Fisheries Policy | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Fisheries Policy

The challenge of fisheries policy is to preserve fish stocks while maximizing economic benefit to the people involved in the industry, to the communities that depend on it, and to the nation as a whole.

Fisheries Policy

 The management and development of fishing is a significant area of public policy. Federal jurisdiction over Canada's coastal and inland fisheries dates to the CONSTITUTION ACT of 1867, and a federal fisheries administration has existed, either as a separate department or as a branch of another department or ministry, since that time. In 1979 the federal government established the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. However, the provinces are responsible for certain areas of fisheries jurisdiction, including fish processing and the training of fishermen.

The challenge of fisheries policy is to preserve fish stocks while maximizing economic benefit to the people involved in the industry, to the communities that depend on it, and to the nation as a whole. The fishing industry is complex and difficult to administer, made up as it is of many different and often conflicting interest groups.

Some of the difficulties stem from the "common property" nature of the resource. There is no arrangement for proprietary tenure over fish, which tends to result in a "free-for-all" race for limited fish stocks. The first priority of fishery policy is to maintain and if possible expand the resource by annually setting an overall quota or Total Allowable Catch for discretely identifiable species stock. This procedure is applied particularly in the management of demersal (groundfish) and pelagic (open-sea) fisheries. In other fisheries, different approaches are used, eg, an optimal necessary "escapement" (salmon) and a minimum legal size (lobster), etc. The federal government has also pursued a policy of limited entry into the fishing industry and of restricted licences to fish certain species.

Recently, there has been a trend in federal policy toward the introduction of quasi-property rights or enterprise allocations, whereby each fishing enterprise is given its own individual quota. Proponents of this approach believe it will help solve the problem of overinvestment and self-defeating competition associated with the common-property resource.

Fish stocks were severely depleted during the 1960s and early 1970s as a result of overfishing off Canadian coasts by foreign factory freezer-trawler fleets. Following a series of multinational negotiations, a new fisheries management regime came into effect in 1977 when Canada's jurisdiction was extended to 200 nautical miles (370 km). The federal government then moved to reverse the decline in fish stocks by gradually reducing foreign fishing within the 200-mile limit while increasing Canada's own effort. The subsequent growth of northern cod stock off Labrador has been one of the success stories in fisheries management, although by 1983-84 this appeared to have slowed.

Some fish stocks that are important to Canada's fishing industry remain outside the 200-mile management zone. Organizations set up to protect stocks in international waters include the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization and the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission. Problems can still arise between individual countries. In the early 1980s, for instance, Canada charged Spain (which had not then signed the NAFO treaty) with overfishing just outside the 200-mile limit in the area known as the Tail of the Grand Banks. This led to some curtailment of trade between the 2 nations.

The jurisdictional boundary around the French-owned islands of SAINT-PIERRE AND MIQUELON off the south coast of Newfoundland is still disputed between Canada and France; however, disputes with the US have for the most part been resolved. In 1984, the International Court of Justice ruled that a zonal boundary be fixed in the Gulf of Maine and allowed a joint management of some fisheries in the area. The 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty with the US provides for innovations in fishery management and includes conditions for restoration of fish stocks and harvest sharing.

In the 1980s the Atlantic and to a lesser extent the Pacific fishing industries found themselves in deep economic trouble. On both coasts, it was charged that there were "too many boats chasing too few fish." With the introduction of the 200-mile limit, fishermen and processors had been encouraged to overexpand their operations in anticipation of a boom that never materialized. Many went heavily into debt, only to be hit with extremely high interest rates that coincided with a periodic slump in the world market. In response, the federal government created 2 royal commissions (under Peter Pearse and Michael Kirby respectively) to study the Pacific and Atlantic fisheries.

The policy issues on each coast are different. On the West Coast, the most important issues are conservation, rationalization of effort, reduction of fleet size, and market stabilization. On the East Coast, the main issues involve the upgrading of the quality and therefore the market value of fish products (particularly cod and herring); the development of markets for abundant, underutilized species, eg, hake, mackerel, herring, alewife; some reduction in numbers of fishermen; improved and stabilized income for fishermen; and the creation of a proper and stable balance between inshore, nearshore and offshore fleets and effort.

The recommendations produced by the 2 commissions were and remain controversial. On the West Coast, the DFO met resistance from fishermen in its efforts to implement the Pearse Commission's plan to reduce the fishing fleet drastically through a system of royalties and buy backs. The Pearse Commission Report suggested that a government-appointed board should offer compensation to holders of fishing licences for voluntarily giving up their licences, thus reducing the total number of fishermen involved in the salmon and roe herring fisheries.

The report proposed that the cost of such a program should be shared between government and the remaining holders of fishing licences, who would supposedly benefit from the fleet reduction by increasing their individual catches. Revenue would be derived from fishermen in the form of royalties, which would be a fixed percentage of the value of fish landings.

On the East Coast, a "restructuring" process was set in motion, involving the infusion of public money to refinance 5 major offshore fishing companies that were virtually bankrupt. Out of this restructuring emerged 2 new "super-companies," one based in Newfoundland and the other in Nova Scotia. The Newfoundland-based company is owned by the federal and provincial governments, while the Nova Scotia-based company remains in private hands. The restructuring deals were sharply criticized, particularly because nothing was done to assist independent fishermen who were caught in a financial squeeze as a result of steep increases in operating costs.

Just what role government should play in the fishing industry is a question that underlies much of the debate on restructuring and indeed on fishery policy in general. Fish-plant owners subscribe to a private enterprise philosophy, but critics charge that private enterprise has been responsible for the crises in the fishery industry, crises that have necessitated government intervention.

Under the Fisheries Prices Support Act, in force since the 1940s, government programs have helped shield primary producers from periodic fluctuations in international commodity markets, and many argue that such programs should be expanded. The Norwegians, who are among Canada's leading competitors in the fish trade, have similar programs for their fishermen. In 1969 the Canadian government established the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp, a crown trading corporation modelled on the Canadian Wheat Board, to control the export of freshwater fish and fish products from the Prairie provinces, the NWT and northern Ontario. The traditional salt-fish trade to Mediterranean and Caribbean countries has declined in Canada because of undisciplined marketing by a multitude of small exporters and because of effective competition from Norway and Iceland.

In 1970, in response to an initiative from the Newfoundland government, the federal government established the Canadian Saltfish Corporation, modelled on the FFMC but with a slightly different mandate. It handles the export of (and interprovincial trade in) dried salt codfish and similar products originating in Newfoundland, Labrador and the lower North Shore of Québec. Both the FFMC and the CSC are joint federal-provincial companies.

Role of Unions

While more government involvement in fish marketing is generally opposed by processors, it is supported by most unions representing Canadian fishermen and fish-plant workers. Increasing numbers of fishermen and plant workers have banded together into unions and other organizations to protect their interests in dealing with fish companies and governments. Unions bargain directly with fish companies to establish fish prices and plant wages, and lobby governments for fishing policies they favour.

An early example of unionization in Newfoundland was the founding of the Fishermen's Protective Union by William COAKER in 1908. This was a social and political movement aimed at breaking the old credit or "truck" system which kept fishermen in a condition of semiserfdom. A fisherman never saw any cash throughout the year; instead the merchant supplied him on credit with staple goods such as flour and molasses. At the end of the season the merchant took the fisherman's cured fish, calculating its worth at a price set not by fishermen but by traders. In this way fishermen were kept permanently in debt and completely dependent on the merchant.

Coaker attempted to assure the fishermen of some financial independence by creating a shareholding company that operated cash stores which supplied staple goods at noninflated prices. Coaker's movement declined after 1919 when as minister of fisheries in a coalition government he tried unsuccessfully to introduce certain reforms in fisheries policy, including co-ordination of salt-fish exporting.

On the West Coast, the chief union in the fishing industry is the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, which was founded in 1945 and remains an effective bargaining agent for fishermen and shoreworkers. In BC, however, there is no provincial legislation giving independent fishermen the formal right to collective bargaining. The first province to pass collective bargaining legislation for fishermen was Newfoundland, which did so in 1971 as a result of political pressure from the newly formed Newfoundland Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers Union.

New Brunswick fishermen obtained collective bargaining rights in 1982, but Nova Scotia and PEI still have no collective bargaining legislation for self-employed fishermen. The NFFAWU, representing some 28 000 inshore fishermen, offshore trawlermen and plant workers in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, is now Canada's largest fishing-industry union. It is affiliated to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which also has several fishing industry locals across Canada. The NFFAWU has played a major role in increasing fish prices and wages, influencing public policy and introducing social benefits, such as workers' compensation, for fishermen.

Unions influence government policy through representation on various committees that advise the federal government on establishing quotas for different species, eg, the NFFAWU has representatives on the Atlantic Groundfish Advisory Commmittee. When fishermen and processors' organizations mount conflicting lobbies to influence policy, fishermen sometimes prevail. For example, government policy allows "over-the-side sales" (which are opposed by processors) whereby self-employed fishermen who are unable to sell their catch to a fish plant may sell directly to foreign factory ships.

When fishing-industry unions perceive that government policy favours the interests of the fish companies, their last resort may be an attempt to mobilize their membership at the ballot box, eg, in 1984 they mounted the "Unity '84" campaign against Ottawa's restructuring policy, which involved 7 different fishing-industry unions in the Atlantic provinces.

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