Who are we now? 20 years without cod

The fishery needs Dragons' Den

Essay by Heather Barrett

Heather Barrett
Heather Barrett is a producer with CBC in St. John's.

Wednesday nights this past winter, I got into the habit of catching a bit of CBC Television's "Dragons' Den" as I waited to watch "Republic of Doyle".

At first, I found myself cringing as the Dragons - Kevin O'Leary and the others - fired tough questions at budding entrepeneurs. All who seemed like ordinary Canadians pouring their hearts, souls - and in many cases, a good chunk of money - into their small business dreams.

But after a few episodes, I found myself coming around to the Dragons' logic. So while the guy who invented a gigantic lime-slicing machine loves his creation, I understand why it won't fly as an investment because of its size and high manufacturing cost.

I've been thinking about Dragons' Den a lot lately, as I've been working on our CBC stories marking the 20th anniversary of the cod moratorium.

Because the more people I talk to, the more I'm convinced a proposal for a fish plant in this province today would never make it past the Dragons.

Yet unlike on Dragons' Den, hardly anyone is willing to tell fishery workers, plant owners, or even the public in this province - why.

Recently, I have been talking with people who have been immersed in the fishing industry for decades.

My conversation partners are retired politicians. Bureaucrats and academics. Business consulants who work with processing companies. Former fishing enterprise owners.

The message I'm getting from everyone is this: The fishery is the only industry in this province which is treated as public policy.

It's because of public policy that work for 8,000 full-time jobs is spread out amongst 21,000 people, like a thin layer of bakeapple jam.

The output of the entire fishing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador makes up about 0.25 % of the global seafood market. We are a tiny fish in a huge ocean.

When a local fish plant freezes a seafood product, it's immediately competing with the cheap labour and mass production capacity of fish plants in China.

Our fishing industry can be a going concern, but that would going mean sacrificing many seasonal low-skill jobs in isolated areas in order to create an industry with year-round jobs and long-term growth.

Those are harsh words. But to a Dragons' Den watcher like myself, the words make sense.

Which makes me wonder why most of the intelligent, knowledgeable, insightful people I have been speaking with won't do interviews or go on the record about exactly these points.

But the communications breakdown doesn't end with the media.

I asked these bureaucrats, businesspeople, and fishery workers whether they have talked to government. They all say yes, and that government promptly ignores what they have to say. They figure their recommendations would cost the government valuable votes in rural districts.

They also figure we can't handle the truth.

I sat through a mind-blowing PowerPoint presentation on the fishery created by a local think tank. It's been been presented to economic development groups and at conferences around the world. When I asked if this presentation had ever been given to local fishermen, I was told, "No, I don't think they want to hear this."

"But you're the journalist - can't you take my information and put it out there?"

Consider your message relayed.

But I'm not the expert. I'd much rather the bright, insightful people who have spent decades working on fishery issues and who kindly spent time explaining those issues to me tell you themselves.

I would not want to see them lose their jobs for speaking their minds. I would not want to see their organizations lose government or industry funding.

And I sure wouldn't want their offices to be picketed by a mob of upset fishery workers, or hear their names dragged through the mud on open-line shows and internet discussion boards.

But, as tourist brochures and our politicians tell us - Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are a tough, resilient people.

We CAN handle the truth.

The same way that on Dragons' Den, would-be entrepreneurs handle the truth.

Having a honest, public conversation about the fishery with all points of view represented might be our first step in making the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery a going concern.

And after that, we can all watch "Republic of Doyle" together.