The federal government seems hell-bent on proceeding with ill-advised amendments to the Fisheries Act that pose particular threat to Atlantic Canadian inshore fishermen and processors.
The importance of the fishery cannot be overstated — directly responsible for 80,000 jobs and $6.6 billion in exports — while the indirect economic impact is much greater. Yet Ottawa is hinting at major changes — especially with licence allocation — that could turn the industry upside down.
Recent overseas trade missions to China, Japan and India, for example, have paid lucrative dividends, with huge markets opening up for lobster and other Atlantic seafood products. It has boosted export and prices for fishermen and processors.
This week's agreement on a revised Trans Pacific trade deal is encouraging for the fishery, while European markets are opening up under the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU.
But at a time of great opportunity in Canada's fisheries sector, the industry faces unprecedented uncertainty over a government policy that is putting hundreds of millions of investment dollars at risk.
In a speech last summer in Nova Scotia, federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc hinted at far-reaching changes to licensing rules and questioned existing policies that offer “near-indefinite access to the fishery by virtue of automatic (licence) renewal.”
Ottawa is hinting at rescinding or transferring licences to new holders after a fixed period of time. Licence stability means more investment and security for fishermen and processors; Ottawa's plan would negate those gains.
LeBlanc knows changes to Canada's licensing policy will have a major impact, so why proceed with this madness?
What fisherman in Atlantic Canada would endorse a policy change that places a time limit on licences? Inshore fishermen work for years to pay off the debt attached to their licences, vessels and gear. They see those assets as their only pension plan. To suggest that licences could rotate in and out after three, five or seven years is sheer lunacy.
Larger fishing companies, with licences to harvest Canada's offshore seafood, need that collateral to justify investments that often amounts to millions of dollars.
The government consulted widely on restoring habitat protection but then proposed a wide range of additional non-habitat changes to fisheries management and licencing policy without meaningful consultation — changes that could represent the most significant shifts in Canadian fisheries management in generations, and could derail growth and innovation in this industry.
Fisheries decisions must be based on science, collaboration, openness and transparency — not the secrecy Ottawa is displaying. It's time to sit down and talk. Enhancing Atlantic Canada's fisheries won't be accomplished with problematic amendments to licences and quotas.
The minister should know better; he represents a riding with a strong fisheries presence along the Northumberland Strait.
He'd best tread carefully with amendments to ensure they support, not undermine, the Atlantic fishery.