27 August 2010

Good to the last fish

Two stories this week each highlighted in their own way the ongoing and largely ignored fisheries crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador.

On the one hand, you have a story about a fish plant converting to produce canned whelk – sea snails – for an overseas market. A local fish company will – as the Telegram described it -  “start with between 12-14 positions for four to five weeks with a possibility of future expansion.”

That story made the major media in the province.

The second story was a hearing by a provincial government agency into a request by another local fish company to move one of its processing licenses from one community on the province’s northeast coast to another on the southeast coast.  The plant is only major employer in the northeast coast town. There are no other economic prospects in the area for the plant’s aging, seasonal workforce.

For those who may not be familiar with the fisheries crisis in this province, let us put it as succinctly as possible:  there are fewer and fewer fish in the ocean.  You can see this in the fact that fish plants have now turned from processing  the creatures that swim through the water using their fins and tails to packaging up things like snails and jellyfish.

They call it fishing out the food web.  Humans started at the top with the really big animals.  Over the centuries and with no apparent slackening of blood-lust, they’ve collectively managed to demolish species after species around the globe until the humans now catch the tiny thing those bigger fish used to eat.

Toward the end of his life, the late Jon Lien used to do talks about this sort of thing.  He had a foil packet covered in Japanese or Korean writing stashed under the podium as a prop.  At the right moment in his talk, Lien would hold it up to the audience and ask if anyone knew what was in it.

None did.

Dried jellyfish was the answer, processed by a local plant and shipped off to the East as a snack food.

Yes, friends, we are moments away from a krill fishery.

At the same time, there are still thousands of people in Newfoundland and Labrador trying to squeeze a very meagre living from processing fish for a few weeks a year and then collecting government hand-outs for the rest.  A report delivered to the current administration when it was still young pointed out that the typical fish plant worker made less than $10,000 a year from labour, picking up another $5,000 in employment insurance premiums.

There are still way too many of them – plants and plant workers – for them all to make a decent living from what fish, and now snails, there is to turn into frozen blocks. The only thing that has changed in the better part of a decade since that report is that the workers are finding it harder and harder to collect enough weeks of work to qualify for the EI.

Oh yes, and the prospect of a fish plant adding up to 15 jobs for a month stuffing slimy globs of flesh into tins makes province-wide news as a positive thing.

As it turns out, there is some sort of poetic symbolism in all this.  Around the time that a bunch of West Country merchants backstopped Giovanni Caboto’s explorations five centuries ago, British fishermen were trying to find a new place to wet their lines.  Seems they’d managed to clean out their own grounds and had started to spread farther and farther in search of new species to decimate.

They found such a place in the waters off Newfoundland where the cod were supposedly so plentiful they could be had by lowering a basket over the side of the ship. Now cod are a species declared commercially extinct in 1992 and teetering on the edge of ecological extinction.

Yet still there are people who want to keep fishing them. And jellyfish, slugs and in the not-too-distant future, perhaps sea snot or microbes.

As depressing as it seems, there are solutions. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in a  recent review essay in the New Yorker

M.P.A.s [marine protected areas], smart aquaculture, and I.T.Q.s [individual transferable quotas] —these are all worthy proposals that, if instituted on a large enough scale, would probably make a difference.  … it is in “everyone’s interest” to take the steps needed to prevent an ocean-wide slide into slime.

It is indeed.

- srbp -