05 June 2015

Politicians and other damn fools #nlpoli

On Wednesday, politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador condemned the federal minister of fisheries for making a decision about the fishery in a province based on politics instead of economics or science.

The politicians were so upset with Gail Shea that they passed a resolution demanding that she allocate a quota of fish to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians based on political rather than economic or scientific reasons.

There was no sense in their resolution that what was sauce Prince Edward Island goose was also sauce  for the Newfoundland gander, if that’s what you are thinking.  Nor was there any sense of hypocrisy or irony or whatever self-awareness it would be that makes one criticise someone else for doing what you then do.

The fact that some of the politicians explained their support for the resolution using false memory only sweetened the humour in the whole affair.

Last month, Shea added some extra quota for halibut on the Atlantic.  She didn’t give it out in the proportions of the existing quota allocations.  Instead, Shea gave more to of the increase to halibut fishermen on Prince Edward island.  Shea said that the allocation of new quota shares the fish more equitably among the fishing interests in the Atlantic provinces.  Rather than split the quota with Newfoundland getting about 30%,  Shea gave each of the eight interests an equal share.

There’s nothing surprising in this.  For one thing, the federal government always has to manage conflicting demands from different provinces.  They all believe they are entitled to special treatment and they all believe they have been screwed over in the past.

In this case, Shea has been helping to build up the halibut fishery on Prince Edward Island for a couple of years. Shea and the federal Conservatives have put federal government cash into research on the species and  new processing equipment.

Nor is there anything surprising in the cry from Newfoundland politicians that they are being victimised somehow by evil politicians in Ottawa.  It’s an old line and any politician in Newfoundland seems genetically predisposed to pander to what they believe will get them the most votes from parts of the province dependent on the fishery.

The provincial fisheries minister wrote a letter to Shea, bitching about the quota.  He issued a news release.  His party sponsored a private member’s resolution condemning Shea’s decision.  All parties and all members voted for the motion.

It’s all very much part of the stock script of local politics.  Any opposition politician who comes to Newfoundland from Ottawa in search of votes will drone on about the fishery.  He will head to Ches’ for a feed of fish and chips, complete with the supposedly traditional Newfoundland drink Pineapple Crush.  It’s made with locally grown pineapples, a native fruit, by the way. 

And not surprisingly,  that’s exactly what federal New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair did this week.  Mulcair just happened to be in  St. John’s on the same day the House debated the NDP motion that wanted DFO to give the first 115,000 metric tonnes of northern cod to Newfoundland fishermen if the cod stocks rebound to the point where people can fish cod commercially again.

It was a big day for the Dippers, in other words, although Mulcair didn’t get into the federal fisheries allocation fight. That was purely a provincial NDP thing.  It was all show and all politics, all the same.

Lorraine Michael introduced the resolution.  She said the 115,000 metric ton figure came from a policy in the federal fisheries department dating back to the late 1970s.  Right after the federal government declared thee 200 mile limit,  it tied a quota of 115,000 tons of cod in the 2J3KL regulatory zones to fishermen from Newfoundland.   And when the cod come back, that quota should come with it,  said Michael.

The only problem is that the dastardly Shea had now flown “in the face of clear, established DFO policy called stable shares, when she took halibut from resource-short fishing fleets in the Newfoundland and Labrador portion of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to increase shares in the Maritime Provinces and thereby improve Conservative electoral prospects.”

“Gross abuse of the major powers of the Fisheries Act confers on the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans,” said Michael, “using her position for political gain.”

Then Michael slammed Shea for “refusing to move from a unilateral interpretation of the so-called LIFO, Last In, First Out policy in the Northern shrimp.”  The result of the decision is that inshore fisherman who started fishing shrimp after the cod moratorium would now have to get out of the fishery as the shrimp stocks were under pressure.  Economically and environmentally, last-in, first-out makes sense.

But economics and science have nothing to do with Michael’s position.  After all,  as she should know, the cod stocks offshore Newfoundland are nowhere near ready to see a resumption of commercial fishing.
What cod fishermen have been landing has been, as often as not, sent out of the province for processing. Local plants aren’t interested in it any more. That coupled with a relatively poor quality for the fish means that the only way processors have been able to handle the cod by-catch  is by shipping the cod out of the province. 

Michael was just using cod as a political prop, just as she and her colleagues in the other parties were doing on shrimp as well.  No one should be surprised if Michael and the NDP promised to get rid of if the NDP win the next federal election. 

The other politicians in the House were happy to join her.  Two in particular stood out. Liberals Sam Slade and Steve Crocker.  The pair told the imaginary version of what happened to the cod stocks.  Evil foreigners and stupid scientists from Ottawa. They ignored the real experts, the fishermen who knew something was wrong.   They ignored the foreign overfishing.

And then the cod were gone.

The problem with that story is that it isn’t true.  Slade and Crocker left out the role fishermen and fishing companies in Newfoundland and Labrador played in destroying the cod.  They overfished.  They high-graded,  that is, they dumped small fish and let them sink, dead, to the bottom.  High-grading means they only brought ashore the biggest fish they could get.  Federal and provincial politicians encouraged that sort of overfishing with their policies and their government financial support.  Backward ideas like minimum processing requirements encourage the worst practices like high-grading.

“Back then,”  said Sammy Claus,  “ fishermen were coming in, they were saying there was something wrong. Science did not listen to them.”

The fish are coming back, according to Sammy Claus.  “The scientists once again are not listening to the fish harvesters. …I am going to tell you something, the best scientists in the world are fish harvesters. They know what is going on around them, …. They definitely, definitely know what is going on around them.”

Yes, Sammy, they know, just like the people who looked up in the sky knew that the sun revolved around the Earth.  They knew what was going on because they could see it. 

Sammy’s version is popular because it it is easier to ignore the truth than accept blame.  The truth is that the fishermen and the fishing companies did not talk to the scientists.  The scientists realised in 1989 that the quotas were too high.  They proposed cutting the allowable catch in half.  But those people that Sammy Claus and Crocker believe are so smart didn’t want a reduction.

They talked to the politicians.  And they begged and pleaded with the politicians to keep the quotas as high as possible.  The people in the industry were afraid, just as federal fisheries minister John Crosbie was afraid,  of the devastating effect the loss of the industry would have on communities in Newfoundland and Labrador. Crosbie slashed quotas and finally closed the cod fishery in 1992 not because the smart fishermen won out but because Crosbie couldn’t ignore the scientific evidence any longer.

But that wasn’t good enough for the cod-killers.  They started agitating for something they called a food fishery.  There were no cod to speak of and yet these same people Sam Slade claims know better than anyone wanted to keep fishing.  Eventually, they got their way:  another federal fisheries minister started a “recreational”cod fishery.   It’s a damn-fool fishery, in truth, because only a damn fool would want to keep fishing a species that was in danger of going extinct.

Every sign of a fin in the water and the same damn fools are back again looking to start fishing a stock they brought to the edge of extinction and that is barely away from the brink now.  When another species is threatened with overfishing, the same damn fool ideas that killed off the cod industry argue against a sensible idea like last-in, first-out.

And the damn fools have lots of help from politicians,  politicians who cannot stop playing political games with the fishing industry.  Whether it is European trade and minimum processing or halibut or cod,  what bedevils the industry is not the fish stocks,  it is the relentless presence of politicians and the other damn fools who pass a resolution in the House of Assembly for their own political gain that condemns another politician for supposedly using the fishery for her own political gain.

And only a Newfoundland politician - synonymous too often with damn fool anyway,  who could do such a thing and not see how damnably foolish they look.