More Than Meets the Eye: Trade Treaties and Atlantic Fisheries

Guest Contribution by Jordan Nikoloyuk.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard a lot about the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union, but you don’t know many details. It turns out that’s deliberate. The agreement is being negotiated in secrecy, and the public is mostly left to learn about it through vague press announcements and the occasional incredibly detailed report written by independent research institutes and based on leaked documents – which is how people learn about public policy these days?

Scott Sinclair Interviewed by CBC. Photo courtesy of CPPA.

Sinclair interviewed by CBC. Photo courtesy of CCPA.

I was lucky to attend a recent Halifax presentation of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ new report: Globalization, Trade Treaties and the Future of the Atlantic Canadian Fisheries, given by the author, Scott Sinclair. I wrote this blog post to try to explain the impact of the CETA on Atlantic Canada’s fisheries the way he explained it. Any errors here are my own, and even though the report is a longer read, it’s incredibly informative, so check it out.

When politicians, industry lobbyists and most media outlets talk about free trade agreements like the CETA, they talk about reducing tariffs – fees and taxes charged on imported goods. For the most part I think that’s maybe a good thing, since the EU has the highest tariffs on seafood of all of Canada’s trading partners (an average of 10%).

Lowered tariffs might not benefit fishermen or fishing communities. The Clearwater Seafoods CEO, for example, seems confident that wharf prices won’t go up, but that his company will “end up with more money because we sell more.” However the benefits are distributed though, tariff reductions might help the industry.

The thing is that there’s a lot more to the CETA than tariff reductions.- like conservation, distribution of benefits, and coastal community development. These are higher fisheries management priorities than getting rid of a 10% tariff, right? The CETA directly affects our government’s ability make public policy in these fields by prioritizing foreign investment and trade interests.

One of Sinclair’s key examples was the ‘minimum processing requirements’ enforced in Newfoundland that basically say that, if a company wants to fish it has to land and process some percentage of the catch in Newfoundland. We also have the well-known ‘owner-operator’ requirements that state that the person who owns a fishing license has to be the one operating the boat (to prevent quota-owners from becoming fishery landlords). More fundamentally, we preferentially give license to fish Canadian resources to Canadian citizens, which seems pretty reasonable to me.

Loading traps in Southwest Nova Scotia. Photo by Derek Jones.

Loading traps in Southwest Nova Scotia. Photo by Derek Jones.

Policies that enable regulation of the fisheries for conservation and other public purposes are contrary to the fundamentals of the CETA, and it’s no surprise that corporate interests are portraying fisheries as the big winner in this agreement. Most corporate actors would love to be able to manage their seafood companies without regard to fishermen, coastal communities or marine ecosystems. It’s win-win for them, but with lots to lose for fishing communities.

Public policy instruments like owner-operator and fleet separation are partially protected under the CETA through “reservations” – exemptions from the treaty for specific policies – but reservations can only go so far. EU investors will still be able bring claims against the Canadian government if, for example, they invest in corporations that lose fishing licenses. Arbitration tribunals will also have full authority to determine compensation for any financial losses.

Some provincial reservations are being made, but are generally weak reservations made under ‘Annex I’ of the treaty. Scott explains that “These measures are under a legal ratchet; they cannot be amended in any way that makes them more CETA-inconsistent. If eliminated, they cannot be restored by any future government.”

There’s an obvious and immediate need for the Federal and Provincial governments need to immediately draft strong ‘Annex II’reservations that ensure policy flexibility in future fisheries management. More importantly, we have to acknowledge that today’s reservation is tomorrow’s bargaining chip. If we keep signing treaties that are fundamentally inconsistent with our fisheries management priorities, those priorities might not last long. Negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are right around the corner, and the lack of regulation in some of those fisheries is terrifying.

Wharfside at Cape Sable Island, NS. Photo by Derek Jones.

Wharfside at Cape Sable Island, NS. Photo by Derek Jones.

The CETA negotiations are being conducted entirely in secret, which should upset anyone who thinks that important public policy decisions should be made by elected governments instead of trade negotiators –  which I hope is everybody. One thing I didn’t quite get from Scott’s presentation is why our provincial governments aren’t doing a better job pushing back. I thought that since the owner-operator fishery was the region’s largest private sector employer, the Atlantic Provinces’ governments would work to protect it! Why not ask your Provincial MLA (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island) what they’re doing to open the CETA to a public discussion or at least to make sure that strong Annex II reservations get into the CETA to protect coastal economies?

Jordan Nikoloyuk is the Sustainable Fisheries Coordinator of the Ecology Action Centre. He thinks that public resources should be used for public benefits and is surprised when people disagree with him.

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