Furlong | Sacred cows, rebounding cod and unpopular truths

An uproar over an economist's blunt views on the fishery overshadows the fact that the lack of fish is the least of the industry's problems, writes John Furlong.

Economist Wade Locke was just saying out loud what many mutter under their breath

Why are so many people getting into a snit about Wade Locke's comments? He's the Memorial University economist who made a comment at a housing conference a few days ago that there probably was not much life left in the inshore fishery.

He said, given the demographics in front of us, that very few young people are going into the fishery, that even if the cod "came back," we wouldn't have the workforce to deal with it, and that we will likely see more fish exported for processing with just pockets of the inshore fishery remaining.

It's fascinating that Wade Locke is taking heat for saying out loud what many have been saying under their breath.

The fishery is in a downward spiral, and will continue to sink, and possibly collapse, under the weight of its own dysfunction.

First, let's look at the raw numbers. Fish products make up one percent of this province's gross domestic product. One per cent!

That's less than oil and gas. Less than construction. Less than manufacturing. Less than culture. Less than accommodation and food services.

It's less than the value of real estate transactions.

It's even less than what's spent on recreation.

The output of the entire fishing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador makes up about 0.25 per cent of the global seafood market. We are a tiny fish in a huge ocean.

And this is not opinion. This is not what Wade Locke thinks. These are cold, hard facts.

What's standing in the way

So how best to deal with what we have? That's the hard part.

Memorial University economist Wade Locke says the inshore fishery will never return to what it once was. (CBC )

It's made even more difficult, not because of what we have or don't have. It's the fractious and adversarial nature of the industry that makes it so tough. Let's face it, the fishing industry in this province is a divided nation!

Harvesters don't trust processors. Some harvesters don't trust other harvesters. Some harvesters don't trust their union. Some processors don't trust other processors.

The processing side of the union is sometimes at odds with the harvesting side. The union is sometimes seen as involved in alliances with the feds that few people know little about.

They receive millions of dollars from DFO to run different programs. Some harvesters continue to whisper about "the union boat," the Katrina Charlene, a vessel with a lucrative crab quota that has loose ties to the FFAW.

Then there's the politics. The industry seems to be governed by it. Some government decisions appear to be based partly on how the fisheries union will react to them.

Have you ever seen a more divided industry try to move forward? A more crippled industry? It seems that sideways is the best it can manage, although backwards is always the real fear.

Not only that, it borders on heresy to say anything negative about the fishery. Even as some people read this they'll want me gutted, head on. Traitor! Heretic! Naive townie! 

Because I'm really supposed to cloak myself in the warm, fuzzy romance of the fishery being the reason why we settled here and "who we are" and that it will be back and that there are great things in store for us in the fishing industry. If I was a true Newfoundlander.

You're not really allowed the latitude to question the EI cycle that will continue to exist for at least one more generation. No government in its right mind will tackle it. No government will make the hard decisions to fix those problems. It's easier to sit back and pray that they will self-correct, even though it's a slower and more painful process. You spend less political capital that way. It's risk free.

'Thin layer of bakeapple jam'

Besides, the industry has become enshrined in this province's public policy. Work for 8,000 full-time jobs is spread out amongst 21,000 people, or as my colleague Heather Barrett once put it, "like a thin layer of bakeapple jam."

And what about Wade Locke's point, that it's basic economics? People in other countries work for less. Nothing we can do about that, except continue to ignore that unfortunate fact.

Young people here aren't going into the fishery. Nothing we can do about that, except continue to deny it. We're losing out to big money on the drill rigs, gold and nickel mining, Fort McMurray, the lake boats and other more lucrative options

Sigh. How can our 0.25 per cent of the global seafood market compete with those beguiling dreams?

There are lots of other countries with fish products in the market. Nothing we can do about that.

And some of the things we can do something about, we're not very good at.

Wait, there's less

And what have we learned? Have you heard the growing chorus of harvesters talking about increasing cod quotas because some fishermen are seeing some evidence of more cod in some bays?

They want to go back to fishing cod when our cod resource is so fragile, when we don't have the people or plants to process it. (Just watch: There'll be a call soon to open more plants!)

And the price for cod on the world market is actually dropping, according to reports out of Boston.

Good grief!

Bob Verge at the Center for Fisheries Innovation said something interesting on the Broadcast this week. He told me that we would be better off applying ourselves to figuring out how to give our industry a future.

Now there's a thought!

Our fishery is in trouble. I'd love to keep reporting on it, doing the Broadcast for the next hundred years. Love it! Embrace it!

But first, we all have to realize that the lack of fish is the least of the industry's problems.

About the Author

John Furlong

John Furlong is a host on CBC Radio One in St. John's.