Fishing for change

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The current Fisheries Act is sorely outdated and contains a lot of nonsense.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.

John Risley
About John Risley

John Risley, president of Clearwater Fine Foods Inc., regularly engages in policy debate as a member of the World Presidents' Organization, the Chief Executives Organization and as a director on the Board of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

2 Comments to “Fishing for change”

  1. Avatar Brad MacInnis // May 11, 2012 at 1:25 pm // Reply

    Perhaps, Mr. Risley, when you and the Harper government have perfected methods of raping the ocean, you will finally be able to afford to have that unibrow removed. You can just lay on the seabed while a trawler scrapes that nasty thing right off. That’s efficiency for you.

  2. Avatar Ryan Langille // May 12, 2012 at 1:03 pm // Reply

    It seems to me that Mr. Risley might have just a slight invested interest in the topic at hand. Therefore he might have just a little bit of a biased opinion when it comes to changing legislation . The truth is seafood companies in Atlantic Canada are clearly in bed with politicians in Ottawa , and have their own personal agenda’s . These large companies ” yes they are large “the largest seafood companies in the country , already have the struggling fisherman against the ropes, and changing this legislation would be the knockout blow. I can speak for myself and many other young people in the fishing industry that we will not go down without a fight. However , I clearly understand the way politics work and my voice is heard , but is it actually heard.
    I have been all over this country trying different avenues of work , including the big money in Alberta. I keep finding myself ,(I am not alone in the matter there are countless others) coming home every spring to take a third of the western wage fishing , and being much more satisfied with my job on the water. The sea gets in your blood, and once it is there you can travel as far away as you want , but you will find yourself longing to be on the water far away from ” the oilsands of Alberta” .
    I’ll get in line behind everyone else in this country who is completely satisfied with the job the Harper government is doing. I can’t wait to still be working when I am 67 years old . If you think I will sit around and watch them take our way of living away just to give it to commercial seafood comapanies Mr. Risley you are sadly mistaken. There’s probably more of a chance of you putting your Harvard degree through a paper shredder.
    Fishing is one of the only areas of work in Atlantic Canada where a man can still make a decent living . Take the owner operator rule out of fishing, and Clearwater will buy up licences one by one until the small time fisherman cannot make a buscuit . What will follow is small towns around Atlantic Canada fading away even more than they already are. Then you will have what you want Mr Risley , your conservative monopoly on the whole industry. You should be really proud of yourself for that article you wrote , it really has a lot of concern for our struggling industry.

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