I was a kid when the moratorium started. As a union leader, I’m still fighting for change

Two photos are side by side. In a colour photo on the left, a young boy wearing a life-jacket holds an oar in a rowboat. In a black and white archival photo of two men hauling traps aboard a fishing boat. One is older than the other.
Keith Sullivan grew up in a fishing family in Calvert, on Newfoundland’s Southern Shore. In the photo at right, he was 18 while fishing with his father, Lloyd Sullivan. (Submitted by Keith Sullivan)

This column is an opinion by Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Three decades have come and gone since the cod moratorium in Newfoundland and Labrador was announced on that fateful day in 1992.

I was just 12 years old growing up in Calvert at the time, and the cod fishery was the heart and soul of the Southern Shore from Trepassey to Bay Bulls, just like the communities so many of you called home.

My family remained in the fishery after the moratorium, but many others did not. More than 30,000 people lost their livelihoods that day and the landscape of our province was forever changed.

It was not an easy road for those who made the commitment to remain in the industry. Eventually the FFAW was able to win access to snow crab and northern shrimp for harvesters displaced through the northern cod closure.

This diversification and focus on value have resulted in higher incomes, pulling fish harvesters out of poverty and into the upper-middle class.

These fisheries, as well as fisheries such as Atlantic halibut and lobster, have allowed the inshore fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador to diversify and modernize — focusing on higher value products that are world renowned for quality. Long gone are the days of frozen cod blocks.

This diversification and focus on value have resulted in higher incomes, pulling fish harvesters out of poverty and into the upper-middle class.

As we entered the year 2020, prices were on a continued upward trend and the outlook for the season was exceptional. But as we all know, nothing went quite as planned in 2020.

Union members are being pitted against one another

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the entire global commerce system and the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador was no exception. When the world was shut down, the market for high-value seafood products became uncertain.

In the wake of the pandemic, the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP) and their member companies are in a desperate bid to drive workers backwards. At every turn, ASP has attempted to erode harvesters’ shares in the market and pit union member against union member. At negotiations this spring they presented insulting price offers well below what the market indicates is fair, and they sow seeds of mistrust on the shop floor.

A man wearing an unbuttoned shirt and slacks stands in front of harbour and a hillside scene. The ocean is in the background.
Keith Sullivan has been president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union since 2014. He says increases in value in the fisheries have helped increase the economic standing of many working in the industry. (Submitted by Keith Sullivan)

At a time when we should be looking for ways to revitalize jobs and the middle class, our government is failing to protect workers from these injustices. Companies are trying to push us back to the days of the merchants and our elected MHAs and MPs are sitting idly by while it happens.

The lack of capacity to handle current quotas is costing both harvesters and plant workers. Processing companies are refusing to purchase shrimp and sea cucumber from inshore harvesters which is impacting thousands of plant workers in the province in addition to the harvesters that rely on these fisheries. Provincial Fisheries Minister Derrick Bragg and Environment and Climate Change Minister Bernard Davis continue to protect companies and promote secrecy surrounding processing production and sales information in Newfoundland and Labrador, leaving harvesters with no avenue to sell their catch.

The provincial government’s refusal to take meaningful steps toward addressing any concerns plaguing the inshore fishery is hurting the economic prosperity of harvesters, plant workers and coastal communities. It is a privileged position to hold a processing licence in Newfoundland and Labrador. It is abundantly clear that something must be done by our government if these companies are refusing to operate while a fishery remains open.

Devastation is still fresh in our minds

Meanwhile, on the federal level, fish harvesters continue to be treated with disdain by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. As we know, DFO Science and fish harvesters don’t always agree.

This is the 30-year anniversary of the cod moratorium, but for many people in the industry the devastation is still fresh in their minds.

The value of the crab fishery has softened the blow dealt by the collapse in cod stocks. (Submitted by Eugene Howell)

It was the fishermen who first raised the alarm on the stock’s depletion, and the government who dismissed them.

In the three decades since, we’ve led the charge in improving science by initiating dozens of surveys and other scientific projects — bringing quantifiable information from fish harvesters to the science assessment table.

While DFO has struggled to deliver adequate science in several key areas, our union has invested greatly in building a robust science team equipped with a full-time fisheries scientist and other science support staff, allowing us to fill in many of the gaps left by the federal government.

But despite those 30 years and all the progress that has been made, harvesters still do not have a valued seat at the table and DFO continues to ignore fish harvesters and their contributions. We’ve witnessed a concerning trend of decisions that fly in the face of logic — a divergence from focusing on true science and fact and making decisions solely to appease the environmentalist doctrine. From mackerel to gulf shrimp, recent decisions from DFO are not supported by sound scientific evidence.

Most FFAW-Unifor members are currently deep into their busiest time of year, but we remain focused on these big picture issues that affect our members’ day-to-day lives. We work behind the scenes each and every day to address issues at the federal and provincial levels, to make meaningful changes for workers in this province.

It is certainly not an easy or smooth battle to fight, but it is one that I am proud to be a part of and hope to contribute to for the next 30 years.

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