Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

Furlong | Fishermen aren't thugs, but they shouldn't act that way

Fisheries Broadcast host John Furlong writes that this week's drama in the crab industry shows people do pay attention to the fishery, but this time for the wrong reasons.

I frequently lament the lack of attention people in this province pay to the fishery. That changed this week, but for the wrong reason.

The dumping of more than $80,000 worth of crab over the wharf in Hickman's Harbour outraged many, from both inside and outside the industry. About 200 fishermen gathered on the wharf at the Golden Shell plant on Random Island, bent on stopping the company from operating. They did that by entering the plant and throwing away crab the company had legally bought and legally owned.

The province has an arm's length mechanism in place for resolving fishery price disputes. It's called the Standing Fish Price Setting Panel. When negotiations on a price for a species of fish fail to result in agreement, each side submits an offer to the panel with the rationale behind their offer.

The panel studies and analyzes the positions with input from market reports, and then decides on the price. Under the arbitration model in place, it must be one of the two positions before them. Sometimes they side with processors, sometimes with the union. In this crab decision, the panel picked the processors’ price of $1.83 a pound. The union had submitted $2.00.

That's the nature of the system that both sides have agreed upon; you win some, you lose some.

Boats tied up

In response, the FFAW organized a province-wide tie-up of boats hoping their tactic would force processors to move to the union price (under provincial legislation, strikes and lock-outs are not permitted in the fishery).

FFAW president Earle McCurdy has been criticized for not denouncing the dumping of crab at Random Island. (CBC)

Meanwhile, some harvesters on the west coast decided to fish anyway and sold their catch to a company on Random Island. When the union got wind of it, a protest was organized.

Fishermen showed up at the Golden Shell plant. The RCMP, being badly out numbered and well-schooled in the science of reading a growing mob mentality, advised the owner to give the fishermen what they wanted: access to 20,000 pounds of crab ready for the production line.

My colleague, CBC reporter David Zelcer, was there and told me he felt "uneasy" about the mood on the wharf. No stranger to evaluating tense situations, David felt it would not have taken much for the temperature in Hickman's Harbour to escalate beyond control.

Above the law?

So far, no charges have been laid. For some, that re-enforces the feeling that fishermen are above the law; that they get special treatment.

There's also some public resentment that there are different rules for fishermen, from the huge bailout of the moratorium "package" and jokes about TAGS, to the generous EI system that keeps many harvesters and plant workers idle for the winter, collecting government assistance. Harvesters even get two claims, unlike all other EI recipients, based not on hours or weeks worked, but landed value.

The failure of FFAW president Earle McCurdy to condemn that action also doesn't help. He said the fishermen were "frustrated and upset" because that they had been "led to believe" there would be paid more for their crab this year.

This suggests that fishermen have a frustration that somehow transcends the rest of us in society. From stinging disappointments in our own workplaces to jobs that are actually lost by cutbacks, we've all felt the heartbreak of expectations unmet, empty promises and rejection, all without resorting to beating up the property of others. To have union members take matters into their own hands and shrug it off to "frustration" defies reason, compassion and common sense.

Patience may be wearing thin

Fishermen are not thugs and they shouldn't be portrayed like that. But neither should they act that way.

It was also surprising to some that Earle McCurdy didn't take the high road, denounce the event and appeal for reason among his members. Instead he publicly sought to minimize the action as the normal course of events when fishermen don’t get their way. Perhaps that's because a court document indicates he was in on the planning of it. (The union is being sued for damages.)

I think the public's patience with some aspects of the fishery is wearing thin. I sense a growing dissatisfaction with the constant reluctance of some in the industry to live in 2013. They seem to be content to stand around and wait for the "good old days" to come back.

The last thing the public needs is another reason to look down on a fishery that is showing all kinds of strain, some brought on by a refusal to change in a shifting global industry, some brought on by a union that seems content to give tacit approval to thuggish behaviour.