Who are we now? 20 years without cod

Different times, same fishery lessons

Essay by Derek Butler

Derek Butler
Derek Butler is the Executive Director of the Association of Seafood Producers in St. John's.

A lot has changed since the groundfish moratorium of 1992.

We have portable computer gadgets called called iPhones and iPads. Apple, a technology company, even replaced Exxon, an oil company - briefly - as the largest company in the world. The federal Conservatives won two seats in 1993, and then merged with the Reform Party to replace the Liberals as our federal governing party. Newfoundland and Labrador is off equalization - and Ontario is on. An African-American is in the White House. And the Middle East stumbles toward something resembling democracy.

But not much has changed in the fishery in this province.

Twenty years and $4-plus billion in 'TAGs' alone, not to mention EI outlays and other public costs in the 20 years since, Canada continues to wrestle with the structure of its fishery, at least on the Atlantic coast.

In a 1976 policy review on Canada's fisheries, then-Federal Fisheries Minister Romeo LeBlanc wrote, "We have been looking for ways to solve these problems and create a healthy, stable industry, one which can bring prosperity and security to the people in it." Sadly, he went on to say that the government of the day would move towards more fishery intervention and regulating in the interest of the people. Government would move away from regulating in the interest of the fish.

Gee, that went well.

In 1982, major bankruptcies hit big processing companies in Atlantic Canada. In 1992, we had the cod moratorium. That 1976 policy document said, "We should always keep in mind that the forces of the fishing industry depend on more than fish. They depend on markets, on production costs, on the industry's built-in ability to compete, and on a myriad [of] other factors. Many of the problems are inherent in the industry structure. Too often the fishing industry has been unstable and self-debilitating, prone to crises and providing adequate, inadequate and nearly always insecure source of income to those working."

Sad, familiar and true. And little has been done since to fundamentally address those issues.

While we are quick to lob verbal assaults against supposed accusations of dependency, that same document said, "The heritage in some regions of an extreme dependence on 'one-crop' fishery production, frequently combined with culturally-rooted immobility, a lack of social amenities and a paternalist mileu."

Imagine! That was from the department of Romeo Leblanc, an Atlantic Canadian himself.

One thing is sure, the document said: "The long-term viability of the industry and trade depends on getting rid of certain structural defects, notably catching and processing overcapacity, dispersal of processing facilities and fragmentation of business organization." It went on to say that the well-being of fishing communities depend upon these changes.

Twelve years into the 21st century, there is reason to hope that we may yet be achieving some of these long-dreamed of goals.

Post-groundfish moratorium, we have shellfish abundance. Private sector investment and capital - not handouts - have built a new processing industry and a fleet geared for crab and shrimp.

But while shellfish are major contributors to the fishery now, those stocks appear in serious decline. We also have some of the same old business and political challenges. Are we prepared now, 20 years after one moratorium - before we lose shellfish or have groundfish come back - to contemplate what might be done to place the fishery once and for all on sound ecological and economic foundations?

From the darkest days of 20 years ago - and further back to other decades and centuries when things were grim - our forefathers always had reason to hope. It's what brought us here, kept us here and keeps us here. We are a hardy people.

But with one of the lowest birth rates in North America, the illusion of a fishery that would save rural communities and keep our young people home is revealed as just that: an illusion. We need a real model of prosperity.

We have lessons to learn, from the 1976 policy review, from the creation of the 200-mile limit in 1977, from the cod moratorium in 1992, and from recent challenges to the fishery, including shutdowns and crises in seven of the past eight years.

If we are prepared to learn those lessons, and prevent Lament for an Ocean Part II, we can build a fishery to be proud of, economically and ecologically.

We can build, as Leblanc put it, "a healthy, stable industry: one which can bring prosperity and security to the people in it."

But if the goal is EI maximization and not better market returns, which would mean better incomes for fewer workers - then we have already failed.