Even as the coastal fishing communities across the Atlantic provinces struggle to assess the full scope of Fiona’s destruction, they’ve begun to turn their attention to rebuilding – and whether it’s possible to rebuild quickly but also thoughtfully, to ward against future powerful storms.
All week, fishermen across Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were left to reckon with the damage left in Fiona’s wake, and to the region’s industry, which exports more than $4.5-billion worth of seafood each year. But as officials plan for the future, they face two competing priorities: the need to rebuild fast to be ready for the coming fishing season and the need to rethink infrastructure entirely in the face of climate change – a costlier, and potentially slower, approach
“As we move forward on these changes and repairs, doing it right is really critical,” said Ian MacPherson, a senior adviser with the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association. “These are very important jobs and industries in local communities.”
Fishing and seafood processing employ an estimated 23,000 people in the Atlantic provinces. Aquaculture, or fish farming, employs an additional 35,000 people. As such, many coastal communities across the Atlantic provinces are almost entirely dependent on seafood.
“There are very few households that are not involved in either tourism or fishing here,” said Kyla Dunphy-Williams, who lives in Ingonish, N.S. Her husband is a snow crab, lobster and halibut fisherman who works out of Neils Harbour, a fishing village that was badly hit by last weekend’s storm.
“The road has washed away. Homes have been completely demolished,” she said. “It’s unfathomable that one day has caused so much havoc and destruction.”
If not for a handful of local truck drivers who worked late to haul the dozens of boats out of the harbour the night before, she said, her family’s boat would have also been destroyed.
A similar story played out across the Atlantic provinces, with Fiona causing major damage to infrastructure (harbours, wharves and processing facilities), as well as fishing boats and equipment.
Even those whose boats were spared are affected, Mr. MacPherson said. Many fishing boats aren’t able to operate this week because of the damage done to harbours. Others couldn’t get out because they weren’t able to find ice to store their fish, as a result of power outages.
And those who were able to get out onto the water saw their catch drop significantly. The storm stirred up other food sources for fish and seafood – luring them away from the bait in fishermen’s traps.
Even before last weekend’s storm, Mr. MacPherson said, fishermen were experiencing a challenging season. Operating expenses are at an all-time high, with record-level fuel prices, and bait shortages.
As such, many were already looking forward to the spring season to help alleviate pressure. In PEI, the fall season for lobster, which is just wrapping up, might bring up to 250 boats on the water. The critical spring season – which begins around May – is typically four times that.
But the damage from the weekend storm has now put that into jeopardy.
“How fast can the money come?” said Leonard LeBlanc, president of the Gulf Nova Scotia Fishermen’s Coalition. He said federal assistance in the past has typically taken between six months and a year to roll out.
“We can’t wait that long.”
On a visit to Port aux Basques, a Newfoundland town devastated by the storm, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week that the federal government will “be there for” fishermen in their recovery. But details of federal funding have not yet been announced.
Even with funding, Mr. LeBlanc said, there will be challenges with labour. Wharf-building is a highly specialized trade, with only a few people able to do the work.
“PEI’s a mess. Newfoundland’s a mess. Nova Scotia’s a mess. And it’s all the same people who are fixing them,” he said.
And then there’s the important question of what the rebuild will look like.
The default position, Mr. MacPherson said, would be to rebuild what was there before.
“But as the experts are telling us, we can probably expect to see these events and even more severe events closer and closer together,” he said.
And while major mitigation measures – raising bridges and other infrastructure – might be better for the long-term, they’re also costlier and likely slower.
“Obviously, that’s a different scale of numbers,” Mr. MacPherson said.
Mr. LeBlanc echoed this. “We have structures that badly need fixes, as quickly as possible,” he said.
“But it’s not just fixing them. It’s building them for the future environment that they face.”