Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Disappearance of Daley Bros. another harbinger of bigger crisis facing N.L. fishery

Daley Brothers Ltd. is an iconic name in the fishery, but their abrupt disappearance from the Newfoundland and Labrador industry this year is hardly surprising.

It's hard times in the processing sector, while harvesters keep earning 'big money'

Plant worker Tina Coleman says she was heartbroken by the closure of Daley Brothers Ltd. seafood processing plants in New Harbour last month. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

April 20 was a difficult Friday for dozens of people working with Daley Brothers Ltd. in New Harbour.

Their hopes of returning to work at the two seafood processing plants in the Trinity Bay community were abruptly dashed, after word spread that the company would not be reopening.

It's simply no longer feasible, was the message from company officials.

But the reality is that no one should be surprised.

Owner Terry Daley has refused interview requests, and has even rebuffed questions from Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne, who's trying to figure out if the closure is permanent, so he can activate government assistance for the displaced workers.

But the answer to Byrne's question is not a difficult one to predict.

Another prominent company name in the industry is likely gone for good, much like P. Janes & Sons, Breakwater Seafoods and others.

The Daleys have moved their focus to New Brunswick, leaving behind a fishing industry in real crisis, especially for those in the processing sector.

Snow crab landings in Newfoundland and Labrador have plunged dramatically in recent years, leading to a significant contraction in the seafood processing sector. (Radio-Canada/Martin Toulgoat)

Dwindling crab, shrimp stocks

The closure of the crab and groundfish plants in New Harbour is not the result of corporate concentration, as some have suggested, but another example of the slow, painful squeeze that's underway as crab and shrimp stocks continue their rapid, alarming decline. 

"I think Daleys' operated as long as they could," said an industry leader who asked not to be named.

The numbers are shocking.

Quotas for snow crab, the species that helped save the industry following the collapse of northern cod, have plunged from a peak of more than 152 million pounds, or 69,000 tonnes, in 1999 to less than 65 million pounds (29,390 tonnes) this year, with the steepest cuts coming in 2017 and 2018.

The picture for northern shrimp is even worse. Harvesters landed 165 million pounds (74,844 tonnes) in 2009, but this year's quota is less than 22 million pounds (9,790 tonnes).

There were 10 per cent fewer people working in the seafood processing sector in 2017 than the previous year, according to the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

What happens when you rip that much resource away from an industry? 

One word: overcapacity.

And in the business world, where profit is paramount, rationalization in the processing sector is unavoidable, and it's already well underway.

Thirteen shrimp plants have been reduced to seven. Eight years ago there were 35 crab processing plants, but this year, 24 are in operation.

Thirteen shrimp plants have been reduced to seven. Eight years ago there were 35 crab processing plants, but this year, 24 are in operation.

It's illustrative of a major contraction that began with the 1992 moratorium, when there were more than 200 primary processing plants in the province. By 2017, that number had dropped to 89.

And "it's not going to get prettier," said an industry insider, with another processing executive adding, "You can't keep the same number of plants going on less than half the raw material."

This chart from the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources shows how overall fishing landings in Newfoundland and Labrador have declined, yet the total value of those landings have spiked. (Fisheries and Land Resources)

So companies are fighting hard to keep plants open, knowing that just one or two could process all the shrimp landings this year, and that there's probably only room for seven or eight crab plants.

So in this contest, it's survival of the fittest, and the weaker players are bowing out. 

Daley Brothers was processing less than three million pounds of crab annually, and with big quota cuts again this year, an already marginal operation just couldn't survive.

So the remaining players, like Ocean Choice International and Quinlan Brothers, are swooping in, buying up Daley Brothers assets and trying to form relationships with loyal Daley Brothers harvesters in order to shore up their own unsteady plants.

It hardly needs to be said, but don't expect seafood processing to return to New Harbour.

Caught in the middle? Plant workers. They are the poor cousins of the fishing industry, with many earning less than $25,000 in a good year.

According to the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources, there was a 10 per cent drop in the number of people working in the seafood processing sector last year. (Fisheries and Land Resources)

"How do you live on that in the world today?" asked one seafood executive who signs the paycheques of some plant workers.

Their ranks are melting away quicker than Arctic ice on a hot July afternoon, and who can blame them? Uncertainty. Low wages. An aging workforce.

Meanwhile, despite having less crab and shrimp to catch, many harvesters find themselves spending less time on the water, but still earning a good living.

With less shellfish in the marketplace, prices have skyrocketed. Nearly $5 for a pound of snow crab. A buck-fifty for shrimp. 

A godsend for harvesters, but a perfect storm for plant workers.

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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