At the time of this writing there is much buzz and consternation about a new Fisheries Act or changes to the existing legislation. Regardless of how much opposition it brings, change is long overdue.
The current Fisheries Act is sorely outdated and contains a lot of nonsense. It creates little benefit for anyone and adds costs and complexity to an industry that struggles to compete internationally. Consider the current rules around the potential for damage to fisheries habitat as an example.
At the moment, the federal Department of Fisheries is required to conduct complex and expensive studies even when there are no commercial or environmentally important species to protect. In fact, current regulations around habitat protection are ridiculous. Build a recreational wharf which projects 80 feet or so out from the shore and you will find a requirement to interrupt the wharf with a bridge so that when the tide is in, fish can pass underneath or through the bridge rather than having to swim around it (and yes, I’m serious).
There is legitimate concern emanating from the scientific community in particular and from various vested interest groups, like the wild salmon associations, that the Department retain responsibility for protecting habitat. While I haven’t seen the new legislation, I can’t imagine the Department wouldn’t have such a responsibility when there are compelling reasons for it. That said, reducing regulatory inefficiency and reallocating resources to focus on legitimate fish conservation issues may actually improve overall habitat protection.
Hopefully, the new legislation will remove the duplication of environmental studies by both provincial and federal governments. A single agency review process should prevail, in addition to a common sense approach as to when such studies are required.
Canadians need to understand the fishing industry is not operated like any other industry in the country. It is the only industry in which a participant can do nothing different without getting permission from the regulator. Compare this to other industries wherein the rules are focused on what participants can’t do. As a result, the introduction of new technology or change on almost any level requires consent.
This form of intimate management has led to huge inefficiencies and additional costs. The industry currently suffers from a policy around something called fleet separation. This precludes processing companies from owning vessel licenses in the under-65-feet category, saving such privileges for owner-operators. On the face of it, it seems fair enough, but in practice what such policy has promoted are circuitous legal deals in which fishermen wanting to sell their licenses do so to fishing companies (or to other fishermen) who then lease them to operators who will land the catch as directed. There is a market for such legal arrangements because they make good business sense. Unfortunately, the government has moved to develop additional rules to close such loopholes, dealing with the symptoms of a problem rather than the root cause.
The fleet separation policy has had several unintended consequences. It has prevented owner-operators from aggregating licenses in a natural quest to become more efficient and to grow. And it has lead to the creation of a class of 64-foot, 11-inch vessels which are inherently unsafe as the industry seeks to design as much catching capacity as possible into an Ottawa-prescribed artificial restriction. Imagine a farmer being told he couldn’t operate a larger tractor or buy his neighbour’s fields so as to grow his business. That is the effect of current fisheries policy.
The hue and cry from many will be that the relaxation of such artificial and cost-enhancing legislation will presage the corporatization of the fishery; that big companies will end up with all the licenses. First, and importantly, there are no big companies in the fishing industry.
Interference by government has seen to that. Canada’s fishing companies, such as they are (Clearwater included), are tiny food companies by global standards, challenged to support and market their products around the world in competition with other protein sources, owned and supported by truly big companies. Second, the small boat fleet is severely overcapitalized with little ability to achieve a reasonable return on investment or provide adequate livelihoods to individual participants.
The industry is desperately trying to grow-up, to deal with an ageing work force at sea and on land, to compete with opportunities available in the energy industry both in Alberta and offshore. It needs the same sort of policy framework under which every other industry in this country operates. The days of a social fishery are over. We need to recreate an industry guided by conservation and profit.
Should we embrace the memories of the romantic aspects of the industry as it once was? Absolutely, but if we try to prevent the industry from becoming a more efficient producer of protein, one capable of creating career opportunities attractive to an increasingly mobile young workforce, it will die.
And what a shame that would be.