As has been widely reported, the Conservative government is considering the removal of DFO's fleet separation and owner-operator policies.
These policies were implemented by former Fisheries Minister, Romeo LeBlanc, as a means to preserve the independence of the inshore and mid-shore fisheries on Canada's east coast. The fleet separation policy prevents a company from both catching and processing seafood, while the owner-operator policy means that the person who holds the fishing license must be the one to catch the fish.
Some of those with current or former vested interests in the corporate sector or large processing companies have lately been writing letters and articles on the importance of removing these policies and how reforms such as Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) have achieved impressive success. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Fisheries management policies such as ITQs are extremely harmful to fishermen, employment, economic development, and coastal communities. They may boost the bottom line of large processors and investors but they do irreparable damage to fishermen and the communities in which they live, as has been proven in jurisdictions such as British Columbia, New Zealand, and Iceland, among others.
ITQ systems have been shown to maximize individual profits, but certainly not for fishermen. Rather, absentee investors, owners of the quota, and processing companies see a jump in profits while captains and crew see a significant decline in employment and income.
ITQs allow the holder of the quota to catch or transfer a share of the total allowable catch (TAC) of a species. Most are allowed to be leased or sold to others. By 2006 in the B.C. halibut fishery ITQ system, nearly 80 percent of the TAC was leased out by quota owners - largely absentee investors, wealthy individuals, and companies. Fishing enterprises that lease most of the quota they fish are either barely profitable or not profitable. 70 percent of their income goes to pay for the lease, while the remaining 30% must be divided between overhead costs and salary for the captain and crew. It should be noted that before the ITQ system was put in place, crews received between 10-20 percent of the value of their catch, while that number dropped to 1-5 percent after ITQ.
Under ITQ systems, the number of vessels and jobs in the industry drop significantly, while only the owners of quota see a benefit. There is obviously a very negative impact on fishing communities, as jobs and economic development disappear. Communities become completely dependent on quota owners who have no connection or responsibility to them. The industry becomes centralized and the middle class takes a big hit.
The survival of eastern Canada's coastal communities rests on keeping the fleet separation and owner-operator policies in place and staying away from systems such as ITQs. In an area of the country that already has unacceptably high unemployment rates, over 30,000 jobs would directly be affected by the removal of these policies, not to mention the indirect impacts which would spill out into all other sectors of the local economy. In a recent tour of the Atlantic region I encountered a number of young people who want to stay in their hometowns and get involved in the fishery but the only thing keeping them there is the prospect of one day taking over a fishing enterprise of their own. The thought of making little money working on a corporate vessel will only lead these young people to pick up and leave.
There are better ways to address problems in the Atlantic fisheries. There has to be a concerted approach between all levels of government, full partnerships with fish harvesters and processors, and meaningful input from all affected stakeholders in order to pursue strategic marketing initiatives and rationalization programs to reduce capacity without letting it seep back into the fishery. What is certainly not needed is a top-down approach based on a blind ideological reliance on the free market, which only benefits one sector of the fishery and has devastating effects on local economies and communities.
Member of Parliament for Cardigan, PEI
Liberal Party critic for Fisheries and Oceans