Nfld. & Labrador

OCI hurt by minister's comments, company says

Ocean Choice International says recent criticisms by Newfoundland and Labrador's fisheries minister have left the company scrambling to answer questions from customers around the globe.

Company now doing 'damage control' with clients, but remains willing to work with province towards solution

Martin and Blaine Sullivan of Ocean Choice International speak with reporters in St. John's on Jan. 9. (CBC)

Ocean Choice International says recent criticisms by Newfoundland and Labrador's fisheries minister hurt the company, leaving OCI scrambling to answer questions from customers around the globe.  

"Right now, we’re in damage control," OCI chief operating officer Blaine Sullivan told reporters at a news conference Monday.  

Fisheries Minister Darin King said last week the provincial government will not give OCI permanent exemptions to minimum processing requirements for redfish or yellowtail flounder, and accused the company of using "pressure tactics."

King’s comments, Sullivan said, were "heard around the world."  

Clients questioned OCI about why the company was perceived to be uncooperative with government, and what that would mean for the supply of product.

Sullivan said the company has been working to reassure customers, to get over the resulting "bump" in their relationship.  

"There is nothing more important to us than our reputation," Sullivan said.  

He said OCI understands the government’s decision not to give the company permanent processing exemptions.

But he said Ocean Choice will need long-term, not short-term, temporary exemptions to achieve anything worthwhile.   Although King’s decision will cause delays, Sullivan said OCI has "not taken any options off the table."

According to Sullivan, the company pledges to continue working with the government to find a resolution that is beneficial to everyone.

OCI officials brushed aside government criticisms they have been reluctant to provide information, saying the company has co-operated fully.

"We are committed to reaching a solution," he said.

Multi-year exemptions

Last week, King said the government is open to the possibility of multi-year exemptions, but not permanent ones.

OCI wants to export unprocessed fish in return for nearly doubling the workforce at the company's plant in Fortune, and making those jobs year-round.

The government first requested information on redfish from the company two months ago, according to King.

Fisheries Minister Darin King announced Friday that the Newfoundland and Labrador government will not grant permanent exemptions to OCI. (CBC)

"People involved deserve a prompt decision, but our government won’t be pressured into a decision without all the information required," he said.

In a statement issued Monday, King said the government is looking forward to working with the company, as provincial officials sift through financial and other information OCI has provided.

But the minister did not back down from his previous comments.

"We're not going to engage in any games," King said. "We see no benefit in engaging in a he said, he said debate. The comments from Friday stand. The bottom line is we've been seeking the data for months. There's a lot of work that needs to be done. We will continue to make our way through it all, with the goal of making a decision as soon as possible."

'Not the villain'

Liberal fisheries critic Jim Bennett says he doesn't think OCI should have any exemptions whatsoever.

But he blames the government, not the company, for the current state of affairs.

"The company is not the villain here," Bennett said. "You can't blame a company for taking as many liberties as the government will let them take."

Meanwhile, the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union says OCI's comments Friday don't add much to the debate.

FFAW president Earle McCurdy said the focus should be on "getting public value out of public resources."

The FFAW is planning a demonstration at OCI's head office at lunchtime on Tuesday.

The rally will include former workers from shuttered fish plants in Port Union and Marystown.