Guest Contribution by Maria Recchia
The small-scale fishing industry in Canada has been under attack recently.
First Ottawa releases the now famous “Discussion Document on Modernizing the Fisheries” which conveniently omitted the owner-operator and fleet separation policies. Then the Fisheries Act is gutted, leaving little environmental protection. Then Employment Insurance is slashed in ways that don’t make sense for fishermen. Then Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) stops issuing fishing tags and logbooks. And now all licensing has to be done online by a population that is, on the whole, not very computer savvy.
This barrage of government downloading and policy shifting has created a whirlwind for fishermen’s associations and other support organizations. I am not sure what the goal really is in all this change. Perhaps it is as we fear, a drive to industrialize and corporatize the small boat fishery in Canada. Or perhaps it is just cost cutting with an over reliance on the capitalist system to shake out what is “best” for our society.
I certainly am not in favour of any of these moves, but, perhaps I have the wrong strategy. Working for a fishermen’s association, I am a big fan of community institutions, of people working together for the good of the larger group. Building a strong civil society is what my work is all about.
I would not have guessed that these recent assaults on our small-scale fishery would have done so much to strengthen our local fishermen’s association. Our membership has gone from 80 fishermen to 125 and we are getting new members everyday.
For the first time we are a part of a nationwide movement of independent fishermen working together to be heard by our government and to solve problems together. This “Movement” began in response to DFO’s fisheries modernization document. Protecting the owner-operator and fleet separation policies in the small boat fisheries has been a priority for decades. So when everybody got together and sent over 10,000 letters to Ottawa, the Minister of Fisheries had no choice but to make a statement in support of these vital policies.
The Movement is now transitioning to become a Federation of Independent Fishermen. I am so encouraged by this development and can see long-lasting benefits to our membership.
I can now envision a time when the small-scale fishery in Canada will have a strong voice in Ottawa, which I hope will lead to better policies that support our fishing communities.
When DFO decided, without consultation, that tags were not necessary in effort-control fisheries like the lobster fishery, we had no choice but to also take on the task of issuing tags. When our association sent out letters to every lobster license holder in our district with tag order forms and membership forms, we got an overwhelming response.
For an organization that never represented more than one-third of the license holders in the district, all of a sudden we were providing services to three-quarters of the fishermen and our membership grew to one half of all license holders and it is still growing. I should mention that we are not the only game in town to be supplying tags. In our region, fishermen have a choice of four different tag suppliers and we are not the cheapest.
All of a sudden fishermen we have never heard from before are joining up, attending meetings (we had our largest AGM ever this year), and convincing their friends of the importance of membership.
It has not been easy, this winter we had the heaviest workload I have ever experienced in my 15 years working for the association. We clearly need more staff to handle the service delivery and all the new issues emerging with government changes and a larger membership. Funding will be our next challenge, but I am hopeful that money will come more easily with the strong support base we are building.
So I never thought I would be saying this, but, “Thank you Government of Canada,” you made us stronger.
Maria Recchia is the Executive Director of the Fundy North Fishermen’s Association.