Fisheries groups in Nova Scotia are warning the future of coastal communities is at stake as the federal government looks at ways to modernize Canada's commercial fisheries.

Earlier this week, about 200 members of fisheries unions in St. John's protested, voicing their fears that Ottawa will cancel its fleet separation policy, which keeps big fishing companies out of the inshore fishery.

"We are at war and we need to work quickly," said Nellie Baker Stevens, who manages a community fish-buying operation with her husband Ron in Little Harbour, N.S.

In mid-January, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans released a discussion paper about overhauling the rules and gave fisheries groups six weeks to respond.

The department has extended the deadline for comment by two weeks — until March 14.

"It's got the motherhood statement. Who doesn't want to be more prosperous? Who doesn't want to make more money? What concerns me is what wasn't in the document — where is the owner-operator fleet separation policy? What happened to that?" Stevens told CBC News.

The fleet separation policy prevents a company from both catching and processing fish.

The owner-operator policy requires the fishing licence-holder to catch the fish.

Those policies prevent large companies from controlling inshore and midshore quota licences and processing.

Missing in documents

Neither policy is mentioned in the DFO discussion document.

"What we are concerned about, is this is going to be a done deal? They are going to put some policy in place that is going to remove owner-operator, allow the big companies come in and it's going to destroy communities," Stevens said.

"Without fishing — all those people are going to have to move. I don't know how much Alberta can take on. Are they going to take on the 10,000 owner-operators in Atlantic Canada and the 20,000 crew members we employ? Is that where we're all going to go, to Alberta?"


Nellie Baker Stevens says overhauling policies could destroy fishing communities. (CBC)

DFO offered no clarity on its intentions for the future of the Canadian fishery.

"Having no preconditions or preconceptions is an important part of an open consultation,'' Ministerial spokesperson Erin Filliter told CBC News in an email.

On Thursday, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield ducked the issue when asked directly by P.E.I. Liberal MP Lawrence MacAulay in the House of Commons.

"Can the minister stand in his place and assure this house and the people of Atlantic Canada that the owner operator policy in DFO is there to stay?" MacAulay asked.

"Canada's fisheries used to be the economic driver of many small communities and many coastal communities and we believe that fisheries should still significantly contribute to the national and regional economies," responded Ashfield.

"We are presently conducting consultation both in the field face-to-face and online to get feedback from Canadians as to how we should proceed in the modernization of the fishery," Ashfield added.