Nfld. & Labrador

Azzo Rezori: Fairness and the fishery

It's already an accepted fact that, because of the dwindling shrimp stock, the overall allowable catch will be reduced this year. But how will it be divvied up this time?
Frustrated shrimp fishery workers protested the allocation of quota cuts to the inshore shrimp industry during a demonstration Friday in Bay Roberts. (Jamie Baker/CBC)

Here's a riddle straight from the fishery.

Last year, 10 big offshore trawlers fishing for 14 companies were allowed to catch roughly the same amount of shrimp as 250 smaller inshore trawlers, owned for the most part, though by no means exclusively, by independent fishermen.

It's already an accepted fact that, because of the dwindling shrimp stock, the overall allowable catch will be reduced this year. But how will it be divvied up this time?

Speculation driven by apprehension has it that the off'shore guys will walk away with two thirds, leaving the inshore guys with one third. In other words, the few get more, the many get less.

Where's the fairness in that?

The official explanation is that the companies have been in the shrimp fishery longer and enjoy first-in/last-out privileges; the inshore operators came later and get the last-in/first-out treatment.

That's fairness according to bureaucratic standards — never mind that some of the companies aren't even from this province and are under no obligation to create local jobs by landing their shrimp here.

There's another fairness. This one's based on the principle that those who live closest to the resource should have first dibs. Under that rule the lion's share would go to the inshore operators, who'd land it here and, by doing so, guarantee work for ten fish plants up and down the north east coast, from St. Anthony to Bay de Verde.

So many different fairnesses have been bandied about in the fishery over the years, so many basic principles have squared off with so many bureaucratic solutions (not to mention the politics behind them), it's getting more and more difficult to tell what really is fair.

Here's a quote from an article on the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery in the Encyclopedia of Earth: "Many of the federal and provincial interventions in the fishery since 1992 (year of the cod moratorium) have appeared ill thought out, often unfair, and have raised controversy."

The Encyclopedia of Earth is a web product by the National Council for Science and the Environment based in Washington. D.C. It declares itself dedicated to "improving the scientific basis of environmental decision making."

The article focuses on the question of how the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery will react and adjust to whatever climate change has in store for it.

There's growing understanding about the broader consequences of global warming — still, no respectable scientist would presume to predict exactly what the effects will be in smaller settings such as our corner of the Northwest Atlantic.

The current shell fish environment might continue for another few decades. The old order under which cod was king might return. New conditions never seen before might establish themselves. At this point it's anybody's guess.

The Encyclopedia article suggests that the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery might have difficulties responding promptly and appropriately one way or the other. Past experience, it says, points to a pattern of "severe adjustment problems and that the adjustment period may be very long."

It may, in fact, be chronic by now. The local fishery has been in transition for so long, the idea of stability has become meaningless — as meaningless as old tales of Sir Humphrey Gilbert hauling cod out of the sea by simply lowering a basket.

So what will it be in this latest squabble over the resource — big boats fishing for a few companies, or small boats fishing for many independent fishers? If both, how do you take from one and give to the other while maintaining any semblance of fairness?

The Encyclopedia article says the provincial and federal governments have tried to play it both ways, and that has created nothing but confusion, frustration, and anger.

What really are the long-term priorities?

What could stability in the fishery possibly look like, even without the juggernaut of climate change complicating things even more?

The response to these questions, the Encyclopedia article concludes, will likely be for the industry to muddle along as usual.

If it weren't so hard on everybody and cause so many bitter feelings, it might be argued that there's something quite endearing about the eternal work in progress the fishery has become — the never-ending drama, the stout refusal to be pinned down by human planning, the quite accurate reflection of how the fishing grounds themselves behave as they constantly shift from order into change even as they shift from change back into order. 

And fairness?

Go on wit ya. 


Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori is a retired journalist who worked with CBC News in St. John's.


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