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Thursday 4 August 2011

Fishery Reform

Here we go. Delving into one of the public policy areas in NL that has always been an issue but yet never seems to make it into the forefront of media or political attention for any longer then a few days, despite efforts by harvesters, processors and the FFAW. Lets get one thing out of the way up front. I am no expert on the fishery. Frankly the closest I've been to the industry is the fact that my mother worked in the Charleston fish plant until 1992. And the second point to make here is that I'll be talking about the "wild" or traditional fishery and not fish farming or aquaculture. Aquaculture is a great addition to the overall industry in the province but it is currently a small sector of a very large industry. And so off we go...

Pointing the Finger
The industry is in near shambles. Thats one of the few things everyone seems to agree on. The other thing generally agreed upon is that it's someone else's fault. Some say DFO or Canada in general, many say foreign fishing fleets who have "raped" the resource for years. Many a politician have waved a pointed finger at those who are to blame for taking our birthright. The most recent is NDP MP Ryan Cleary. Cleary has built his career on fighting for answers on "who's to blame" for the fishery. Go read his blog at Fisherman's Road and you'll see that he does raise some good questions and he certainly uses strong language, like "serial rapists." Since becoming an MP he's been fighting to have an inquiry into the collapse of the fishery with no real success to date. While I respect his passion and drive for answers I don't share his need to blame someone. There's plenty of blame to go around and everyone knows it. If we're going to move on and rebuild a successful industry we need to focus our efforts on new ideas and not on pointing fingers.

The MOU Released back in February was an interesting document. Despite what the cover says it dealt mostly with rationalization and not restructuring. It would have made a good starting point to actually make some change in an industry that is collapsing under it's own weight. Sure, not everyone agreed with all the recommendations, but it could have been a jumping off point for discussion for real change. Unfortunately the current administration and Fisheries Minister completely washed their hands of it as soon as they released it. It was literally dead in the water, immediately. The report suggested investment of about $400 million to help scale down the harvesting and processing operations through buyouts and retirements so that the remaining operations could be more competitive and successful. It also suggested the creation of a joint marketing approach for the industry as a whole, but more about that in a second.

This MOU was ground breaking for two reasons. First, because it actually pointed a way forward, and made specific suggestions for a new direction to take. It was also unique because of the process involved in developing the document. This was a collaborative effort that included various sectors of the industry, the union, harvesters and processors. That doesn't happen very often and the result should have been given proper respect and attention and not dispelled without proper consideration.

Fast forward five months and apparently the Minister has had a change of heart, kind of. See here that they are now ready to implement the marketing recommendation that they completely dismissed back in February. Im sure that wouldn't have anything to do with the coming election.....Nah.

New Starting Point & New Ideas
So how do we move forward with new ideas in an industry so steeped in lore, myth, politics and history? We have to design a system from the bottom up that can deliver a high quality product while maintaining long term economic sustainability for those engaged in harvesting and processing. To quote the conclusion of the MOU:
"We must achieve vertical integration (or, at least, an integrated industry approach to resource utilization and market development), advance technology, enhance quality and focus on other related initiatives that ensure that our product is easily differentiated from those of our competitors and in demand by highly valued long-term customers."

The MOU would have been a good launching point but it is already getting stale and collecting dust following a late release to the public and being ignored for five months. Seeing the success in preparation of the MOU points to the ability of the various players in the industry to work together. It shows just how much the industry is crying out for change. Perhaps the starting point is a discussion by those involved. Maybe a fisheries forum or symposium that would give all the players an opportunity to hammer out an approach together. It would need to be strictly moderated to ensure not too much time is spent pointing fingers, but instead the focus is on possible solutions. It would be complicated and messy, but it would be a start.

Maybe they would come up with ideas for a complete regulatory review to cut back the red tape and streamline the systems? Maybe they would talk about a possible auction system for landed catches as mentioned over at The Robert Bond Papers? The point is that we need the vision to develop new ideas and the political fortitude to begin a process of change that is badly needed.

The Key to Success
So how do we ensure that this process has public buy in and is successful? We would have to do something unique, unusual and rare. We have to engage fishermen. Overall processing operations and the union are vital to the discussions but if this process is to move forward in any successful manner it MUST INVOLVE FISHERMEN!!!!!!

Lets hope that the industry that this province was founded on gets the attention it deserves before it dies a slow and painful death.

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