14 September 2011

Good to the last vote #nlpoli #cdnpoli

Two fish plant operators in the province want to see if they can make a few bucks making something to eat out of sea cucumbers.

For those who may not be familiar with the creatures, know that they are not some sort of undersea plant. 

They are a long tube of flesh with a hole at both ends (mouth and anus) and a tube in between connecting the two.  The creature pulls seawater in one end, extracts what nutrients it can find and pushes the water – and its own refuse -  it out the back end.

People eat these things.  Well, some people on the planet do  - mostly in Asia – and some of those people consider it a delicacy, apparently.

The provincial fisheries department has been eyeing sea cukes and urchins as potential species to exploit for well over a decade. The federal fisheries department produced a study in 2009 on the sea cucumber potential in the fishing zone on Newfoundland’s south coast that also encompasses St. Pierre and Miquelon.

What is striking about that study is how much biologists  - any biologists, not just DFO ones - don’t know about the little creature:

There is limited information on the life history of sea cucumber on the St. Pierre Bank (So 2009).  Most of the knowledge on this species in eastern Canada was obtained from studies in the St. Lawrence Estuary (Hamel and Mercier 2008). While some of this information may be relevant to  the St. Pierre Bank, more in-situ observations are required. Spawning time, for example, occurs from late March to early May on the St. Pierre Bank, which is earlier than in the St. Lawrence Estuary. Size at sexual maturity on the St. Pierre Bank is ~ 9-11 cm (Grant et al. 2006).  Growth  rates, age-at-maturity, recruitment processes and natural mortality are unknown; thus productivity and renewal rates are unknown.  Due to the plastic shape and variable water  content of the sea cucumber body, basic metrics such as size-at-age cannot reliably be  obtained. Dry and immersed weights are the most accurate measures of sea cucumber size.

All the stuff you would like to know in order to manage any fishery effectively?  Not one has a friggin’ clue.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the DFO paper recommends

“that fishing be limited  to the western region of the specific fisheries management zone covered by the study], maintaining the eastern region as a reserve until the effects of fishing can be evaluated. The exploitation rate is currently very low and it is likely that it could be increased without causing serious or irreversible harm.” 

The biologists admit they don’t know much and advise that no one should do anything too hasty for fear of repeating past mistakes.

A United Nations report issued in 2008 said that Pacific stocks of sea cucumbers with a high commercial value had already been decimated. The report covered all the known sea cucumber fisheries,. including the exploratory one off Newfoundland.

Now the potential industry we are talking about here in newfoundland and Labrador is currently less than 1,000 tonnes with a total value – according to the Telegram article linked at the front of this post – some somewhere around $500,000.  This is not very big, by any measure.

But the fact that some local companies want to go to commercial production on a species that has already been over-fished elsewhere is a sign of just how little some people in the fishing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador have learned in the 19 years since the cod moratorium.  How striking is the contrast between the scientists and the industry.

Read the reports from the fisheries departments, especially the federal one an you will see an abundance of cautious language.  If we’ve learned anything from the cod collapse – to paraphrase the report – we ought to go very carefully at fishing a species we know little about.

In the local fishing industry, that knowledge doesn’t seem to have penetrated some skulls.  It’s also yet another sign of what your humble e-scribbler ranted about last August when local media gave province-wide attention to a story on the possible commercial production of sea snails:

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.

A year after those caustic words appeared, the province is in the grips of a second election in a year, this one a provincial type.  The incumbent Conservatives have a report that shows rare agreement in the industry on the need to cut down the number of plants, plant workers and fishermen.

The Conservatives want nothing to do with it both for the financial cost implications and for the political cost implications as well.  Their current plan seems to be to talk and talk until time solves the problem for them.

The two opposition parties are less concerned about the financial costs.  Instead they are making the most of sounding like they want to do something while at the same time advocating more and more spending to prop up this bit of the industry or that bit.

All three parties – Liberal, Conservative and New Democrat – have one goal:  reform the fishery in such a way that at the end of it, the whole thing is exactly like it is now.

The fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador is not a problem of anything but politics and anyone other than politicians.

And in yet another great cosmic coincidence, noob Bloc NDP member of parliament Ryan Cleary held a news conference on Monday to tell everyone that he will do as he promised a few short months ago and introduce a private members bill in the federal parliament. 

Cleary wants to spend untold millions of tax dollars on an investigation into what happened to the cod and why they haven’t come back. he wants to find blame and lay, most likely at the feet of culprits he has already identified.  None of them are in the fishing industry in Newfoundland and labrador.  The bad guys are people in Ottawa.

In pushing for his Kangaroo Court, Cleary uses language that is colourful and evocative. He claims we do not have facts.

In truth, there is is no shortage of facts.

Cleary just refuses to accept them and act accordingly.

The problem is not that we are lacking in information.

The problem is that Cleary - like a raft of other self-appointed saviours of rural Newfoundland and the fishery from Smallwood to Rideout to Efford to Sullivan and Hearn before him - is running on precious little besides bullshit and ego.

Sure they are all compassionate and passionate in their dedication and commitment to the raggedy-arsed artillery of the best small-boatmen in the British Empire who will secure the future of the universe once the oil is gone yadda yadda yadda.

Big friggin’ whoopidy do.

Once you get past the stock rhetoric these guys toss out, you pretty quickly realise that Cleary is just the latest and windiest wind-bag in a very flatulent lot.  They all lack either an appreciation of the problem in the fishery or what genuinely needs to be done to sort it out. 

And if they know what needs to be done and why, then they lack the stones to do it.

You see, if fixing the fishery was a matter of passion, then the whole thing would have been done decades ago. God knows the fishery has attracted more passion over the years than you’d get from a bunch of lifers at Kingston Pen hopped up on saltpeter and Viagra.

Da byes have loved the fishery to death.

And still men and women are breaking their backs splitting fish and making slave wages for their efforts.

Men and women who are now pretty much done with their working lives and yet who can’t afford to retire.

Who some politicians won’t pay to retire even though that would be the decent thing to do.

And they struggle in an industry that lacks the technology to compete and the capital to buy the technology to sort itself out because…ah sure you’ve heard it all before.

You want some ideas on fixing the fishery? 

No problem.

The first idea is:  get the politicians out of it.

Cleary could be the single bravest politician in this province’s long history and scrap his election pledge. Stand up, Ryan, and be the first politician to say that people like you are full of it and need to stop pretending they can fix the fishing industry.

Find something else to rant about.

People will understand. 

He can take the money he’d waste on an inquiry and put it in a fund to help fish plant workers hobble away from the splitting tables with something vaguely approaching human dignity.*

Otherwise, the fishery will be for politicians what it has been since long before the collapse of Responsible Government in this place:  good to the last vote, and nothing more.

- srbp -

* edits for clarity