Politics rules the Atlantic fishery

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The young crab fisherman from St. Paul's River on the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence where it rolls against the province of Quebec was on the radio, speaking to a national audience from this little known region of the country. He was asked what he would do if he defied minister of fisheries and oceans Robert Thibault's total ban on crab fishing in district 16A, and DFO officers came after him.

There was a long pause after the question. “Well, I guess the way things are, I'll be better off on the bottom of 16A as far as being any good to my family,” said Jody Chevalier.

There was desperation in his voice. No wonder. Jody Chevalier was writing his own epitaph and perhaps an epitaph for the East Coast fishing industry as well.

And that's the nub of it: desperation. Desperation in the remote communities of Newfoundland and Labrador, and on the Quebec shore; in Shippagan and Rustico and all the other ports where minister Thibault, making what he insists on calling “a difficult decision” has declared the fishery dead.

Despair breeds desperate men ready to do desperate things.

In St Paul's River, where houses and boats are being foreclosed, a fisherman declares his intention to literally fight to the death for his right to provide a living for his family.

In Shippagan, New Brunswick, frustrated crab fishermen burn boats and a fish plant. The decision that sent these men over the top? The allowable catch was cut, and then, Thibault declared the reduced catch was to be shared by more fishermen — native fishermen and inshore fishermen driven off the water by the new ban on cod.

In the lobster ports of Prince Edward Island, fishermen shake their heads at the numbers of cod showing up in their lobster traps. Now, instead of looking forward to a couple of months working at earning a living, charter-boat skippers and their crews will be able to go to the beach with the tourists they would normally take out to catch a cod for supper.

And in Newfoundland, the province whose very essence comes from the codfish, Premier Roger Grimes is in full scale revolt against the Government of Canada. As an opening salvo, Grimes declared his government would not aid and abet any federal government prosecution against Newfoundlanders who violated Thibault's edict and went codfishing.

That tended to get the attention of the Feds and the national press, both of whom tut-tutted the Premier for seeming to encourage law-breaking. Then Grimes moved onto a political front in his incipient war with Ottawa. His case is quite simple: you guys have destroyed a priceless resource over the past 50 years; now we want a share in the management of whatever is left.

Were Ottawa to accede to Grimes' demand, he would envelop the country in yet another national debate based on the dreaded C-word — the Constitution — seeking a shared management plan with the federal government.

To many observers of the Atlantic fishery, these latest developments confirm what has been the general belief: the mis-management of the Atlantic fishery by the federal government is profound and absolute; and that Thibault is in deep political trouble for the role he has played in the current uproar.

DFO management is at essence dysfunctional — because managing the fishery, really means managing the fishers, those who seek their livelihood from a constantly diminishing resource, and there is nothing “scientific” about managing the people.

As it turns out, there is nothing very “scientific” about the way DFO manages the fishes, either. What it does is try to count the fishes swimming in any particular part of the ocean at any given time. To do that, it does what every other fisherman does — it goes fishing. Boats under DFO charter, haul fish out of the water. Then DFO counts the fish and mathematically projects how many more there might be down there in the depths.

From that mathematical exercise, and some other observations on the age of the fish and their general condition, it advises the minister of the day, on what he should do.

But the reality is that DFO “science” fails to provide answers to the important questions — for example: why are the fish dying off before they are mature enough to spawn? So, if you can't really manage the fishes, because you just don't know what's happening to them in the depths, the safest advice you can give is — take the fishermen off the water.

Now we are managing people, and now the issues become political, and it turns out that DFO is no better at managing people than it is at managing fishes. In fact, DFO's attempts to manage people are more difficult, since it has no credibility with those people it is attempting to manage.

The people they are trying to manage do not want make-work schemes, useless training for non-existent jobs or more time on the pogey. They want to fish. They want to earn a living for their families. They want their pride intact. They want to keep the communities they know because that's where they want to live. They believe they have a right to these things because they are Canadian.

The people are convinced of only one thing: that DFO has been unable to manage the fishes, and that it doesn't care about the people. The logic is understandable — that if DFO knew how to manage the fishes, the people wouldn't be in the fix DFO now has placed them.

The fracas over crab fishing in Shippagan is instructive. By 1989, DFO had given up on trying to manage the crab fishery. The stock was in a state of collapse. The so-called eight “crab lords” took over. They imposed their own code, their own limitations of catches. They managed the stock back into one of the most lucrative fisheries on the Atlantic coast, and became millionaires in the process, as well as providing employment for hundreds of people on the Acadian peninsula of New Brunswick.

Now they are boycotting the crab season, refusing to send their boats to the fishing grounds. They say they will sit out the season, rather than obey DFO regulations and accept the cut in the crab catch, to be shared by more fishermen. That, they say, makes no sense at all.

They believe the minister's decision has nothing to do with “science” and a lot to do with politics.

The crab fishermen consider the crab fishery to be theirs. They brought it back after DFO gave up. They say they have proven themselves. They want to decide what the allowable catch should be. They don't want interference from a government department they don't trust and have no respect for.

Robert Thibault took the advice of his DFO boffins over the advice of his own conservation council, fishermen, and a symposium of scientists and closed the northern cod fishery and the Gulf of St. Lawrence fishery.

He took their advice again over the considered opinion of the crab fishermen who have a multi-million dollar vested interest in preserving the fishery they themselves revived.

And as a direct result, Jody Chevalier of St Paul's River, a Canadian and a fisherman, contemplates himself on the bottom of the ocean in District 16A because being shot dead by the DFO police for defending his rights is more honourable than facing destitution with his family.

There must be a better way.

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