A union call to shut down the lucrative shrimp fishery off the northeast coast of Newfoundland and the south coast of Labrador because of declining stocks has other players saying that goes too far. 

It's a politically charged debate, with roots in the battle between huge factory freezer trawlers and smaller inshore vessels, about who will get a share of the dwindling resource.

The Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union has called for an immediate halt on shrimp fishing in Area 6, saying a recent survey by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans shows the biomass declined 40 per cent in a year.

"I'm nervous," Twillingate harvester Brad Watkins told the Central Morning Show Thursday, saying a shutdown could drive brokers and buyers to other parts of the world.

"That's a very scary thing to be thinking about. I think they are jumping too fast here," said Watkins.

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A survey of northern shrimp stocks shows a sharp decline over the past year. (CBC)

Watkins would like to see another survey, and said data from harvesters' log books and catch rates should also be taken into account.

"The last couple of years have been awesome fishing for us in Area 6," he said. "Last year was a bumper year. The plant had a job to handle how fast the shrimp was coming in."

Watkins lost his vessel, the Atlantic Charger, when it sank in the Davis Strait in Sept, 2015.

He has to decide whether to invest in another boat.

"I think DFO and also our union need to step back and not make no rash decisions."

'Double standard'

The Canadian Association of Prawn Producers [CAPP], which represents large vessels engaged in a year-round shrimp fishery, said Thursday that it is prepared for a quota reduction.

But the group said that would normally be done during the year after scientific advice, not in the middle of a fishing season.

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About 250 inshore vessels fish for shrimp, along with eight or nine offshore factory trawlers. (CBC)

In a news release, CAPP also accused the union of "an unreasonable double standard."

"While the science received this week is difficult for all of us, an imminent decline has been expected for years," said the group's executive director Bruce Chapman.

Chapman said the industry players agreed to let the inshore sector have 90 per cent of quota hikes while the shrimp fishery prospered, on the condition that cuts would be applied in the same way when there is less shrimp to share.

"Taking issue with the arrangement now that stocks are declining, and pitting one group of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians against another, is neither a productive or responsible way to address the challenge of decreasing stocks," he said.

Chapman said the 250 inshore vessels have landed their quota, while the eight or nine offshore vessels are still fishing.

"The offshore shrimp fishery employs hundreds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians on their vessels, with year-round, high paying jobs," he said.

"The offshore shrimp fishery also directly supports more than 1,000 onshore jobs in the province."

High stakes

A more detailed assessment of the shrimp resource is expected in March.

"We got too much to lose, and we're calling on it to be stopped immediately," said Nelson Bussey, a fisherman in Port de Grave, who said the "last in, first out" policy will be hard on the inshore sector.

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Fisherman Nelson Bussey says cuts to the inshore shrimp quota would be devastating. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

"We're not going to stand by and let them just fish for 12 months and put us out of the industry."

Bussey said the big trawlers are fishing during the spawning season, but CAPP said DFO puts the spawning cycle in late spring or early summer.

All agree the stakes are high.

"We got the plants, all the plant workers, not just the fishermen. We're talking full communities," said Bussey.

For Brad Watkins in Twillingate, any quota cut would be devastating.

He said most fishermen are "capped out" both on licences and financing. "It's a serious situation...just a small cut could be very hard on a lot of harvesters."