Atlantic Canada crab fishermen blockade Sydney Harbour as fisheries crisis deepens

By TONY SEED

(July 27, 2005) – CRAB FISHERMEN in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are continuing their actions against new crab quotas arbitrarily imposed by the federal government.

For much of the day on June 26 Nova Scotia snow crab fishermen used some 30 of their boats to block access to North Sydney harbour, shutting down ferry service between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Cape Breton. They took the action in opposition to recent federal government changes to crab quotas which have affected crab fisherman throughout the maritime region. The blockade was timed to coincide with a visit to Cape Breton of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Geoff Regan, who was there for a golf tournament.

Crab fishermen have been demanding to meet with the Fisheries Minister since May, when the quotas were imposed, and that he explain why their crab quotas were cut back by 20 per cent. One of the fisherman involved in the blockade, explaining the devastating impact of the cuts to fishermen’s livelihoods stated, “I was allowed 40,000 pounds last year, now I’m down to 16,000 pounds.”

The fisherman ended their blockade late in the day, giving the Fisheries Minister 48 hours to respond to their request.

Since then they blocked a cruise ship, threatened to block U.S. gypsum ships in the Big Bras d’Or Channel, and picketed the Coast Guard College.

Some fish plants also organized events to protest against a 20-per-cent cut in the total allowable catch off the coast of eastern Cape Breton.

Regan at first arrogantly refused to meet with the fishermen, dismissing their just request to discuss the implications of these changes on their livelihood by accusing them of greed: “This is a small group of fishermen who want more quotas. The only way to do that is either by increasing the overall quota or by taking it from someone else, and neither is possible.”

Far from the federal government dealing with the just concerns of the fisherman, Regan treated the issue as one of “law and order,” warning the fishermen that a Halifax court had issued an injunction against them. A spokesman for Marine Atlantic, the federal crown corporation applying for the injunction, threatened that fishermen would be met by the RCMP and face charges of contempt of court if they continue their blockade.

Regan has since capitulated, agreeing to meet the fishermen on July 27 – not on the island but in Dartmouth at DFO headquarters, a five-hour drive from Sydney – while at the same time insisting there will be no change.

“There’s no need of us having to travel to Dartmouth. He can fly over the country for other people. Why can’t he fly?” said a fisherman.

The Atlantic snow crab fishery grew from a bycatch fishery in the early 1960s replacing cod in Newfoundland and part of Nova Scotia as well as New Brunswick and Quebec as king of the hill.

In November 2004 then DFO Minister Robert Thibeault ordered the Fisheries Resource Council of Canada, a government-monopoly group, to develop a “long-term conservation strategy” modeled on an Atlantic Lobster strategy from 1995. A period of “consultations” with stakeholders’ followed. The main aim was to “reduce fishing capacity of a fleet-by-fleet, area-by-area basis” – the basic DFO policy which calls for the concentration of harvesting and production in fewer and fewer hands, the policy of monopolization primarily responsible for the collapse of the Atlantic ground fishery in the first place. As a consequence, Newfoundland alone lost 40,000 people – 12 per cent of its population – since the cod moratorium 14 years ago.

As the main instrument of its policy, DFO started introducing some 10 years ago the mechanism of “individual transferable quotas.” It corporatized and privatized the ocean commons, granting quotas – not on the traditional basis – but on the basis of capacity to wipe out the smaller producers who were forced to “transfer” their quotas to the bigger operators. It also aimed to split the fighting resistance of the fishermen; the snow crab fishermen within the Gulf of St. Lawrence were heavily pressured to buy into the ITQ scheme hook, line and sinker in “partnership” with DFO and the big processors as equal “stakeholders.”

What the experience of Newfoundland showed was that the province tried to concentrate production quotas amongst plants so as to force crab fishermen to sell their catch at a lower price and in this way reduced capacity on the water.

The Minister of Fisheries and Herb Clarke, the head of Association of Seafood Producers, admitted that this system of “rationalization” was about eliminating plants and jobs. Such was the aim of the “partnership.” Their project – called a “raw materials sharing plan” – meant that crab prices would be determined by an audit firm and that a cap would be placed on the amount producers can process.

The fishermen were totally opposed to granting individual processing plants a set percentage of the catch, saying it put all the power in the hands of the processing companies. The Danny Williams government had promised a full debate on its plan for more than a year but, in March 2005, it announced that it would impose it in the form of a two-year pilot project, in spite of the opposition of the fishermen and the plant workers.

Throughout the spring, over 5,000 fishermen and plant workers fought against the plan, blocking the giant multinational oil tankers from entering Placentia Bay to the Come-by-Chance oil refinery on April 20, shutting down St. John’s harbour on April 26, 27 and May 1, and holding mass demonstrations on March 9 and again on May 2 at the Confederation government against the plan. Some bigger boats left for Nova Scotia to land crab as a sign of protest against the government PQ regime.

On May 10, Premier Williams announced that Richard Cashin, former president of Fish, Food and Allied Workers/Canadian Auto Workers and a parliamentary secretary in the Trudeau government, would lead an independent committee to review the government’s pilot project. Premier Williams said his government had passed over the decision-making on this matter to Cashin.

On May 19 harvesters voted 73.6 per cent to go fishing and fight any further attempt to implement production quotas.

Nevertheless, the fisheries crisis has continued to deepen in Newfoundland this summer.

Early closures have drastically affected crab harvesters in several areas, as well as crab plant workers.

An arbitration decision on summer shrimp prices – selecting the final offer of shrimp processors which sets the summer price for shrimp at 5 cents a pound below last summer’s prices – will likely throw 3,000-4,000 people out of work.

Skyrocketing fuel costs and the fluctuations in the Canadian dollar of an export-dependent fishery are also adversely affecting the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and plant workers.

Source: TML Daily, July 27, 2005 – No. 128

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