RM
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RM Issue #030511

The graveyard of the sea

May 9, 2003

By MICHAEL HARRIS -- For The Ottawa Sun
Mike's column at the Ottawa Sun
Bellicosity, bull, and in the end, a spinelessness that is heartbreaking: All of these key features of our national fisheries policy were on display this week on Canada's East Coast.

In New Brunswick, the federal government touched off a riot by trying to suck and blow at the same time on the issue of conservation of fish stocks. Federal Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault cut the crab quota by 20%, an understandable move in light of scientific advice that the stock is fragile and could be depleted by overfishing.

Peter Noel, vice-president of the Crabiers du Nord-Est in New Brunswick agreed, admitting as recently as last March that snow crab stocks were "very fragile."

So why would New Brunswick crab fishermen, who themselves realize the need for conservation, burn three federal fisheries vessels, another owned by the Big Cove Native band, two fish-processing plants and a DFO building when faced with a quota reduction aimed at preserving their livelihood long term?

Because it was not in fact a conservation measure at all, but more of what has all but killed off the Atlantic groundfish industry: Politics. At the same time as Minister Thibault was talking about quota cuts as a conservation measure, he was approving 100 new entrants into the temporarily lucrative crab fishery. Not even the highly paid spinmeisters at DFO can square that circle; you don't save fish stocks by cutting the quota and then increasing the fishing effort. But you do spark riots.

Thibault, the latest puppet minister run by a department which reserves a revolving door for its political masters, was merely papering over the cracks in DFO's tragic approach to fisheries management; trying to please all of the stakeholders in the fishery in the short term with policies that will doom everyone in the long term.

Thibault had to open up more positions in the crab fishery because the federal government was forced to close the cod fishery, a fishery that it foolishly reopened in 1998 despite the fact that 98% of the cod had been annihilated by three decades of gross overfishing sanctioned by federal quotas straight out of Stephen King. That fiasco, the greatest environmental disaster in Canadian history, led to the closure of the Newfoundland cod fishery in 1992 and the commercial extinction of one of the most valuable fish in the ocean.

While the boats and buildings in Shippigan were still smoldering, the government of Newfoundland was reacting just as violently to the announced closure of the cod fishery along the northeast coast of the Rock. The behaviour of Newfoundland Premier Roger Grimes was obscenity in hot purse of farce. With 98% of the northern cod wiped out, Premier Grimes manfully stood up for the right of Newfoundland fishermen to erase the remaining 2%. He even wants Newfoundland's terms of union with Canada to be renegotiated.

This duly elected legislator also informed the rest of the country that the Newfoundland government would "protect" any fishermen who broke the federal fishing ban and would not co-operate in the prosecution of anyone who chooses to fish illegally. Grimes's stated reason was that the fishermen didn't believe there was a need to close the fishery. Presumably, if at some future point in time, the fishermen also decide that a new provincial tax is unwarranted, they will enjoy the premier's support for their boycott.

Such grimy logic is as phony as it is foolish. Here are the facts: Roger Grimes is not protecting a traditional way of life. There are only 3,800 cod fishermen left in Newfoundland and half of those earn less than 10% of their livelihood from cod. The end of the real cod fishery took place in 1992 when 30,000 lost their industry because of federal mismanagement, provincial greed, and poor fishing practices.

What Roger Grimes is really protecting is his own political backside. He is the political equivalent of a drowning man. Facing a provincial election this year and woefully trailing Progressive Conservative Danny Williams, Grimes is making a desperate, and despicable, grab for the rural vote in a province where Ottawa bashing and jigging cod can still get the electorate's heart racing. Premier Grimes can launch lawsuits, ask MPs to resign, and tub-thump until the cod return, but the issue is votes, not human dignity or prudent public policy. Shame on him.

So how will the federal government react to Shippigan's hooligans and Newfoundland's hot air? In this old salt's books, they will turn the other cod cheek and pay the blackmail. Robert Thibault, programmed like a wind-up doll by DFO bureaucrats, is already talking about increasing the crab quota he just cut for conservation purposes by 4,000 metric tonnes.

His commitment to justice seems to be as deep as his commitment to conservation. Nowhere in his obligatory bleatings about how shocked and appalled he was at the lawlessness in New Brunswick has there been any mention of bringing the miscreants to justice. There have been no arrests made in the wake of the Shippigan riot and police now say they will rely on Crime Stoppers to give them tips about who did it. Uh huh.

Here is the bitter pill no one wants to swallow when it comes to Canada's calamitous fishery: Canadians have shelled out $4.2 billion since 1992 to deal with the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery in Newfoundland. That money was supposed to help unemployed fishermen adjust to a new life without cod and deal with the root causes of the industry's demise.

The fishermen got their money through the Atlantic Ground Fish Strategy (TAGS), but the taxpayer didn't get the promised fundamental fix of the fishery. Not only did the government fail to reduce the serious over-capacity on the water, they actually licensed more fishermen to chase even fewer fish than we had before and hoped no one would notice. The 30,000 cod fishermen essentially became 30,000 crab, shrimp, and alternate species fishermen reinforced by a few thousand new entrants. A whopping 38,000 people had qualified for the federal program. In the end, only 476 licences were bought back by the federal government.

We have not solved the problem created by the destruction of the northern cod, but merely transferred the same destructive force to other species. Here is what the future holds. A crab bailout program, followed by a shrimp bailout program, followed by a sea-urchin bailout program, followed eventually by a sculpin bailout program. If DFO continues to place human politics at the heart of the fishery, the only thing left in the ocean will be memories.

And what will DFO do in a fishless universe? Regulate the processing of chicken in modified fish plants; chicken, yes.


Author, broadcaster and investigative journalist Michael Harris can be heard Monday to Thursday, 1-3 p.m. on 580 CFRA.
Letters to the editor should be sent to oped@sunpub.com.




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