Workers occupied a fish plant in southern Newfoundland Friday, soon after their employer said it could not afford to keep it and another troubled plant open.

OCI closures

About 240 people worked in Marystown, and 170 in Port Union

Both plants have been idle for months. Port Union has been shuttered since Hurricane Igor in September 2010

Government aid sought for jobless workers

Some of the employees of Ocean Choice International in the Burin Peninsula town of Marystown swarmed into their idled plant on Friday afternoon, switched on breakers and denounced OCI's decision to shut down a plant that is a cornerstone of the region's economy.

David Paul, one of the workers who stormed the plant, said frustration and anger filled the crowd.

"It's a shock and we're devastated and we're angry. Especially with the way the company came out with this announcement. It seemed like it was behind everybody's back. They never notified our union and said this was going to happen," said Paul.

Bill Stockly said he and the other workers won't allow OCI past their picket line to remove any equipment from the plant until a resolution is found.

"Not a screw, not a bolt, nothing comes out of this plant until this thing is resolved.... Well everybody is absolutely flabbergasted. Just before Christmas, an announcement that they're going to close the plant. You know we've had people working here for 43 years and all of a sudden they don't have a job."

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Ocean Choice CEO Martin Sullivan: 'Sometimes things that are broken cannot be fixed.' ((CBC))

OCI confirmed Friday that it had no choice but to close the Marystown plant as well as another operation in Port Union, on Newfoundland's Bonavista Peninsula. The Port Union plant has been closed since September 2010, when Hurricane Igor struck the town and damaged the building.

At a news conference in St. John's, OCI president Martin Sullivan said the company had no choice but to close both plants immediately.

"Sometimes things that are broken cannot be fixed, especially when all the critical factors are beyond our own control," said president Martin Sullivan, announcing closures that will put several hundred people out of work, and which will mean massive losses to rural communities that depend on fish processing.

OCI said it will invest more than $5 million in the coming years to upgrade its other plants in Bonavista, Triton, Port au Choix, St. Lawrence and Fortune.

The announcements come amid expectations of a shakeup in Newfoundland and Labrador's seafood industry, which for years has been criticized for having dramatically too much processing capacity for the raw product that has been caught.

While Premier Kathy Dunderdale indicated in October that government is preparing to deal with tough issues in the industry, OCI indicated that market forces mean that the company cannot wait for a solution that involves politicians.

"Most of the stakeholders in the fishing industry have recognized the need for rationalization of our sector for many years now," Sullivan said.

Union turned down deal: Dunderdale

Speaking with reporters in St. John's Friday, Dunderdale said the closure might have been avoided if the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union had co-operated with the company.

"OCI put an offer on the table to the FFAW for 18 weeks work over a year, for a three year period," Dunderdale said.

"The FFAW rejected that. I'm concerned about that."

Town and union officials in both communities had been bracing for bad news.

Residents of Marystown have been campaigning for months for a clear answer on the idled fish plant there, which employs about 240.

An external audit that OCI released last week showed the company has lost almost $10 million at the Marystown plant over the last three years.

About 170 people had worked at the Port Union plant.

OCI said it was seeking a meeting with the Newfoundland and Labrador government to discuss "available support" for employees who are now out of work.

Emergency debate needed: NDP

Lorraine Michael, leader of Newfoundland and Labrador's New Democratic Party, said Friday's announcements were significant enough to open the house of assembly, which did not open for a fall sitting.

"The company has been stringing the workers along for months," Michael said in a statement. "Now the vague reassurances have turned into devastating reality for Marystown, and Port Union has little to hope for."

Michael said Dunderdale should not only open the house for an emergency debate, but move to halt OCI's ability to ship unprocessed redfish from the province.

OCI said it can make a profit by exporting all of its quota for whole yellowtail flounder to other buyers.

The closures are the most significant development in Newfoundland and Labrador's long-struggling fishery in years. OCI had bought the Port Union and Marystown plants from Fishery Products International in 2007, during a $158-million asset sale that broke apart what had been one of Canada's largest seafood companies.

OCI managers were unapologetic Friday about sending raw fish abroad while laying off employees.

"Things are changing in the world around us," Sullivan said.

"The market demand for whole fish is huge today. Customers don't want as much filleted product anymore. The global market is changing, and we must be able to provide the customers with the products they demand."