A couple of weeks ago I came across this article talking about efforts being made to retain access to the ground fish fishery within the community of Martha’s Vineyard. While the fishery is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Martha’s Vineyard, it like most coastal communities along the northeastern US and Atlantic Canada were settled because of the bounty of the northwest Atlantic. Through time and attrition, access to the resource trickled away from smaller boat fishermen into a more corporate system.
To say the article hit close to home is an understatement. On our island, we have watched as mobile herring, ground fish and a portion of the scallop fleet slowly moved from independent fishermen to corporate control and subsequently to individual transferable quotas and fleet rationalization. The result: the loss of those fisheries and jobs from our community. Now, our multi-species fishery has become largely dependent on the lobster fishery with other fisheries acting a supplement. Dependence on one species is a bit of a scary concept.
Over the past several years, we’ve seen the quiet erosion of the owner operator component of the fishery. (Owner operator means exactly what is says: the owner of the license operates the boat to catch the fish) While technically the government policy supports it, there has been little to no effort to enforce it and we have seen licences trickle off our island to corporate interests in other provinces. Without sounding alarmist, these licences landed over a million dollars worth of lobster in another province in a single year. Traditionally, those landings would have happened on the island, resulting in not only jobs on the fishing boats but also on shore in support industries. For a community of 2500, that is a huge loss.
So, three weeks ago while I sat in a meeting in Montreal reading the article about the community of Martha’s Vineyard trying to save its fishery, we were discussing the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans’ announcement that would strengthen the enforcement of the owner operator policy. It has the potential to if not prevent, than at least make it more difficult for a situation similar to Martha’s Vineyard to happen on Grand Manan. According to the announcement, the Department will actually ask questions during license transfers and investigate if the name on the license is actually the owner and in control of the enterprise. A novel concept, but they appear to be positioning themselves to actually enforce their policy. For small coastal communities, it means a bit of a return to the cornerstones they were built on: independence of fishermen; separation from corporate consolidation, and the ability for new generations to access the fishery as those independent owner/operators;
Now, we wait with baited breath to see what, if anything, will actually happen. As with anything, words are one thing, but action is another. It feels like we’ve reached a turning point; here’s hoping we can actually turn the corner.