Trouble at sea

Friday 30 May 2003, by Catherine Pappas

Photo : Catherine Pappas & Dominic Morrissette ©

In Burnt Islands and Isle-aux-Morts, as in all of New Foundland, fearless fishermen have always braved the cold and storms to make their living from the great wide ocean. Today this seemingly permanent way of life has been shattered, leaving an uncertain economic future in its wake. In the face of this crisis, Atlantic fisherpeople are questioning the effectiveness of the government’s measures to keep the fisheries open and viable. 

A moratorium on cod fishing in the gulf of the Saint Lawrence and the coasts of New Fundland and Labrador that was announced in April by Robert Thibault, federal Minister of Oceans and Fisheries, has shaken up the coastal communities of Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Once ratified, this decision will spur a mass exodus from the coast, higher unemployment, and the marginalization of communities where social and economic conditions are already precarious. 
Despite an earlier, devastating moratorium in 1992, a meeting of Canadian, American, and European specialists in Halifax last February said "there is no way of restoring the stocks" and recommended a complete halt to fishing for an indeterminate period.

As they did eleven years ago, coastal communities have erupted in protest. However, many freely admit that the fisheries experts were right: the cod are disapearing from Atlantic coast. They accused the government of pursuing a strategy of pushing aside small fisherpeople in order to direct profit to the "big fish" of the industry.

The closure of the regions

Bill Broderick, cod and lobster fisher, trade-union representative and member of the Council for the Conservation of Halieutics Resources (CCHR), recognizes that measures must be taken to re-establish cod stocks. But according to him, the complete shutdown of the fishery is foolish and will contribute nothing to their eventual recovery.

"In spite of the exorbitant social costs of the first moratorium (some 40 000 workers in Quebec and in the Atlantic provinces) after 1992, people still had hope for a day when they would take back the fishing industry. However, the new moratorium, which threatens to eliminate more than 4 400 employeees and to withdraw some $43 million from an already fragile economy, it’s easy to predict the complete shutdown of the area." Utter despair.

"The other day," he said, "a fisher in Labrador burned his boat, his cottage and tools. He said ’now nothing stops me from going to Alberta.’"

"Today, fishing still belongs to the small communities of the area," affirms Broderick. "But when stocks are restored, in about thirty years, no traditional fishermen with any know-how will remain, and their skills will not be transferred to the new generation. From there, the multinationals will be able to drain the seas freely, without anyone opposing them."

Between science and tradition

With such a clear clash of viewpoints on how many fish remain and how they should be safeguarded, one can see the growing divide that exists between the recommendations of government experts and the traditional knowledge of coastal communities.

"There is an enormous problem with science," observes Marc Allain, director of communications for the Canadian Council of Professional Fishermen. "It is science which initially led to the disappearance of cod stocks. It is scientists who, until 1989, in spite of repeated warnings from fishermen, authorized fishing twice as abundantly than the existence of the resource. Canadian fishermen know that the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries has failed in its conservation objectives. We can’t forget the years of plunder on the part of the government."

In 1977, in order to counter overfishing by an increasingly voracious foreign fleet, Canada unilaterally declared an economic zone reaching 200 nautical miles beyond the Canadian coast line, asserting its jurisdiction over the majority of fish stocks off the Atlantic coastline. To reap the benefits of its new windfall, the government invested in the construction of new, more powerful boats, in order to ensure the profitability of the industry. Thus in spite of the reduction of the number of foreign vessels fishing off Canada, the late seventies saw a dramatic increase in domestic activity. This industrial fishing fleet is partly responsible for the current damage, leaving individual fisherpeople and smaller-scale enterprises desperate.

"Where will we go? What will we do?" asks Broderick. "For now, people will hang on to what belongs to them, and hope for a new beginning." With anger rumbling along the coasts, communities are debating how to make their cries heard farther inland. Their growing frustration means that soon, it will be necessary for
Canadians to address the social, economic, and regional consequences of this new reality.


Catherine Pappas, Alternatives Newspaper

À propos de Catherine Pappas

The Middle East and North Africa

Catherine Pappas works with Alternatives since 1997. After managing the internship program and international solidarity projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Palestine, she now coordinates the Middle East and North Africa programme.

Holder of an M.A. in communications from l’Université du Québec à Montréal, Catherine Pappas has also worked as a director, researcher and photographer on several photo and film documentaries with the National Film Board of Canada, Radio-Canada and several independent production companies. Her work has been nominated for a Jutra Prize for best documentary as well as prestigious photography prizes (Lux Contest).

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