Stay the Course on Owner Operator

Back in July I had the privilege of attending a political announcement for my job.  Political speeches are nothing new, and often don’t say anything new. This one was different.  In it, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc announced the government’s intent to enshrine the owner operator policy into the Fisheries Act. For fishermen, it means that the license holder owns and operates the boat; he (or she) is independent and not following the direction or control of someone else. For coastal communities in rural Canada, it means that the beneficial interest from the fishery flows from fishermen to the communities they live in. It’s something inshore fishermen have been fighting to maintain for decades, but particularly for the last five years when a Department of Fisheries and Oceans policy paper on “Modernizing the Fishery” omitted any mention of the owner operator policy. The fight has been long and the stakes are high. For many communities (like mine) fishery after fishery has become corporatized and those fishing boats, jobs, and money have left our island. Watching the corporate creep into the lobster fishery is like living the fishing version of Groundhog Day.


That’s why that July afternoon when the announcement was made, I freely admitted I got a little teary eyed. When I looked around the room full of burly fishermen and jaded industry reps, I wasn’t the only one. It was kind of a big deal, and we all knew it was. For that moment in time, there was a ray of hope against a backdrop of bureaucratic molasses climbing up a hill.


There’s been fear mongering from the other side about decreased license values and government taking licenses. It’s meant to distract and divert attention by people who have the most to gain from losing the owner operator policy. It’s a political tactic we’ve seen play out far too often on far bigger stages. I think fishermen are smarter than that. I think they’ve watched fleets and opportunities disappear from their wharves and they don’t want to lose any more. I think communities understand that if they want to maintain the way of life that they’ve had for generations, they need to make sure there is an opportunity for young people to enter the fishery as independent business owners, not as a paid per hour labourer for a corporate interest.


I think this because as the industry reps left the announcement in July and went home, we started having a similar experience. We were approached repeatedly in groceries stores, at the dentist, in the bank, at the wharf by different people with the same questions:


“Do you think they’re really going to fix owner operator?”

Do you think I’ll really be able to have my own boat and licence?”


That ray of hope I thought I’d glimpsed in other red rimmed eyes in Chester has spread. It’s an important fight; an important discussion. Too important to be distracted. Too important to lose.


Stay the course.

With a Side of Cod

Early next week in a Toronto court room a fisheries drama will play out. While not the normal or expected backdrop for a fishery focus, many eyes and ears will be listening for what decision will be rendered. It’s been a bit of a pre occupation for the inshore owner operator fleet so it was on my mind when I sat down in the airport in Toronto for lunch. It seemed a good omen when I saw this on the menu:



The story is familiar; the benefit of the resource is moved away from those who actually fish and their coastal communities to those with less attachment to the ongoing state of the resource.  Fish is a commodity; not a way of life.  Those in that way of life tend to not have the resources (political or financial) that those in the commodity market do.  They’re left on the side lines and their community and livelihood is taken from them bit by bit.
Today the Standing Committee on Fishieres and Oceans released a report on changes made to the Fisheries Act in 2012. Recommendation 29 in the report is that the Minister may specify conditions supporting social and economic objectives in addition to conservation under the authority Fisheries Act. And really, that’s what owner operator is all about: protect the thriving social fabric of coastal communities in rural Canada.  Support a fishery that produces good, middle class jobs in those communities.


So we wait for a decision on whether a contract to circumvent policy was valid. So while the main participant appeared to get cold feet last month and then warmed them up again, I remain slightly in awe that someone who didn’t have enough money for a boat or licence to go fishing is being represented by one of the largest law firms in Canada. But what do I know; I think I’ll just go read a Committee report and eat some more cod.




PS – If you want to support owner operator fisheries in Canada, hop over to this website and sign the letter.

This Little Fishy Went to Market

“But Americans don’t own the fish in their oceans anymore, not really.”


Every now and then (not nearly often enough) I read a book and just think: “Yes. This.” It just speaks to you. “The Fish Market: Inside the Big-Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate” blew me away.


I get this book may not be for everyone, but for anyone involved in the fishery or fisheries management, I think it should be a must read. The book looks at the move to catch shares in the United States and the resulting privatization of most (if not all) of those fisheries. The fallout from that policy, both good and bad is examined.


My book is covered with hi-lighted passages; many that so closely mirrored the reasons the inshore fishery in Canada has been fighting to maintain the owner operator; things like family, and community, and sustainability, and fishing careers. It’s a topic that could easily have fallen into “dry and crunchy” but didn’t.  Maybe (probably) it’s my passion on the issue, but the stories of coastal communities built by generations of families making their living on the water being destroyed by policy decisions resonated. There was also a look at the people who benefitted from from the change and how they maximized the changes to their advantage, because there are always winners and losers no matter what the decision.

Continue reading “This Little Fishy Went to Market”

Owning the Owner Operator Policy

I read a blog post this week and the first paragraph rang so true to me: how most media stories would lead you to believe that the fishery is on its last legs and a dying industry when the opposite is in fact the case.  What really caught my interest though was that there is a movement in the United States that if new fishing licences are issued, that they be to owner operators. At a time when Canada’s commitment to owner operator fisheries seems to be seriously in question, it’s interesting to see other countries advocating and moving in that direction.


Owner operator fisheries means simply that the person who owns the boat and license is the one on the water fishing. While the official policy jargon in Canada will tell you that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans supports owner operator fisheries, the reality of policy decisions over the past two decades that I’ve been in the fishery have resulted in quite the opposite: management has moved towards individual transferable quotas (ITQ’s) which ultimately result in consolidation of access to the resource for a few (mainly) corporate interests who then hire people to fish.


So what’s the problem, right? People still have jobs fishing. Well, I guess it depends on how you look at it.

Continue reading “Owning the Owner Operator Policy”

A Bend in the Road

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.

Continue reading “A Bend in the Road”

World Oceans Day

June 8 is World Oceans Day. As I saw post after post today, I kept thinking that I should post something as well; after all, the ocean is kind of a big deal around here.


But in reading the posts, I struggled with what to say because I realized my perspective on the ocean is maybe a bit different than many people’s. Not that I don’t think it’s amazing, because it is, but maybe because I see the ocean daily it’s a bit more personal for me. The ocean isn’t an abstract concept you see on vacation.  It’s a fact of daily life. Our weather is tempered by the Bay (not that you could tell this winter). Our basic transportation is dependent on it. Events are planned based on tides and fishing. The ocean is the prevalent and dominant factor of island life.


I think it’s the abundance of the Bay of Fundy that sometimes makes it challenging to relate to posts about barren oceans. While there have certainly been changes in the ocean in recent years, we are fortunate to still have a robust and prosperous fishery. Our little corner of the world was born of small boat fisheries captained by their owners and they have been the backbone of rural coastal communities in Atlantic Canada. These enterprises were generally licensed for multiple species, allowing fishermen to fish for what species was abundant in any given year. It worked remarkably well: without myriads of scientific research to back up quotas or management decisions, fishermen simply fished for what was available. As a stock went through a down cycle, a different fishery was pursued. (Not all species can be in high abundance at the same time). Fishermen were driven to protect the ocean by one common denominator: it was a good way of life and they wanted it to be available for their children.


As time went on, government policy subtly shifted year after year. Fish quotas are easier to manage than independent fishermen; corporate consolidation followed in fishery after fishery. If you don’t live here or work here your incentive to make sure it still will be here is greatly reduced. Small boat fisheries are clinging to the stocks, licenses, and management styles they have left. It still is a good way of life and I hope it will be available for generations to come.


Sometimes bigger isn’t always better.


But for now, I continue to enjoy the ocean lapping at our shores. I will marvel at the beautiful sunrises over the water. I will stop and watch through the kitchen window as ducks and gulls dive for their meals. I will enjoy the wonder of the kids as they show their discoveries of crabs and clams on the beach.


Happy Oceans Day.


“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly ocean.” — Arthur C. Clarke