Fish harvesters reach deal with N.L. government to allow catch to be sold to outside buyers

Jason Spingle, John Efford Jr. and Greg Pretty address a crowd of fish harvesters on Friday afternoon, telling them a deal had been reached with the provincial government to end days of protests. (Ryan Cooke/CBC - image credit)
Jason Spingle, John Efford Jr. and Greg Pretty address a crowd of fish harvesters on Friday afternoon, telling them a deal had been reached with the provincial government to end days of protests. (Ryan Cooke/CBC - image credit)

John Efford Jr. fought back tears as he announced the news to hundreds of fish harvesters standing before him — they'd struck a deal with the Newfoundland and Labrador government to end days of protests, including a raucous one Wednesday that cancelled the provincial budget.

According to Efford — the de facto protest leader — and members of the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union, the provincial government has agreed to let fish harvesters sell their catch to buyers from outside the province, regardless of species.

They also said they have commitments on moving caps on processing to promote competition within the industry.

"We got 'er done," Efford told reporters afterward. "Free enterprise for every species."

Efford said they've also reached agreements on introducing new processing licences and increasing processing limits, in an effort to promote more competition among the companies that buy fish from harvesters in the province.

All commitments will have to be put on paper within five business days, he said.

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, Fisheries Minister Elvis Loveless called the meeting positive and said talks will continue.

"We all share the same goal of seeing an organized start to the 2024 fishing season," said the statement. "Our government will continue to work with the FFAW, the Association of Seafood Producers, and other fisheries stakeholders on these and other issues in the fishery as we continue to recognize the value of the industry and the hard-working individuals working within it."

CBC News asked for an interview with Loveless, and was told he was not available Friday.

Protests come to a close

With an agreement in place, the crowd left Confederation Building and headed home.

Protests have been ongoing throughout March, leading into the snow crab season next month. The situation reached a climax Wednesday, when fishermen and their supporters shut down Confederation Building and prevented the provincial government from introducing its annual budget.

WATCH | Harvesters will finally get better deal, says FFAW president: 

They returned Thursday, prompting the Liberal government to go ahead with introducing the budget in the House of Assembly despite the absence of opposition parties, unions and most media outlets.

On Friday morning, the protesters headed to a parking lot opposite the building. Efford told them he'd scored a meeting with Fisheries Minister Elvis Loveless and asked them to refrain from protesting while the meeting was ongoing.

A few hundred metres away, police in riot gear stood ready for any outcome, taping off a section outside Confederation Building where chaos had erupted in previous days.

In the end, their presence wasn't needed.

Fishermen emotional with outcome

Throughout the week, fishermen spoke about the problems they face in the fishery.

Most — like Colin Kennedy — spoke of how they're beholden to the fish plants. They're given specific days they can sell to plants, meaning other factors like weather often have to be overlooked.

"We fish in the smallest boats. We're being told when to go, when to come and how much to bring in," Kennedy said. "We're putting our lives at risk."

Kennedy said it was an emotional day, one where the future finally feels brighter.


His sentiments were echoed by Daniel Hearn, who couldn't hold back his tears as he spoke to reporters.

"As of yesterday, I had no future, what I got I'm gonna lose. Today, I got a future," he said.

Hearn said he felt he was under the thumb of the company that buys his catch. He said it felt hopeless at time, unable to sell his catch elsewhere and unable to influence key factors like pay.

These promised changes, he said, put some power back in the hands of harvesters.

In a statement, PC Leader Tony Wakeham said the deal should have been done months ago for a sector crucial to the province.

"After weeks of fighting the Furey Liberals, harvesters and crew members finally got a deal," the statement said, "We'll also continue to monitor progress. If the Furey Liberals fail to deliver, we'll hold them accountable."

Seafood producers upset at deal

The Association of Seafood Producers, meanwhile, was not in favour of the concessions made to fish harvesters.

"We're very disappointed to say the least that a decision of this magnitude would be made as a result of this type of protest," said ASP executive director Jeff Loder. "These are important public policy decisions. They should be made from the result of in-depth policy analysis and work, and we will have more to say over the coming days."

Loder said he feels Newfoundland and Labrador processing companies can compete with outside buyers, but they are concerned about the changes. He also said any changes to processing limits or new licences could have a negative impact across the industry, which he says is already over capacity.

"ASP is fundamentally opposed to any increase in any caps or any new licenses," he said. "There are implications of that and we will be responding accordingly."

Ryan Cooke/CBC
Ryan Cooke/CBC

While many specifics remain to be seen, Efford said news of new licences should come within a week. He said outside buyers will need to apply to the provincial government to buy fish from Newfoundland and Labrador. The applications will be assessed by a panel.

"I think we're there," Efford told reporters. "Again, there may be some small, fine-tuning that has to be done. But essentially I think we're there."

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