Fishery management a disgrace
By Sue Potvin

The fishery has operated sustainably, offering a fair living for hard-working fishermen for more than four centuries. It's taken the Ottawa bureaucrats just a few short decades to mismanage it into oblivion.

More than 40,000 people in the Atlantic provinces (30,000 of them in Newfoundland and Labrador) lost most or all of their incomes when the federal government, in a last-ditch effort to save the cod, closed most of the cod fisheries in the 1990s. As many as 275,000 tonnes of cod were taken off the Atlantic coasts in the 1980s. Last year, 3,500 tonnes were taken. In the northern half of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, fish quotas went from historic levels of 70,000 tonnes to 7,000 tonnes last year.

Now they want to close the cod fishery.

While government sources put "rapacious Canadian and foreign fishing", as well as cold water temperatures at the top of their blame-laying list, the reduction of food sources for cod and the predation of an over-population of seals bear considerable responsibility. But talk to a fisherman and he will tell you that the havoc wreaked on the ocean floor by the factory ships and deep-sea trawlers is destroying the cod stocks -- and far more. All marine life is at risk.

Yet Fisheries and Oceans continues to license those great industrial predators indiscriminately.

History records cod as long as six feet and weighing more than 200 lbs. They have been described as "an eating, breeding machine . . . impervious to disease and cold . . . the perfect commercial fish" that should have lasted forever. A deep-water fish that lives near the ocean floor, their numbers easily withstood the mostly inshore fishermen who plied the waters in their small boats over the centuries. They fished those smaller cod that came up to feed in the more shallow waters of the "banks", leaving the strong to grow and multiply healthily below.

The cod even survived the modern, independent commercial fishery that grew after the Second World War, with their bigger nets, powerful winches, long-range diesel engines and early electronic fish-finders.

But since factory ships and big trawlers have been permitted to go out and drag the ocean floors, the results have been devastating. Factory ships from all over the world drag the very deepest ocean floors with their huge, weighted nets, using sonar and heat-imaging satellite photos. They scoop up everything in their path, from dead urchins to finfish and everything in between. The allowed catch of the day is kept, while most of the contents are simply discarded over the side.

Dalhousie University scientists claim that this kind of fishing has depleted 90 per cent of the world's best fish stocks.

Marine scientist Elliott Norse says some of the widely used commercial fishing methods kill far more marine mammals, seabirds and sea turtles than do oil spills. Worse, such methods as bottom trawling crush and bury corals, sponges and tubeworms that provide the feeding and hiding places that many disappearing fish species need to grow and reproduce. Nova Scotian fisherman Derek Jones has proof. He has a collection of beautiful corals that have been destroyed by draggers in the waters off Cape Sable Island.

"I've been on a shrimp trawler that, to my dismay, caught and dumped overboard nine kilograms of dead fish, crabs and starfish for every kilogram of shrimp," says Norse. "The next time you order shrimp, think about how many animals died to support your habit."

A poll of fishery managers, academics and environmental group scientists found them in agreement that purse-seining and hook-and-line fishing cause little damage to "non-target" species or fish habitat, while methods such as bottom trawling and bottom gill netting are indeed more harmful.

The devastation will not stop with the cod stocks or the corals. Other species are in trouble too. Tuna, swordfish, marlin, flounder and halibut have been ravaged. And the snow crab are in serious trouble.

Previously allowed to catch 22,000 metric tons of snow crab off their northeastern shores, New Brunswick fishermen have been cut back to a total catch of 17,000 this year in another half-hearted government attempt to save a threatened species.

The reaction of federal Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault to the burning by vandals of four crab boats and two offices in Shippegan recently was disgraceful. To appease those fishermen, he suddenly discovered he could "safely" raise the quota to 20,000 tons.

It is understandable that fishermen are demoralized by the loss of their livelihoods. But how much worse is the morale when they see government-made decisions that contradict all common sense with respect to the fishery. It is not surprising that there is little respect for such decisions -- and for those who make them.

"Federal management of seacoast fisheries since 1949 has failed to adequately protect or develop the principal fisheries adjacent to Newfoundland and Labrador," says Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Roger Grimes in his recent historic resolution. ". . .failed federal fisheries management has led to the complete collapse of the northern cod fishery and other groundfish stocks, the basis for Newfoundland's colonization and the mainstay of its economy for 500 years . . . the federal government has failed to adopt a comprehensive plan for stock recovery since groundfish moratoria were declared in the early 1990s."

The resolution goes on to recall the province's unheeded requests for a greater say in fisheries management since 1949. It notes that, should they again become independent of Canada, they would be able to control all of its adjacent resources according to International Law. At this time, it asks, not for independence, but for negotiation of a joint management regime over the fisheries and a shared, equal, constitutional authority over the fisheries adjacent to it.

Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs Stephane Dion dismissed Grimes' demand by saying that giving Newfoundland more power won't bring the fish back. As one journalist put it, it was a "sloppy admission of utter failure, bundled with Dion's condescending nonchalance."

Ottawa is simply not interested. They will retain the power to trade away some people's long-term future to ensure their short-term popularity. As Alberta Premier Ralph Klein sees it, it's not money and it's not fish, but rather it's a battle for who runs Canada -- distant and partisan bureaucrats and ministers in Ottawa or local officials who actually live and work in the affected communities.

The fact is, the cod stocks do not belong to just Newfoundland or Canada -- they belong to the world, as do all the threatened species of the sea. And it is the world that must exercise restraint and common sense, putting the welfare of future generations ahead of jobs today. Who better to lead the way but Newfoundland and Canada?