22 July 2005

The damn-fool fishery

This post was originally intended as a simple comment on one posted by Liam O'Brien about Iceland. At the time, I was intending it to be a much long thing, but in hindsight, I don't think it needs to be longer. [I hear people shouting "Shorter. Shorter."]

In light of the nonsense about a start-up to commercial fishing of cod and the ever-present bitching about the so-called food fishery, it actually makes for a timely piece now.

The simple answer on fish is that we are our own worst enemies. People like Jim Morgan, spouting utter tripe, get media coverage and manage to organize enough political pressure to get people to do things that make no sense. Like fishing at all a fish population that by any measure sits at far less in total than the amount of fish we were allowed to harvest in 1991.

The formula is simple for sensible people: There are no fish; therefore stop fishing. We call it conservation.

For the crowd calling for a food fishery - or as I like to call it the damn-fool fishery - the formula is: there are only a few fish; therefore for the sake of conserving the stock let us fish all but the last one, and make sure that if any are caught they are caught by someone from Newfoundland.

Let's hope that the federal fisheries department will keep making its policy choices rather than listen to the damn fools in this province who continually attack it.

Anyway, here's the piece for Liam -

Liam O'Brien's rejoinder to my post about Iceland went up a couple of days ago. It is worth having a look at if only for the intensity of Liam's presentation.

Liam claims toward the end of his piece: "I think I know why Ed's decided to go so hard against the Iceland comparison."

Actually I don't go hard against the Iceland comparison. I endorse the Iceland model and wish its substance would be employed here.

Iceland is a very useful object lesson, as I attempted to point out, if only people would look hard at the two places in the 1940s and again today and see with their eyes fully open what it is that has made the difference between the two places. The difference is not independence.

In his lengthy reposte to me, though, Liam actually proves my point. Each of the fisheries quotes he tosses up were not about anything other than preserving antiquated and outmoded fishing methods well after Confederation. Numerous inquiries and commissions in the years after Confederation had recommended changes; the changes were resisted tooth and nail.

The quotes Liam tosses up about trawlers in the late 1960s were arguments against a technology which we had ignored and which was proving to be infinitely more successful than the small boat operations which persisted in the province until relatively recently. This is a point I noted in "All trout live in trees" and it is worth restating. The industry in the province at the time of Confederation and for decades afterward steadfastly resisted attempts to turn the fishery into a modern, thriving business. By the 1980s, the government in power deliberately stuffed ever more people into the fishery such that no fish plant work or small boat fisherman could earn a decent living from labour alone. The fishery could only survive by massive social welfare programs and became itself a massive welfare system. Even today, fully 89% of fishplant workers make a meagre $16, 000 or less from their labour.

This dole was not foisted on the people of this province by some evil design of the minions in Ottawa. The inability to earn a living wage from the fishery was not a plot by central Canada to have someone else catch our fish.

People could not earn a living from the fishery simply because there were too many people attempting to suck a wage from a resource which even at its peak could never have delivered a living wage to the tens of thousands working in it. When the federal government realized in the early 1950s there was little chance of making significant changes for the good in the fishery in this province, it resorted instead to improving living standards by income supports. As decades passed, dependence on social programs grew and the willingness to change the character of the fishery dwindled. The fishery has become less business and livelihood and ever increasing amounts of myth.

The fishery as it stands today is a testament to choices made by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians directly and through their provincial and federal governments. The federal government's fisheries policy is the result of many factors but it is too convenient to ignore the role which fishing and other interests from this province have played in setting Canada's fisheries policy in Newfoundland and Labrador.

If we need any proof that these damn-fool ideas persist and have influence, one need only listen to the radio call-in shows, examine the provincial government's 1980s-style makework projects or listen to our federal cabinet representative.

Independence has nothing to do with it, Liam.