COLUMN

Freeing the fish from the government net

‘Who are we saving fish for? In winter they go to the United States. Why save fish for the Americans? They do not save them for us.’

DIANE FRANCIS May 6 1991
COLUMN

Freeing the fish from the government net

‘Who are we saving fish for? In winter they go to the United States. Why save fish for the Americans? They do not save them for us.’

DIANE FRANCIS May 6 1991

Freeing the fish from the government net

COLUMN

DIANE FRANCIS

Personal fortunes in Canada’s Atlantic provinces are few, far between and mostly inherited. A prominent exception is John Risley, the 42-year-old proprietor of Clearwater Fine Foods Inc. in Bedford, N.S. Risley is a successful entrepreneur who says that “hard work” allowed him to parlay a seafood retail outlet he opened in 1976 with $15,000 in borrowed money into a $125-million-a-year seafood conglomerate with 2,200 workers. Clearwater makes money, but the same cannot be said of others in the fishing business who are, like the rest of us, overgoverned, overtaxed and increasingly overwrought. Atlantic fishing is undergoing a serious shakeout as plants close and fishermen go bust. Worse yet, even where there is work, unemployment insurance benefits reduce manpower availability as workers routinely quit after they have racked up the required weeks’ worth of employ. Says Risley: “Some 40 per cent of our seasonal workers stay 10 weeks, qualify for UIC and go. They believe it’s their God-given right to live off UIC for one year. It’s very sad.”

Besides a poor work ethic, an even greater problem is overregulation. To make his point, Risley says that the total value of the catch in the Atlantic provinces is $900 million a year, about $140 million more than the size of the federal department of fishery’s budget. Civil servants do everything from determining how much fish should be caught in a year, and by whom, to decreeing net sizes and handing out export permits. In 1990, there were 61,356 fulland part-time fishermen in the Atlantic region (including Quebec), who earned considerably less money than the 6,750 federal and provincial civil servants whose jobs make these fishermen’s lives more complicated. Ottawa’s fishery department alone employs 6,000 people. Of course, to be fair, the federal fishing cops also mind the business of another 28,597 registered fishermen in the Pacific and inland regions. Across Canada, there is about one fishing cop for every 13 fishermen. If that many

‘Who are we saving fish for? In winter they go to the United States. Why save fish for the Americans? They do not save them for us.’

policemen policed the Canadian population, we would have about two million cops, instead of the 55,000 we do have.

Concern about overfishing, or depleting the resource, has led to a federal catch-quota system, meted out boat by boat, and a licensing system to limit the number of fishermen. But while Risley and others agree with the principle of conservation, they say that bureaucrats have botched it by not doing their homework properly. From 1985 until 1990, the federal fisheries department says, the number of boats and fishermen in Atlantic Canada increased marginally, while the quota shrank by 19 per cent. In essence, more players wanted a piece of a shrinking market with predictable results. “Now the average fisherman makes $9,000 a year and supplements his living with unemployment insurance benefits,” says Henry Demone, president of National Sea Products Ltd. “Isn’t it better to have one-third as many fishing, but earning $27,000 a year?”

Independent fisherman Daniel LeBlanc, whose family company, DISA Fisheries Inc., operates out of Meteghan in southwestern Nova Scotia, exemplifies the problems facing many small operators. LeBlanc, 29, has fished with his father since he was 12 years old. Now

he owns a $l-million, 65-foot dragger and says that he is unable to make a living from the meagre quotas he has been given. To make ends meet, he leases out his boat to others who have not filled their quotas. “My quota is 265,000 lb. [a year], and on that I make an average of 40 cents a pound. That’s a gross of $106,000,” says LeBlanc. “I can get that quota in two four-day trips with four men on board. The rest of the time, I lease out my boat.” LeBlanc adds that Ottawa’s quotas are too low. “They don’t have a clue how much fish is out there,” he claims. “They go in June, the wrong time of the year. They measure the wrong depths. For four years I’ve offered to let them come aboard my vessel, but they don’t want to come so they don’t see how much fish is out there.”

Sometimes regulation reaches comic proportions. Says LeBlanc: “One year, they stopped us fishing the Georges Bank because the fish were too big. They said, ‘You cannot take the mothers because there will be no babies, and there will be no fish next year.’ So next year we went back, and they stopped us again because we couldn’t find big ones, only small fish. I said to them, ‘Please explain to our nets which kinds of fish should go into our trawls.’ It’s just ridiculous.”

National Sea’s Demone echoes the same concerns about the regulators’ quota-measuring methods. “For instance,” he says, “cod like l°-to-4° water, and they do a stock survey in November when the water may be too cold for cod. So they catch very few and set a low quota because they say there are no fish there. But there are fish. Just not there [at the time of measurement] because the water’s too cold.” Ottawa should adopt measuring techniques used by other countries, notably the United States, where commercial intelligence is used to establish quotas. And quotas should not be meted out. Once an overall quota is set, the fishermen should be free to compete for the catch. Concerns that the little guy, or inshore fisherman, will be beaten by the big, offshore licensees are ill-founded, says LeBlanc, an inshore fisherman. “There should be one big quota, and let everyone go at it,” he adds. “In the old days, there were complaints about too many boats, and stocks went down. But then the bad fishermen got out of the business. Now it looks like even good ones will get out of it— not because they cannot fish, but because of government regulation. Who are we saving fish for? We fish 30 miles from the American borderline, and in winter the fish go to the United States. Why save fish for the Americans? They don’t save them for us.”

The situation is tragic because Canada’s Atlantic fishing region is second only to Alaska’s in value of the catch, and yet bureaucrats have turned it into a gigantic job-share scheme at great expense to other taxpayers. Clearly, the industry must be partially deregulated and bloated bureaucracies trimmed at the same time. Anything less will perpetuate a system of government handouts and industry hardship. Unless conditions improve, the only ones in fishing who will continue to land a whopper will be empire-building bureaucracies.