[LITTLE BRAS D'OR, NS] — Local fishermen are preparing for the fight of their lives.
Concerns over how the Atlantic fishery could be managed in the future were brought to the attention of Sydney-Victoria MP Mark Eyking during a town hall meeting Wednesday at the Bras d’Or Hall.
“It looks like the direction they are heading is going to turn fishermen back into people working for others, as opposed to people working as independent operators, owning and running their own businesses. That’s our biggest fear,” said Maritime Fishermen’s Union Local 6 president Kevin Squires.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced in January it was embarking on a discussion of changes to the Atlantic fishery and gave groups in the industry six weeks to respond. The initial Feb. 29 deadline was extended to March 14.
The fishermen say there was not enough consultation.
“DFO has done a terrible job of getting the word out. It is almost like they are trying to slide something by. It would be much simpler for them with fewer people hearing about it,” Squires said.
Atlantic fishermen are concerned government will employ a model now used on the West Coast in which licenses and quotas can be purchased by processing companies and other entities that could then lease them back to fishermen for up to 75 per cent the value of their catch.
The consensus of the fishermen in attendance is they want DFO to extend and improve the consultation process.
“The minister has been going around saying that he has been talking to hundreds of fishermen. I’d like to know who they are,” said Squires. “The (Maritime Fisheries Union) convention is coming up on the weekend. Here is an opportunity for him to come and talk to one of the larger organizations of inshore fishermen and he is refusing to do that. It really takes your faith away that they have good intent.”
Squires said the annual convention is in New Brunswick, Ashfield’s home province.
“He was invited almost a year ago and he’s not coming. He is looking to hear the views of fishermen and he isn’t showing up to talk to us. You can see why we are really concerned and worried.”
Squires is a part of a group already lobbying on this issue that is trying to set up a meeting with the fisheries minister.
“With respect to the owner operators policy and fleet separation, the group is willing to sit down formally with DFO for a policy conference and see how we go forward, it would be good if it was legislation as opposed to just being a policy,” Squires said. “We need to update the way the fisheries operates, we are in total agreement. We don’t want it forced down our throats by a bunch of operators who don’t understand and don’t have our interests at heart.”
The fishermen feel that this is now a political fight.
“We have to appeal on the politics, the logic just doesn’t work. The logic basis for someone with a corporate perspective on the fishery, the fewer people they have to deal with, and the more they got individually the better off they are and that’s where it is going,” Squires said. “Unfortunately in Atlantic Canada we don’t have a lot of sitting members, we don’t have many who will speak out on our behalf. Individually, we have to put pressure on whomever we can and make some noise. If we can appeal to our friends, neighbours and relatives in Ontario or Alberta, and B.C. where there are more votes, we’ve got to do that as well. We’ve got to put pressure on to slow this down.”
Veteran lobster fishermen Colin Dandy said if DFO does away with fleet separation and owner operator policy, it will be ruin the East Coast fishery.
“It will be like the West Coast. We will be working for the large corporations and if we’re lucky we’ll have a job fishing and they can dictate to us what they will give us.”
Dandy said fishermen in lobster fishing Area 27 have done more than their share to protect the fishery.
“We have to get as vocal as possible in order to save our coastal communities.”
Eyking plans to brings the concerns of the fishermen to Ottawa.
“What I’m hearing today is that these fishers are not only concerned about the lack of consultations, their biggest fear is that the minister may be allowing corporations to take over the inshore fishery,” said Eyking. “It is unbelievable, with so many livelihoods at stake that proper consultations have not taken place. If the changes happen, this will destroy many small rural communities in Cape Breton and Atlantic Canada. When I return to Ottawa next week, I’m going to press Minister Ashfield to come clean on his intentions.”
According to Victoria County Deputy Warden Fraser Patterson, who attended Wednesdays meeting along with Dist. 4 councillor Merrill MacInnis, the fishery is a major industry in Victoria County.
Victoria County council has written to Ashfield requesting information on the current policy and what, if any, changes are being considered.
Council has also requested that adequate funds be allocated for local fishery representatives to continue to carry out necessary and valuable research on the fishery.