Nfld. & Labrador

Can you fish in a pandemic? Seafood industry facing hard COVID-19 questions

A 10-day delay to the start of the inshore fishery has bought planners more time — but has done little to answer questions about how a key industry in Newfoundland and Labrador can even operate.

All commercial inshore fisheries are delayed until at least May 1

Crab tender F/V Frigidland captain Ladd Norheim, right, and son Taylor sort dungeness crab on the fishing grounds in southeast Alaska on June 29, 2008. (Klas Stolpe/The Associated Press)

The inshore fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador will not start until May 1, a delay that has bought planners more time — but has done little to answer questions about how a key industry is supposed to operate in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said Thursday no commercial inshore fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador will open before May 1, as the department and industry players work out protocols for safer operation of vessels and processing plants.

According to Keith Sullivan, the president of the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union, plant workers and fish harvesters have many questions about how they are supposed to keep themselves and their families safe.

"The vast majority of the input and the feedback and everything we're hearing from members is that right now, with all of the advice that we have, they certainly don't feel safe," Sullivan told CBC Radio's The Broadcast.

FFAW-Unifor president Keith Sullivan is pictured in a photo from 2018. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

The FFAW is working with DFO and other industry groups — including the province's Fish Harvesting Safety Association — to create safety protocols.

"We know we got to work hard to do the best we can, put the protocols in place, and we'll certainly do that," Sullivan said.

A harvester told me the other day … their heads are so close together, they share the same dream.- Brenda Greenslade

Brenda Greenslade, executive director of the NL-FHSA, says there are a lot of questions that aren't quite answered yet. She's helping draft protocols for fishing boats.

"The challenge has been to make it reasonable, practical and achievable, basically," she said.

More questions than answers

Greenslade said physical distancing — which has been the key recommendation from Newfoundland and Labrador's public health experts — is hard to achieve on fishing vessels, especially in their current configuration.

"A harvester told me the other day, their accommodations when they sleep, their heads are so close together, they share the same dream," she said.

She's hearing some suggestions that harvesters should be told to bring less crew out to sea, where possible.

Conventional guidelines for physical distancing call for a space of two metres, or about six feet, between individuals, so others are not infected when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes. 

Sullivan said that while there is more physical space on bigger boats, there are usually also more workers.

Workers sort crab on a Quebec fishing boat in 2018. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

"If you've got a 70-foot boat or a 20, in the fishery, the way it operates, it's going to be very difficult if not impossible in a lot of cases to keep that distance," Sullivan said.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, Newfoundland and Labrador's chief medical officer of health, said Thursday that in situations where physical distancing isn't possible, workers should consider wearing non-medical masks.

Greenslade said Friday that working at sea makes that equation more complex. Ocean spray and wet environments mean those masks will surely get wet, so some consideration is being given to full face shields.

She's also being forced to consider how easy it will be for harvesters and boat owners to get ahold of the equipment they might need.

"We're looking at things like hand sanitizers and surgical masks and thermometers for temperature taking, and it's hard to get," she said. "And you're talking about thousands of people going out that need access to this." 

Put people first, say workers

Some people working in the inshore fishery are even calling on DFO and federal politicians to step in and order the season cancelled.

Fisherman Bruce Short told CBC Radio's The Broadcast that it's time for federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to be decisive.

"She should make the decision, easy, for the fish plant workers and the fishermen," he said. "Forget about the companies, forget about the unions. Make the decision for the workers that's going to be in those fish plants and on those boats."

Fishing boats sit idle in the Bonavista Harbour in late March. The crab season has been delayed until at least May 1, as industry groups work to develop a protocol for safe operation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The delay means no money for harvesters and no work for processors and fish plant workers. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Beverly Dyke, who has processed crab in Bonavista, said she "can't comprehend" opening the crab fishery for this year.

"We are human beings. A lot of our workers in the industry already have underlying health issues as it is," she said. 

"There's absolutely no way to do social distancing, There's not enough Plexiglas or sanitizer available to make it safe.

"I have family who work on fishing vessels, and what a terrifying thought to know that they're going to have to go fishing if this opens." 

But Greenslade said the vast majority of harvesters she is hearing from say they need to be able to fish this year, for their economic well-being.

Harvesters who are unable to fish this season will be able to apply for the federal emergency response benefit after their EI benefits have run out, according to the FFAW. The benefit will be paid for the duration of the season's delay, or for the duration they are unable to fish.

Provincewide problem

The inshore fishery doesn't operate in a vacuum, and in a normal season, harvesters will interact with workers on the wharfs, graders, monitors and truckers — among other suppliers.

That's why Sullivan said that the safety of harvesters will depend, in part, on how Newfoundland and Labrador is doing in its attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

"People who make their living fishing are saying we have to have a level of comfort that we can be safe," he said.

"Frankly, I think that has a lot to do with the general population and what our province does overall, perhaps. Because we still have high rates of infections."

"Hopefully we can get this under control, and that will go a long way I think to making people more comfortable and giving us an opportunity to even consider a fishery."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Jane Adey and Patrick Butler

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