Earl Johnson folds his hands on the table and glances out his kitchen window towards the waters he has fished since he was a young boy. The 47-year-old native of North Harbour, Nfld., has just been asked where he will be next spring if the federal government refuses to either lift a five-year-old ban on cod fishing or extend the income assistance and retraining program known as TAGS (The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy), which is due to expire in May. “Probably in jail,” he responds. Noting that cod have recently appeared in abundant numbers in the waters hugging Newfoundland’s coastline, Johnson warns that Ottawa is flirting with a potential rebellion at sea, with fishermen prepared to flout the law—and suffer the consequences. “People are not going to sit back and watch the fish swimming by the wharf,” he says. “If fish is there to catch, they are going to catch it.” Slender, balding and unflaggingly polite, Johnson does not fit the popular image of a firebrand. And he is far from alone in expressing impatience and anger with the way the federal government has handled the fisheries crisis. As the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans toured nearly a dozen coastal communities in Atlantic Canada last week, thousands of fishermen pressed into parish halls and community centres to vent their outrage. Wilfred Williams, a fisherman from New Harbour, Nfld., told the committee how he
had to spend the money he had set aside for his children’s education just to feed his family. Another inshore fisherman, Don Drew, won loud cheers from a crowd of about 500 in Tors Cove, Nfld., by declaring: “When the funding is over, in our eyes the moratorium is over—and we’re going fishing.”
The most immediate concern among East Coast fishermen and fish plant workers is that their TAGS payments—averaging about $300 per week—will cease in May, 1998. That is a full year earlier than had been envisioned when the program began in May, 1994, almost two years after the cod moratorium was announced. The main reason for the stepped-up deadline is that Ottawa badly underestimated the number of unemployed fisheries workers eligible for payments— 40,000 people qualified for assistance, rather than the projected 26,000. Meeting that demand meant the $1.9 billion allocated for the TAGS program was used up more quickly. In October, federal Human Resources Development Minister Pierre Pettigrew, whose department administers TAGS, appointed a senior official to examine the impact that an early end to TAGS would have on recipients. Until that review is complete, likely by the end of the year, Ottawa is refusing to spell out what, if anything, will replace TAGS.
But the passions on display throughout
Atlantic Canada last week—and especially in Newfoundland, where 75 per cent of TAGS recipients reside—were aroused by much more than the uncertain future of a single government program. Those displaced by the cod moratorium deeply resent what they see as Ottawa’s mismanagement of the fisheries. While many factors have contributed to the collapse of the once-plentiful East Coast cod stocks—including an explosion in the cod-eating seal population—the one that most irks the region’s inshore fishermen is the way the federal government allowed the stocks to be ravaged for decades through overfishing by both Canadian and foreign offshore trawlers and draggers. As Johnson puts it: “What those ships did over the years was a massacre.”
There have been further irritants since the moratorium took effect in July, 1992. As Ottawa stepped up its efforts to enforce the ban on Canadian fishermen, foreign vessels were still allowed to ply the waters within Canada’s 200-mile offshore fishing zone. While those boats sought species such as squid and turbot, they were also permitted to keep small amounts of cod caught in the process. George Baker, the independent-minded Liberal MP from the riding of Gander/Grand Falls, says the situation proved especially galling this fall, after Ottawa announced that in some parts of Newfoundland it was even shutting down the food fishery, which had allowed residents to fish a modest number of cod to feed their families. “Can you blame people for being angry?” says Baker, who is also chairman of the Commons fisheries committee. “Here we are paying people to stay at home or, worse yet, putting them in jail for doing something that those foreign crews are doing.”
Even more upsetting for many fishermen is the fact that, over the past couple of years, cod have been showing up in much greater numbers near the shores of their communities. This, in turn, has led to demands that the fishery be reopened, at least on a limited basis. Ottawa did just that this spring along the south coast of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where surveys indicate that the cod are making a comeback. But in an interview with Maclean’s last week, Fisheries and Oceans Minister David Anderson said overall cod stocks remain at such low levels that any broader opening of the fishery
is unthinkable at this time. “I would be delighted to go out and announce openings,” he said. “But if I gave in to immediate political pressures, fishers would lose their respect for me, and quite rightly so.”
George Rose, a fisheries scientist at Memorial University in St. John’s, believes Anderson has chosen a prudent approach. While fishermen are correctly reporting large numbers of cod inshore, Rose says the fish remain scarce in offshore waters—where they traditionally spawn. Still, says Rose, “you have to put yourself in the position of the fishermen. If they can’t make a living any other way and are sitting there watching all these fish go by, it’s got to be an impossible situation.” And, some in Ottawa clearly fear, a potentially explosive one. An internal memo from the human resources department, recently made public by the NDP, outlined plans to spend $350,000 to produce a training video and other materials to help district managers cope with “potentially serious, life-threatening situations” once the TAGS program expires. The memo said some staffers had already reacted to recent fisheries protests and occupations of federal buildings by obtaining unlisted home phone numbers and leaving their offices only in groups after dark. The suggestion that fishermen somehow posed a threat to federal employees drew a sharp rebuke from East Coast political leaders, prompting Pettigrew to agree last week that the document was “inappropriately worded.” Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin was among those who took offence at the leaked memo. “A violent response,” Tobin told Maclean’s, “is not in keeping with the character of the people here.” But Tobin, who was federal fisheries minister when TAGS was introduced, says Ottawa has a continuing obligation towards those who lost their jobs due to the cod moratorium. He adds that any post-TAGS assistance must include incentives for people to leave the fishery through measures such as retraining, early retirement and buying back of fish licences.
Of course, those were precisely the things that TAGS was intended to do. But as outlined in a scathing review of the program issued by Auditor General Denis Desautels in October, TAGS has failed on most scores. With so many people qualifying for assistance, money earmarked for training and buyouts quickly got shifted into straight income support. The program also met with stiff resistance from fishery workers unwilling to give up the only life they had known, or who felt they were too old to be retrained. Asked if he thinks taxpayers are willing to pour billions more into the troubled fishery, Tobin suggests they have little choice. “The federal government mismanaged the fishery horribly,” he says. “The result is that thousands of people were displaced. Can Ottawa then wipe its hands and say, ‘Well, that’s that?’ ” Tobin, like many other Atlantic Canadians, is obviously hoping for a more generous response. □
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