Breathing New Life into the Independent Fishing Fleet

by Heather Grant.

In July 2015, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans made an important announcement for the independence of Canadian fisherman and the rural economy. The announcement introduced a series of new measures to enforce an already existing DFO policy on Preserving the Independence of the Inshore Fleet in Canada’s Atlantic Fisheries (PIIFCAF, for short).

Why should we care about independent, owner-operator fishing fleets? For one thing, these sorts of operations help to maintain meaningful employment in coastal communities. The ownership of fishing licenses and quota is increasingly becoming concentrated in the hands of a few, and so are the profits, which means less benefits are being spread to the communities that have traditionally benefited from fisheries.

Fishing boats in Yarmouth, NS

Fishing boats in Yarmouth, NS

Also, it just so happens that in Atlantic Canada, the owner-operator fleet tends to fish (though not always) with fishing gear that has a lower environmental impact. Examples of this include rod and reel tuna fishing, lobster traps and the harpoon swordfish fishery. By investing in and protecting small-scale, independent fisherman, there is a greater chance of restoring ocean ecosystems and maintaining fisheries resources for the use of future generations. Greenpeace has produced a useful infographic on the benefits of fair, independent fisheries.

There are a number of groups who are currently focused on the importance of such fisheries, such as the Community Fisheries Network, a cooperative that works to address the social side of fishing, an increasingly important aspect of sustainability in fisheries. Overseas, countries are beginning to recognize this social aspect – the European Union recently reformed its fishing rules to give preferential treatment to low-impact, small scale fisherman.

PIIFCAF was originally implemented in 2007, with the purpose of restoring independence to those fishermen who own and operate their fishing enterprise, and allowing them to be self-sustaining and economically viable in the long-term. Many independent harvesters had lost control of their enterprises through what are called “controlling agreements”, which allows individuals or corporations other than the official fishing licence-holder to secretly control and influence the use of that license.

A small fishing village, West Berlin, NS. Photo: Dennis Jarvis/Wikimedia Commons

An example of a controlling agreement is when a corporation finances the purchase of a fishing license for an individual fisher (and with rising license costs, this is a tempting offer) – while the harvester is the nominal holder of the fishing license from the DFO perspective, the corporation has the real control over how the license is used through such an agreement and the fish harvester becomes, for all intents and purposes, an employee of the company. This has the effect of quietly eliminating small business enterprises in the inshore fishery; the family run operation where the captain is the owner and operator of the vessel and the holder of the fishing licences.  It is quietly increasing corporate influence in our public fisheries and concentrating licences and income from fishing which means less money for coastal communities and greater impacts on fish stocks.

PIIFCAF had originally set out to eliminate and prevent such damaging arrangements, recognizing that independent fish harvesters are crucial to the health of coastal communities and ocean ecosystems, by requiring that all inshore license holders declare whether or not they were part of a controlling agreement – those who were not were categorized as independent fishermen and those who were, were required to either terminate their agreements or otherwise be ineligible for new or replacement fishing licences. The fishermen, processing companies and others who were involved in controlling agreements had until 2014 to terminate the agreements and return the licences to owner-operators. The vast majority of fishermen complied with the policies originally set out in PIIFCAF, but there were holdouts. Fish processors in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in particular who had been secretly buying up licences from retiring fish harvesters are believed to have ignored the 2014 deadline to divest themselves of the licences they control. They initially hoped they would be given grandfathering rights and that the Conservative government would back away from the PIIFCAF policy that was introduced by Loyola Hearn a Conservative fisheries Minister. They were wrong.

The new measures announced in July by current Fisheries Minister, Gail Shea, aim to eliminate the remainder of these agreements through several approaches. License holders suspected of being involved in a controlling agreement will be put under review, and will be required to prove their status as independent fishermen to a regional committee. DFO will also be conducting risk-based compliance reviews that would require selected licence holders to prove that they are not party to a controlling agreement. DFO has stated that it will be updating the PIIFCAF policy and related documents to reflect these changes.

Fishermen off the coast of NewFoundland. Photo: Paul B. Toman/Wikimedia Commons

What might be most exciting about these new measures is that they were based on recommendations that came directly from the organization that represents the independent owner-operator fleets. Essentially, when it became clear in 2014 that some of the big players were not complying with PIIFCAF, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was directed to work with the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters’ Federation, the national organization that speaks for the independent fleets on policy matters, to work at finding a solution.

Thanks to a series of workshops led by the Federation, with direct participation from senior DFO officials and the provinces a series of recommendations were developed that shaped the new measures.

Successful collaboration between government and industry to solve a common problem is a rare occurrence, and both deserve congratulations for promoting a significant step forward for our independent fishermen.

The fight to keep the profits from fishing in the hands of those who fish and live in our fishing communities is far from over, but this round certainly has gone to the fishermen and that speaks well for the future of the rural economy, particularly in Atlantic Canada.


Heather Grant is the Marine Communications Campaigner at the Ecology Action Centre.


2 thoughts on “Breathing New Life into the Independent Fishing Fleet

  1. Pingback: Breathing New Life into the Independent Fishing Fleet

  2. Pingback: Un nouveau souffle pour les flottes de pêche indépendantes

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