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Fisherman Ian Edwards stacks lobster traps at his wharf in Eastern Passage NS , March 8, 2012.Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail

Fishermen in Atlantic Canada fear a federal government initiative to "modernize" the multimillion-dollar industry – the region's single largest private-sector employer – will push them out of their boats and livelihoods for the benefit of big corporations.

Seafood processers, however, say reforms are long overdue, characterizing the Atlantic fishery as an "EI fishery" designed to maximize employment insurance returns and not market returns.

Even the Conservative government in Newfoundland and Labrador, in its Throne Speech this week, called for a "firm resolve to move forward" with reforms.

In January, the Harper government launched a consultation process and released a discussion paper, The Future of Canada's Commercial Fisheries, which talks about "modernizing fisheries management" but gives no clue as to what it plans to do.

This has Atlantic fishermen on edge.

"It's what they are not saying," said Norma Richardson, president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen's Protective Association, about the government's initiative.

She fished for 20 years and represents 250 independent fishermen who own crab, lobster, sea urchin and shrimp licences, and fish all along the eastern shore of Nova Scotia.

Ms. Richardson believes that the government wants to do to fishermen what big-box stores have done to small independent business and store owners – push them out.

The source of the angst is the belief that the government wants to abandon two key policies that ensure their independence – the owner-operator and fleet-separation policies. These policies were brought in during the late 1970s by Romeo LeBlanc, when he was Pierre Trudeau's minister of fisheries.

Mr. LeBlanc, who was from Atlantic Canada, did not institute the same protection for the B.C. fishery. Fleet separation means that only those who fish can own a licence – processing companies, for example, cannot. Owner-operator means that the owner of the licence must operate the boat. The measures kept large corporations from dominating the industry.

Nothing about these policies is covered in the government's discussion paper – which makes fishermen like Ms. Richardson "nervous."

The government hasn't "mentioned at all anything about the owner-operator and fleet separation and independent fishermen," Ms. Richardson said. "They haven't talked about it at all."

In addition, she and others have said the consultation process has been poor.

Ms. Richardson's association is one of 33 fisheries organizations from Atlantic Canada that have produced their own discussion document in response to the government. In it, they defend the two policies. They "find that much of the [government's]document is written in ideological code of de-regulation" and is a "barely veiled attack on the owner-operator and fleet separation policies."

By not mentioning "coastal communities," the association suggests, the government is "pushing an unstated 'outport resettlement' i.e., moving all of the young people from both coasts off to the Alberta tar sands and encouraging rural fishing communities to disappear."

Derek Butler, executive director of the Association of Seafood Producers, argues the real outport resettlement program is the dysfunctional fishery with its restrictive policies.

"I say 30 years of an EI fishery has killed rural Newfoundland," said Mr. Butler, noting the province has the lowest birth rate in North America, the oldest population in Canada and massive out-migration.

The way to revitalize the rural area is with a new fisheries model that would allow processors to own licences, invest in the business, and attract capital to modernize it so that it can work more efficiently and create better jobs, he said.

Earle McCurdy, the head of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union of Newfoundland, who represents 4,500 licence holders, 5,000 fish-plant workers and 5,500 crew members, doesn't agree.

He said the bureaucracy in Ottawa considers fishermen a "nuisance." They would rather deal with a couple of companies who "wheeled and dealed the fish" because it would "make life easier for the people in the bureaucracy," he said. "But there should be more to our fishery than that."