15 June 2011

Building the fishery of the future

To look at the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador is to see as clear an example as one may find of the fundamental bankruptcy of the sort of old-fashioned politics that has existed from the earliest of times and that persists right down to modern day Ottawa.

It is not business, as your humble e-scribbler has said before, as much as it is a Frankenstein experiment in social engineering.  Politician after politician after politician has used the fishery for his own political gain. The fishery is the heart and soul of the province, we are told.  Mention fishing and you will find politicians eager to display their passion to rise to its defence against all manner of assailants, most of them entirely fictional.

Is there fundamentally any difference between John Efford, say, and Ryan Cleary? 

Absolutely not.

Cleary with his crusade to find out what happened to the fish is merely the latest version of the old blow-hard Newfoundland politician.  Cleary’s already mounted his ass and headed off to find the missing fish.  If by some miracle, Cleary gets the crowd in Ottawa to fund the junket-commission he wants, he will look, inevitably, in all the places where the information isn’t.  If he doesn’t get the cash – as he won’t – Cleary will claim this is yet another example of Canadian exploitation of the poor benighted fisher folk who form the moral core of a long-suffering society blah blah blah blah.

Either way, Cleary will garner  column inch after sound bite from reporters at home who are always ready to spew the bullshit to the punters or from mainland scribes hard up for copy and who know as much about the eastern-most part of Canada as the average Hmong tribesman does and seem to care even less.

Passion is their thing.  After an early embarrassment and dismissal from cabinet, John Efford rebuilt his political profile as a fisheries crusader who was as full of it as Cleary is, or Tom Rideout or any of a dozen others.

For politicians, all this will be good to the last fish. Kathy Dunderdale is vowing to step into the latest problem at the Marystown plant so that fish are processed in the province and not sent outside where they can be turned into food or some such far more cost-effectively than they can be handled in places like Marystown. 

This is the same problem, incidentally, that Fishery Products International had with the same species and the same plant on a few years ago.  Kath should recall.  She and her colleagues decided the way to handle that was to smash FPI to bits.  The lucrative bits went to foreigners.  The headquarters building changed hands a couple of times within a year and now houses some lovely provincial government tenants. The other bits wound up going to Ocean Choice, the Torily-connected fish processing company that is now experiencing some sort of karmic retribution. 

What goes around, comes around, apparently and in a small province, it seems to pick up speed on the return trip.

So firmly entrenched is the political desire to interfere in the fishery that the current fisheries minister is refusing to accept a dramatic proposal from the fishermen and the processors to do the sorts of things people have been saying they needed to do for years. 

The current provincial government’s decision only further emphasises the extent to which the fishery is controlled by people who have no business in the business.

The solution is to turn control of the industry over to the only people who can decide for themselves how best to run it:  processors and harvesters.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the first bold proposal to reform the fishery is for the provincial government to accept the recent fisheries reform proposal without further delay.

The second idea is to eliminate all subsidies to the industry within two years. They drain the provincial treasury and serve only to prop up businesses that otherwise wouldn’t make it.

The third idea is for the provincial government to abolish processing licenses with the elaborate red tape restrictions that go with it.  The current system helps to keep too many people and too many plants working in an industry featuring low wages, limited capital for investment and with no prospect that new workers will enter the industry to keep it going.

Instead, license processors as businesses under occupational health and safety rules or anything similar legislation. Beyond that?  Nothing. Let processors open plants, close plants or reorganize plants as they see fit based on the business’ finances.  If a plant goes bust, then it goes bust. 

The end result will be fewer plants but fewer plants is exactly what the industry needs.  Where those plants will be and how many that will exist are not things anybody can or should predict.  What will emerge at the end of the change will be stronger companies that are more likely to survive in a highly competitive global market.  In the end there might only be one big company – looking, not surprisingly like FPI – and a bunch of small niche companies.  There could be a couple of bigger, integrated operations but the people in the industry will be able to make a decent living from their work and their industry will be more attractive than the current mess is.

Fish harvesting also needs an overhaul.

The fourth idea is to establish a system of fish auctions using internationally recognised grading systems would improve quality and the cash that fishermen get for their landings.

Processors from any province would be required to bid for landings at the auction sites in a daily competition. Alternately, processors could operate their own fleets or make supply contracts with harvesters.  The two systems could operate side-by-side but harvesters would have a choice. 

Increased competition would also ensure they wouldn’t be victimised in a system like the old one where they had no choice but sell to the handful of locals in a closed system. It would also give fishermen greater control over their own individual operations.

Changes to the harvesting side of the industry will need federal involvement, but federal politicians and bureaucrats would have good reason to support a system that reduces the political and financial headaches of the current system.

Fish harvesting businesses would also profit by the fifth idea, the elimination of the byzantine system of gear restrictions and vessel size restrictions that serve no useful purpose in a modern industry that is run as an industry. “Buddying-up”  - having several licenses on one boat – is an example of how people in the industry are already trying to make sensible changes to meet the economic pressures of the industry.  They are limited in how far they can go, however, by the inertia that keeps in place a system of rules that may have worked decades ago but that simply make no sense any more.

Something that may have worked once but that no longer makes any sense:  that is really the tale of the entire fishing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador, if not all of Atlantic Canada.

To build the fishery of the future, we have to let go of ideas that simply make no sense any more.

We must turn the industry over to the people who are trying to make a living in it.

They know best what to do.

We just need to give them a chance.

- srbp -

Updated Bonus Idea: Dismantling the Stalinist provincial bureaucracy that is stifling the fishery at the provincial level will allow the fisheries department to focus on new priorities. 

The biggest of these would be encouraging aquaculture .

The next biggest would helping to promote a new identity for local seafood based on quality.  This would be a key part of ensuring the future fishery is internationally competitive.