $4 billion in payouts, solved few of the problems and left us still feeling the effects of those political decisions 20 years later.
As cod collapsed we discovered crab, a valuable and harvester-friendly resource that should have sustained us for decades. Now, we are in danger of having fished that out as well. It's in decline.
People say the state of the crab biomass in the rich area known as 3K was badly managed by Ottawa because of government response to industry pressure. Smaller cuts that should have been made all along were resisted and delayed.
Now the mistakes have caught up with the industry and harvesters and processors are sweating out this year's 25 per cent reduction.
And it's not just the feds who bob and weave when it comes to tough fisheries decisions. Former fisheries union president Richard Cashin did a study for the Newfoundland government in 2005 on a controversial proposal called Raw Material Sharing, a.k.a. the infamous RMS.
In his report, Cashin took a whack at former provincial fisheries Minister John Efford. Efford, he said, violated the policy of processing licence freezes ("a complete disregard for ... and abdication of responsible public policy," Cashin called it), and doled out crab licenses like there was no tomorrow. More than 20 new crab processing licences in a five-year period!
Again, it was just politics.
But the price that we paid is that we are now left with enough crab plants to process the entire world's supply. Processors scramble to keep plants running for a few weeks, plant workers scramble to get enough hours to qualify for EI.
A bevy of reports and studies
It's not like we don't know the problems in the fishery. They have been articulated in, to name a few the 1980 report Managing All Our Resources; the 1982 Kirby report Navigating Troubled Waters; the 1986 Report of the Royal Commission on Employment and Unemployment; the LINK Group's 1988 report, Fish Plant Licensing Policy Review; a report of the Fishing Industry Renewal Board in its 1996 A Policy Framework for Fish Processing; the 2001 Report on Corporate Concentration in the N.L. Fishing Industry; the 2003 Dunne report, titled Fish Processing Policy Review; and Tom Clift's 2011 report, Newfoundland and Labrador Fishing Industry Rationalization and Restructuring.
Fisheries ministers come and go, like straddling stocks. One day they are committing to the future of the fishery and the next day they could end up as the minister of transportation.
Now, that last one was a beaut! A cut-to-the-chase, no-holds-barred look at the precarious finances of both harvesting and processing, and recommendations on what needs to happen in the industry.
It was so brutally honest that the fisheries minister at the time dropped it like a hot potato, practically before Mr. Clift got his backside in the seat at the unveiling of the report.
Too politically sensitive. That's the problem with looking for stuff. You might not always like what you find!
The people that are charged with the responsibility of carrying out recommendations in these reports are people who want to get elected. Pure and simple.
Joey Smallwood once said that a politician's first responsibility is to get elected, and his second responsibility is to get re-elected.
So, fisheries ministers come and go, like straddling stocks. One day they are committing to the future of the fishery and the next day they could end up as the minister of transportation.
The man who signed off on Tom Clift's MOU report was former fisheries minister Tom Hedderson, now minister of transportation.
The report was delivered to the next fisheries minister Clyde Jackman, the former minister of tourism. Minister Jackman has moved on to education, and the former minister of education Darin King is left to pick up the pieces.
See how it works? It's quite a circle. Back on the federal scene, former fisheries minister Gail Shea, the great champion of the seal hunt in China last January, is now quietly punching her time as Minister of National Revenue. She's more interested in tax than TACs.
How to fix it? The most pervasive argument asserts the fishery needs to be stripped of politics. In the U.S., the fishery is governed by a piece of federal law called the Magnuson-Stevens Act. It's a non-political body that sets benchmarks and guidelines and goals for fisheries management and sticks to them. There is little or no political interference.
In Canada, the argument is that we also need something similar: a new Fisheries Act. An act that takes the federal minister completely out of the picture and allows the fishery to operate and flourish at arm's length.
Maybe the province also needs to take the politics out and remove the provincial minister from decision-making.
Perhaps then people can address the problems, make the tough decisions and save what's left of an industry that has been studied and politicized to near-extinction. Our outports, our young.
And, oh yes, the cod would all be better off.