Spectre of draggers returning to cod fishery drives FFAW to call to reinstate moratorium

Fish, Food and Allied Workers union president Greg Pretty says the federal government has to reverse its decision to lift the cod moratorium.
Fish, Food and Allied Workers union president Greg Pretty says the federal government has to reverse its decision to lift the cod moratorium. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Newfoundland and Labrador's fisheries union is calling on the federal government to revert its decision to end the moratorium on cod fishing and reinstate a stewardship fishery, a week after the federal Liberal government called the move "a historic milestone."

Greg Pretty, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union (FFAW), told reporters in a press conference on Tuesday — the 32nd anniversary of the 1992 cod moratorium — there's real concern that everything done over the last 32 years to rebuild the stock will be undone if offshore draggers, both Canadian and international, are allowed to fish cod in Newfoundland and Labrador waters again.

"We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. It was fishermen who warned that cod were disappearing and they were ignored for years while offshore draggers continued to scoop up vulnerable aggregations," Pretty said at the FFAW's offices in St. John's.

"They were ignored then but they won't be ignored now."

The federal government's decision last week raises the total allowable catch (TAC) to 18,000 tonnes, with the inshore fleet getting approximately 84 per cent of the TAC — 20 per cent of which is allocated to zone 2J harvesters — and six per cent going to the Canadian offshore fleet.

In doing so, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it was ending the cod moratorium, even though the 2023 stewardship fishery ensured catches didn't exceed 13,000 metric tonnes of northern cod. The stewardship fishery also put restrictions on the gear being used.

That area of 2J3KL runs from the eastern coast of southern Labrador along Newfoundland's northeast coast and finally ends in southeastern Newfoundland.

The FFAW argues the former system better protects cod stocks.

The union accuses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of going back against an election promise made in 2015 to then FFAW president Keith Sullivan to uphold an agreement made in 1982 that would allocate 115,000 metric tonnes annually to inshore harvesters under a commercial cod fishery when the stock rebounds.

In this April 23, 2016, file photo, cod fill a box on a trawler off the coast of Hampton Beach, N.H. One of the most historic fisheries in the country hit an all-time low last year as cod fishermen continued to struggle with choking quotas and low abundance of the fish.
The FFAW says the federal government has gone against a promise made in 2015 that would keep offshore draggers from fishing cod. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

That agreement would keep out offshore draggers until the quota is obtainable, but with the current 18,000 tonnes on the table and offshore draggers getting a piece, Pretty isn't happy.

"Are they trying to get rid of us? Is that the plan? Well, we won't go," he said.

"We have nourished, we have nursed that fishery for over 30 years, not to pass it back onto the crowd who made us poor in the first place, who closed the fishery."

In a statement to CBC News the federal fisheries minister defended last week's decision.

Diane Lebouthillier said she is confident last week's announcement will generate opportunities for coastal and Indigenous communities in Newfoundland and Labrador and will protect the resource for future generations.

I can tell you that we will have demonstrations in this province like you haven't seen before.- FFAW president Greg Pretty

The 2J3KL zone is also home to one of the province's most valuable crab grounds.

Harvester Glen Winslow told reporters that draggers will decimate it.

"Outside the 200-mile limit, for them to fish ground fish, they've got to fish on one of the most lucrative crab grounds that we got," he said.

"It's not only going to be cod that's destroyed in three or four years, the best crab resource in the world could get destroyed."

Protests possible

The FFAW has started a petition calling on the federal government to reverse its decision.

Pretty said if the message doesn't get through, politicians and bureaucrats will hear the union otherwise.

"I can tell you that we will have demonstrations in this province like you haven't seen before," he said.

"We will not let this go. This is an absolutely terrible decision that affects every community in this province and it has to be changed for all the right reasons."

Earlier this year the FFAW and its members protested in St. John's for weeks ahead of the crab fishery, calling for what it called free enterprise and a better catch price.

Those demonstrations turned ugly on the day the province was supposed to table its annual budget.

Hundreds of protestors filled the parking lots of Confederation Building and clashed with police and public servants trying to enter the building. Injuries were reported and at least one police horse assaulted.

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