If there’s a future for the old, rugged-individualist style of East Coast fisherman, it belongs to Stan Purdy and his sons. A lifetime of getting up before dawn to tend the nets, along with a careful eye for the best prices for his catch, have enabled the 53-year-old Purdy to build up, piece by piece, an investment in his 32-foot boat and gear of close to $100,000. Born on an island in Halifax harbor and operating now out of Eastern Passage, across the water from Halifax, Purdy has lived all his life on the sea and the plan has always been that one of his five sons would continue the operation the same way — independently. But times are changing and Purdy is beginning to doubt that cunning and hard work alone are still enough. “It’s reached the stage now where if you don’t work as a body, you’re either going to be drug up by the
draggers [big trawlers] and the offshore men and the big processing plants, or the government is going to put so many restrictions on you that they’re going to put you out of business.”
When such go-it-aloners as Stan Purdy start talking of organizing, then life is indeed getting rough among the 15,000-odd independent inshore operators working full-time along Canada’s East Coast. And ironically, the independents are getting the squeeze just as things are looking up for the Atlantic fishery as a whole. It’s been a good year; empty Gravol (seasickness medicine) packages down on the
Yarmouth docks testify that even queasy landsmen are being enticed into the choppy waters of the Gulf of Maine. The bonanza is in the little silvery herring, and not because catches are great—in fact, stocks may never recover to the levels of the 1960s when governments and industry assumed they were unlimited—but because prices have shot up.
The 40 or so boat owners forming the Atlantic Herring Fishermen’s Marketing Co-Operative will gross well over $ 100,000 each for the four-month season, and benefits will spill over to the hundreds of smaller operators, such as Purdy, who normally look to lobster for the biggest part of their income. The upturn began even before Canada’s 200-mile fishing zone went into effect last January. Drastic cutbacks in internationally agreed quotas forced European fleets out of the area last year and. with North Sea herring stocks exhausted, Europeans turned to buying a share of the catch from Canadians. To ensure that the fishermen themselves, rather than the processors, profited from the new conditions, the federal fisheries minister, Roméo
LeBlanc, gave the fledgling herring co-op a unique license to sell raw herring to Polish trawlers offshore. The Poles were willing to pay triple the going price and the license became a lever the co-op could use to force up the return on the rest of the catch. Even though the arrangement isn’t likely to be renewed for a third year—the processers say it’s putting onshore workers out of work—the whole episode has established what can happen when fishermen organize to gain control of their markets.
Now, with the 200-mile zone in place, Ottawa wants to see the success story repeated with other groups of fishermen. Says Fernand Doucet, a Nova Scotia Acadian who has been one of LeBlanc’s closest advisers: “The greatest danger is that the benefits (of the extended limits) will disappear into a few large processors’ pockets.”
But the trouble facing would-be organizers is that probably no industry is more diverse than the East Coast fishery. First, there’s the antagonism between the big offshore trawler fleets and the inshore independents. But among the inshore operators themselves, there are many major distinctions based on region, income, gear, species caught, length of season and size of boat. The past decade has seen the growth of the Newfoundland Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers union which, largely due to the organizing skills of former MP Richard Cashin, now represents most of the people involved in the industry in that province. And even in Nova Scotia, where the tradition of independence, of every man for himself, has been harder to crack, fishermen are beginning to question their old assumptions. A complicated business association this year involving the two biggest offshore fishing companies—National Sea Products and H. B. Nickerson and Sons—is the kind of development that’s encouraging the inshore fishermen to look to their defenses.
Support for a union is minimal; the 3,000-member United Maritime Fisherman’s Co-Operative, which dates back to the hard times of the 1920s, is hampered by lack of capital. More attention is focusing on the goal of a single, province-wide association. With such men as Purdy saying they can’t think of themselves as independent any more, it’s obvious that change is coming. The question remains: what form it will take? IAN PORTER
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