Nfld. & Labrador

Baker | Kathy Dunderdale's fisheries legacy

How does Kathy Dunderdale's fisheries legacy stack up historically? The answer isn't as easy as you might think, writes Fisheries Broadcast host Jamie Baker.

Evaluating how the premiers handled the fishery

Kathy Dunderdale announced her resignation as the 10th premier of Newfoundland and Labrador on Jan. 22. (CBC)

"Good-bye and good riddance to the worst premier the fishery ever saw," I had a fisherman tell me this past Wednesday when Kathy Dunderdale pulled the chute on being premier.

Such knee-jerk reactions are commonplace around these parts, of course, and politics is a provincial bloodsport to boot (you just never see people talk politics with such rage and petulance in other provinces ... well, OK, maybe Quebec, but still). Those kinds of nasty, hyperbolic statements are more the rule than the exception. Pity.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking: Who has been the best and the worst premier in terms of advancing the fishery in this province since Confederation?

When you really think about it, the potential candidates as judged by the issues over which they presided might surprise you.

Dunderdale: CETA and MPRs

It was abundantly clear from Kathy Dunderdale's departure speech that she puts all her fisheries legacy cache in two specific places: the elimination of European tariffs on Canadian/Newfoundland and Labrador seafood as part of the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement (CETA), and the attached $400-million fisheries fund.

It's clear from all we've been hearing on the Fisheries Broadcast in recent months that those two issues come with a lot of potential opportunities, but also some potential drawbacks. 

Nobody argues that opening the European market to Newfoundland and Labrador fish products on a tariff-free basis is a bad thing. But it is still being wondered aloud if the province gave up too much in eliminating minimum processing requirements (MPRs) for fish going into Europe. 

The Europeans wanted that concession very badly, and now that they have it, they have been clear that they not only intend to eat our fish, they intend to process it as well. 

The associated $400-million fund could prove a huge boost if it's properly used. But we have to remember the reason the feds put $280 million into that fund was in recognition of job losses that could come about as a result of the elimination of MPRs. Six of one, a half dozen of the other as they say.

Speaking of MPRs, it is Dunderdale's government that — rightly or wrongly (only history will likely know for sure) — has really started opening the doors for the change and removal of requirements, which will allow more unprocessed fish to be shipped out of the province in the years to come. 

There is no doubt her time in power will prove influential in the years to come; but the book on whether that influence will be positive or negative really has yet to be written.

Williams: extreme ups and downs

Dunderdale's predecessor, Danny Williams, had a few high profile fish-related run-ins with extremely mixed results. 

It was WIlliams' government that instituted the monumentally stupid and ill-fated raw materials sharing (RMS) for the crab fishery in 2005. That plan, which, after some of the wildest and woolliest protests in recent years, was all scrapped and shoved back into a drawer, and set an adversarial tone with fish harvesters that lingers still. 

As well, it was Williams' government that broke up and sold off Fishery Products International (FPI), a move that people in Burin, Marystown, Port Union and other areas will likely tell you didn't go so well. Although the folks over at OCI and High Liner would beg to differ given how FPI's old assets have helped their businesses. Now to be fair to Williams, he DID offer to secure the lucrative marketing arm of FPI for local industry, but they turned him down by all accounts — and for that, High Liner remains forever grateful. 

On the plus side of the ledger, Williams almost personally put the provincial wallet behind setting up the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research (CFER) – the George Rose-led group has become a highly critical component for fish science in this province in the wake of continuing federal budget cuts. 

Williams did at least try to make something happen with the fishing industry "summit" and subsequent MOU process, even if most of the recommendations out of that long-awaited review (some marketing elements notwithstanding) were mostly ignored out of concerns about cost ($400 million? Who has $400 million to fix the fishery? That would NEVER happen. Oh wait. Nevermind.

Reviewing the rest

But what about the others? Roger Grimes didn't have a great deal of time to make any sweeping change in the fisheries file after being handed the baton from Brian Tobin. But maybe others remember that time differently.

Tobin was long on charisma, but was he short on action when it came to the big fisheries files of his day, coming in the wake of the 1992 cod moratorium? It was during those times that government started dishing out crab processing licences like confetti. At the same time, it was also the period during which the fishery diversified away from groundfish to the more lucrative shellfisheries.

Clyde Wells presided over a government that was in power during the pre- and post-fallout of the moratorium. Did he make the most of a bad situation or was there more that could have been done in those dark days?

Tom Rideout had a cup of coffee as premier, but ironically ended up being Danny Williams' fisheries minister when FPI was broken up and sold off. But that doesn't really count since it didn't happen in 1989.

Then of course there's Frank Moores, a magnate in the industry out in Harbour Grace before entering politics, in the post-Smallwood era and the never-dull "they sold the shop" St. Pierre boundary days of A. Brian Peckford.

But what would any list be without the aforementioned Joseph Roberts Smallwood: the baby bonus-bringing saviour of the poor starving fisher-people in the outports. The bane of townies everywhere (if the pink white and green-driven lot are to be believed); and the master of the ill-advised "burn your boats" industrialization movement, and yes, resettlement. Of course some will suggest Smallwood had a hand in negotiating the Terms of Union which left fisheries management to the Upper Canadians, but he wasn't premier at the time.

So who do you have as the worst and the best premier when it comes to the province's fishery?

About the Author

Jamie Baker


Jamie Baker hosts The Broadcast each weekday on CBC Radio.