Once upon a time in a previous life, I sat on the board of directors of an art school in Ottawa. Like most arts organizations, the school was chronically underfunded, staggering from one crisis to the next, always scrambling for cash.
Does that sound like any industry you know?
I remember clearly a board meeting which, for me, put into sharp focus how not to manage a financial crisis.
The president of the board stated that expenses for the coming month would exceed income, and something had to be done immediately. He concluded that regrettably he could see no way out. We needed to lay off the part-time janitor. This was a man whose years of frugal management and ability to innovate on a shoestring budget had kept the plumbing and heating in the school functioning and the lights on.
The president of the board was an imposing figure, a lawyer with a growing reputation in one of the capital’s top law firms. His dark, pin-striped suit cost the equivalent of the janitor’s monthly paycheque.
It was a time to take the hard decisions, said the president. At the time, I thought of the wisdom in the observation that those who boast they are taking the hard decisions are usually sitting in the soft seats.
I was reminded of that observation again last week by the immediate reaction when the fisheries M.O.U. was made public.
Fisheries Minister Clyde Jackman refused to take the M.O.U. to cabinet. He insisted that it made no sense to close plants and buy out workers in the fishery for large sums of taxpayers’ money without identifying the shape of the fishery that would be left once they were gone.
The FFAW referred to the Minister’s reaction as “unsettling” and “baffling.”
The seafood producers were initially silent, waiting to see which way the wind would blow. Then they began to grumble.
The CBC, who seem to have lately stumbled upon a windfall supply of funds to ask the public their opinion, brought out a poll that stated 60 per cent of those questioned were in favour of downsizing the fishery versus 25 per cent who thought everything was fine as is. Leave aside the foolishness of assuming those are the only two options available in this very complex problem, it was interesting to me that in all the media flurry over the findings, I heard it stated only once that these poll findings were the result of asking 402 people their opinion.
I live in a tiny village. Those poll findings represent two Salvages.
On the CBC website, which overwhelmingly rehashed the condemnation of the Fisheries Minister for not adopting the M.O.U., the most sensible comment I could find was posted by a person who calls herself Swilergirl:
“The only development that would in any way be positive is a return to the small-boat inshore fishery, recognized worldwide as the most sustainable. Our methods of pursuit and processing are antiquated and counterproductive; mismanagement on both federal and provincial levels along with continued foreign overfishing have left us in a completely untenable situation and without a complete change of direction, the fishery in NL is doomed to failure in just a few short years. We continue, however, to stumble blindly along using larger and larger boats and less and less efficient methods of harvest. Efficiency (doesn’t) mean just catching more, it means catching the right quantity of the right species, with quotas set to maximize sustainability and not simply for the convenience of the processors. Until we can do that consistently, we're just flailing around in the dark.”
Absolutely. But this would require that small boats land their fish near where they swim and allow the people to remain in the towns where the fish are landed, where it seems logical to process them, possibly using fewer expensive machines and larger amounts of human power. A high-end value-added product that will fetch a higher sale price could be the result. Fewer fish would need be taken, thus reducing pressure on the stocks, enabling them to rebound. A marketing strategy aimed at high-end markets and emphasizing the purity of our fish harvested from frigid Newfoundland and Labrador waters would complete the picture. Our people and their offspring could stay in their homes for the forseeable future, long past the day when our current cash cow, oil and gas, dries up. Alas the M.O.U., in its 325 plus page report, among other topics it short-changed, devoted a mere 10 pages to marketing.
Elaborating on that point was MUN sociologist Barbara Neis, the principal investigator with the Community-University Research for Recovery Alliance. This group’s five-year program is looking to develop strategies for the recovery of fish stocks and fisheries communities.
Said Ms. Neis “ I think the problem with this process is that it only focused on downsizing. The M.O.U. is very narrow, and by itself, I am concerned that it could have quite substantial negative consequences, and I’m not convinced it would actually improve the
long-term sustainability of the industry.”
Clyde Jackman has a lot to think about. He has hard choices to take. The chair he is sitting in is not soft. He should take the time he needs and listen to voices whose interest is centered less on personal gain and more on the goal of sustaining this place we call home.