Skip to main content
letter from newfoundland

Premier Kathy Dunderdale at her office in St. John's.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

It was at once the simplest and most politicized of actions.

After years of losing money, this month Ocean Choice International shut down two fish-processing facilities in rural Newfoundland. The move sparked plant occupations and a war of words while kindling concern over the future of the fishery.

It's been nearly 20 years since the cod moratorium devastated rural parts of the province, and reaction to OCI's decision shows how much people are willing to fight over the scraps.

The key issue boils down to who benefits. Should the fishery be run like any other business or should there be greater efforts to ensure the province's residents benefit from the resource?

With the importance of the fishery stitched through the history, culture and economy of Newfoundland and Labrador, the question is a political hand grenade. And it's one that Premier Kathy Dunderdale has been handling gingerly.

Making the government's task more difficult is the widespread perception in rural areas that it focuses too much attention on St. John's. Although Ms. Dunderdale led the Progressive Conservatives to a resounding majority in October, this sense of small-town alienation, valid or not, reduces her political capital when dealing with fishery issues.

And no one, including the Premier, believes there is an easy solution.

"There are great challenges in our fishery because there are structural [changes]that are required that are not easy," Ms. Dunderdale said in September, while sitting down with The Globe and Mail for a pre-election interview.

"And [it's]not easy for people to reconcile themselves to even begin part of the process of planning that change. So the change is evolving but not exactly a planned change. And several [attempts]that we've had at trying to bring everybody together, all of the players, to have a more orderly restructuring of our fishery, haven't been successful to date. But you know, we continue to try and work it."

From OCI's point of view, this month's shutdowns were a necessary economic decision. CEO Martin Sullivan said there is an increasing desire internationally for whole fish, the plants in Marystown and Port Union were in the red and the plug had to be pulled.

But the fisheries union has pushed back hard, arguing that quotas should be dependent on providing economic benefit in the province.

"What happened to no more giveaways?" Fish, Food and Allied Workers union president Earle McCurdy asked, using the slogan of former premier Danny Williams. "We're on the brink of a major loss of control over public resources."

Amid all the rhetoric it is hard to find anyone who thinks the current system works well. Everyone knows that voters reward politicians for promising jobs and that work is often shared to allow people to do 10 weeks each and then go on pogey for 42.

John Furlong, the host of CBC radio's Fisheries Broadcast and one of the most perceptive voices on the industry, recently argued that the situation seems increasingly archaic and that change is inevitable.

"If you ask most people in the fishery today how they would like the fishery of tomorrow to look, they'll say, 'Like it was yesterday,'" he wrote in a commentary posted online. "That's not the way it's going to be."