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RM Issue #031115

Reining in the seiners


Where industrial practices have ruled the day, devastation of the natural resource has followed.

by Jack MacAndrew
November 12, 2003

For several weeks now, P.E.I. fishermen have held protests and blockades to keep large New Brunswick herring seiners from unloading their catches at the Souris wharf. Now they have decided to change tactics — no more confrontation, no more mass protest, no more riot squads, and most especially, no more possibility of somebody else getting hurt.

The possibility of injury was the uppermost consideration in the minds of the 20 or so fishermen who gathered with provincial fisheries minister, Kevin MacAdam, prior to an amazing mass meeting of the fishing community on Monday afternoon. Some said it was the largest turnout of fishermen ever seen in this province. They came together after an incident in which 14 people were arrested and one RCMP officer was injured.

And it was a 77-year-old woman, Helene Smith, who set the tone for the two hour meeting. She made an eloquent speech in support of the fishermen and brandished a banana which she recommended as a club, and a kitchen-style fine mesh strainer to illustrate her point that the seiners have destroyed herring stocks wherever they have fished.

Smith received a standing ovation from the crowd for her speech, and the meeting settled into consideration of MacAdam's plan to get the five New Brunswick seiners off the Island shore. Fishermen have now decided on an information picket and an attempt to get the seiners moved further offshore.

But getting the seiners out behind a 25 fathom line is not the real game. Getting them off the water is what this struggle is really all about. In that context, the struggle of the inshore fishermen of the Island is yet another chapter in the 30-year battle that pits the little guys, the Davids, against the Goliaths of the corporate fishery, the industrial fishery that cares not about questions of conservation.

For those behind the corporate fishery are of the same mindset as those who would clearcut the forests and rape the land in search of quick and easy profits, often for shareholders living hundreds and thousands of miles away from the scene of their depredations, catch whatever there is to be caught as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then move on to the next place, until there is no next place to move to.

A herring seiner is a huge fishing vessel, some over 100 feet and capable of holding 800 tons of herring. The eight man crew fishes a huge finely-meshed net hung from a boom aboard ship. The net is called a purse seine. The vessel steams about in water known to have schools of herring until it finds a sizeable one on its electronic fishfinder. It steams to the edge of the school, and a small motorboat carrying one end of the purse seine, steams around the school, encircling all the fish.

Down in the depths, the bottom end of the net contains a drawstring. It is pulled tight, trapping all the herring inside the net, which is then hoisted to the surface where the fish — crammed tightly together — are pumped into the hold below decks.

Using such technology, one seiner can pump aboard over two million pounds of fish in one set of its purse seine.

The seiner's net is 180 feet deep, and off Prince Edward Island, used in water less than 100 feet deep. There is no doubt the seine drags along the bottom. Fishermen aboard the vessels say lobsters, at times enough to fill two huge baskets, are sucked up along with the herring.

This is industrial fishing at work.

This is technology at work, the same sort of technology that stripped the richest fishing grounds in the world of codfish in one generation of fishermen.

This is industrial thinking, where the aim is the greatest degree of productivity and efficiency ( and therefore the greatest profit to shareholders ) and to hell with the sustainibility of the resource .

Consider this: it would take 150 trips to the herring grounds for an inshore fisherman, coming back each time with a full load of fish, to land as many herring as a herring seiner lands with one set of its huge fine-meshed net.

And consider this: a herring seiner is crewed by eight men.They contribute nothing to the economic benefit of Prince Edward Island. They catch the fish, they unload the fish, and then they go back for more.

But the 150 inshore fishermen who would land the same amount of fish , contribute almost all of their financial rewards to the local community and the provincial economy.

The herring seiners are on the Island shore because that is where the herring are. They do not want to move offshore behind a 25 fathom line, because there are no fish there.They are intent on fishing out the stocks on what have been the traditional grounds of Islanders.

But simply putting the seiners behind an arbitrary line is only a short term solution. The industrial fishing mentality the seiners represent is out of date.The seiners must be taken off the water and relegated to history. There is no place for them in a world where the oceans have been depleted of 80 to 90 per cent of its fish stocks.

Indeed , even as the wrangling continued in the present controversy, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans tried to justify the presence of the seiners off P.E.I with its “science,” word came that DFO “science” had failed again — groundfish stocks on the Scotian Shelf have not rebounded. Groundfish have all but disappeared. DFO “science” cannot predict whether they will ever come back.

The scientists blame cold water and the other usual suspects. The real culprit is the overfishing of the industrial fleet permitted by DFO — ever larger and more expensive vessels equipped with the finest technology money can buy, usually with taxpayer supported grants and loans.

DFO maintains the herring stocks off the Island are in good shape, in fact, at their highest levels in many years. Fishermen scoff. They say spring and summer herring were almost non-existent off P.E.I. this summer, that herring were in short supply to use as bait for lobster and tuna. DFO pays the fishermen no heed.

There is a history behind the appearance of the seiners in Island waters. The traditional grounds for these New Brunswick-based vessels was the Baie de Chaleur, off northern New Brunswick . The depredations of the seiners depleted those stocks. DFO belatedly cut the quota for those grounds, and told the seiners they were restricted to catching a maximum of 50 per cent of their quota in those waters.

They were sent to the Island's inshore grounds off the eastern part of the province to catch whatever they needed to fill out their individual vessel quotas. That created a loophole: each vessel could gobble up any portion of its total quota from P.E.I. herring — up to 100 per cent of its total catch .

DFO officials made it very clear last week that they were in full support of the seiner fishery — in other words, in full support of industrial-style reaping of a natural resource. That puts this government department in league with those who would clearcut the forests and force the land to produce crops by the use of chemicals and poisons.

Where industrial practices have ruled the day, devastation of the natural resource has followed, as surely as night follows day. That is the inevitable consequence of industrial thinking. DFO “science” offers no protection. DFO “science” is nothing more than a word behind which politicians hide in order to make political decisions that favour corporate might.

The real question is whether we get the seiners off the water now, while there is still time, or wait until they disappear from the Gulf of St Lawrence in their own time because they have caught everything that swims.

It is just a question of time and the sacrifice of a fishery, with all the social and economic consequences that inevitably follow.

Jack MacAndrew is a P.E.I. writer and broadcaster.


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