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The politics of the fisheries

A great column about how politics and not science dictates fishery policies

As cod collapsed we discovered crab, a valuable and harvester-friendly resource that should have sustained us for decades. Now, we are in danger of having fished that out as well. It’s in decline.

People say the state of the crab biomass in the rich area known as 3K was badly managed by Ottawa because of government response to industry pressure. Smaller cuts that should have been made all along were resisted and delayed.

Now the mistakes have caught up with the industry and harvesters and processors are sweating out this year’s 25 per cent reduction.

And it’s not just the feds who bob and weave when it comes to tough fisheries decisions. Former fisheries union president Richard Cashin did a study for the Newfoundland government in 2005 on a controversial proposal called Raw Material Sharing, a.k.a. the infamous RMS.

In his report, Cashin took a whack at former provincial fisheries Minister John Efford. Efford, he said, violated the policy of processing licence freezes ("a complete disregard for … and abdication of responsible public policy," Cashin called it), and doled out crab licenses like there was no tomorrow. More than 20 new crab processing licences in a five-year period!

Again, it was just politics.

But the price that we paid is that we are now left with enough crab plants to process the entire world’s supply. Processors scramble to keep plants running for a few weeks, plant workers scramble to get enough hours to qualify for EI.

How do you fix it?

The most pervasive argument asserts the fishery needs to be stripped of politics. In the U.S., the fishery is governed by a piece of federal law called the Magnuson-Stevens Act. It’s a non-political body that sets benchmarks and guidelines and goals for fisheries management and sticks to them. There is little or no political interference.

In Canada, the argument is that we also need something similar: a new Fisheries Act. An act that takes the federal minister completely out of the picture and allows the fishery to operate and flourish at arm’s length.

Maybe the province also needs to take the politics out and remove the provincial minister from decision-making.

Perhaps then people can address the problems, make the tough decisions and save what’s left of an industry that has been studied and politicized to near-extinction. Our outports, our young.

And, oh yes, the cod would all be better off.

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