DFO in NL has ‘completely lost touch with inshore harvesters’ and the FFAW-Unifor has lost its way

I gave the following presentation this morning (March 22nd) before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans in Ottawa. The committee is studying commercial fishing vessel length policy as it applies to the Atlantic provinces. Also appearing before the committee were fishermen Jason Sullivan and John Will Brazil, as well as Merv Wiseman.

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Good morning.

My name is Ryan Cleary, President of the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador — FISH-NL, as we’re known back home. 

I’m here with Merv Wiseman, one of the founders of FISH-NL. I will be sharing my time with Mr. Wiseman. 

A little about us. 

FISH-NL is a recognized union representing an estimated 3,000 inshore harvesters.

We’re not the official bargaining agent. 

FISH-NL is currently locked in a certification battle with the FFAW-Unifor (the bargaining agent) to represent inshore harvesters. 

We’ve had an application for certification before the province’s Labour Relations Board for almost 15 months now. 

Almost 15 months and they’re still trying to figure out how many actual fishermen/women there are, but that’s a story for another day. 

Mr. Chair (MP Scott Simms), having read the transcript of this committee's first meeting on vessel length policy — which made for some compelling reading, Mr. Chair — I saw that one of the more dominate themes was DFO consultation.

Or lack thereof. 

Mr. McDonald, the honourable member for Avalon, brought up consultation a number of times, and it’s one of FISH-NL’s central points today. 

Mr. Chair, the first thing I want to make clear is that DFO in the Newfoundland and Labrador region has completely lost touch with inshore harvesters. 

DFO does not have its finger on their pulse, and hasn’t for decades. 

DFO acknowledged that point this past fall and winter when it held a series of 20 face-to-face meetings with harvesters on every coast in Newfoundland and Labrador — the first such meetings in a generation. 

Fishermen in their 60s and 70s said they couldn’t remember DFO ever holding such meetings. 

Instead, DFO has relied on the FFAW to speak for harvesters. 

Only most harvesters say the union is no longer their voice, and hasn’t been for years. 

They say the union has lost its way.  

Mr. Chair, that’s also another story for another day, although I’m sure Mr. McDonald could fill you in. 

Again, it’s clear that DFO held the 20 meetings around Newfoundland and Labrador  to reconnect with harvesters. 

FISH-NL recommends such meetings be held on a continuous basis. 

I also noted in the transcript from this committee’s last meeting that one of the witnesses — Verna Doherty with DFO’s Maritimes Region — said in the winter of 2017 her region undertook a licensing policy review whereby they sent an open invite to every core licence-holder to attend open sessions on licensing policy.  

Mr. Chair, such direct meetings between DFO and core licence holders in Newfoundland and Labrador have never taken place. 

In future, FISH-NL recommends they do take place.

Mr. Chair, inshore harvesters can no longer tell who’s the manager — DFO or the FFAW. 

Who makes the rules?

DFO must recreate and continuously strengthen a direct connection with inshore harvesters.

In terms of the policy on vessel length — more specifically, raising the length from 39’11 to 44’11 — the majority of Newfoundland and Labrador harvesters I’ve connected with have no issue with such a policy change. 

In fact, they say vessel length should be be standardized across the East Coast … 

They say safety must be the primary consideration … 

Most seem in favour to it, Mr. Chair. 

At the same time, some harvesters in the over 45-foot fleet are against increasing existing vessel size, saying bigger boats will create bigger appetites — and bigger will eventually want more. 

While the size of a boat doesn’t factor into IQ fisheries, some harvesters say allowing bigger boats will give them an advantage in competitive fisheries like mackerel, or with fisheries that may be competitive in future. 

Mr. Chair, this comes back to the point about consultation. 

FISH-NL recommends that when it comes to proposals for major policy change DFO should consult directly — and as transparently and openly as possible — with inshore harvesters. 

FISH-NL would advise going so far as to create a ballot system so harvesters themselves can vote on major policy change … 

Mr. Chair, when it comes to the variance in time frame for operator transfers …  

In Newfoundland and Labrador it’s a year, compared to one month in Nova Scotia, compared to one day on the Conne River Indian Reserve in southern Newfoundland. 

The transfers puts Newfoundland and Labrador harvesters at an economic disadvantage, and should be standardized across the regions. 

Thank you, Mr. Chair. 

Mr. Wiseman will continue from here.