'We might as well burn our boats now.'
BFC fights quota decision with fire
Torching an old white rowboat for emphasis, the Baffin Fisheries Coalition protested this past Tuesday against two decisions by federal fisheries minister Loyola Hearn to give southern fishing companies access to more than 2,200 tonnes of turbot quota in the Davis Strait without giving Nunavut interests a chance to bid on it.
"We might as well burn our boats now," said Johnny Mike, chairman of Niqitaq Fisheries, BFC's business arm. "They (the federal government) are not going to give us anything."
The coalition is upset that Fisheries and Oceans Canada recently allocated 600 tonnes of turbot in southern Davis Strait to the Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council, a group of Atlantic Canadian fishing companies.
And in February, the coalition howled when Hearn gave access to 1,650 tonnes of quota of Nova Scotia-based Clearwater Fine Foods and 250 tonnes to a Labrador-based company. That quota came from Seafreez Foods of Newfoundland.
Mike says DFO encouraged BFC to buy its own fishing gear so it would have access to turbot quota in the waters off Baffin Island and that transferring turbot quota to Nunavut fishers would allow Nunavummiut to own more boats and build ports and fish plants.
Instead, Nunavut interests have access to just 1,500 of the 5,500 tonnes of turbot quota – 27 per cent – in Zone 0B off southern Baffin Island. That's "total unfairness," Mike said.
"It's in Nunavut waters. That's the bottom line. It (the quota) should go to Nunavut interests."
In a news release, the coalition suggested Hearn, who's from Newfoundland, is bowing to lobbying efforts by East Coast fishing companies.
As the fire crackled in the background, David Alexander, the BFC's crew manager, accused DFO of ignoring the needs of Northerners.
"We don't want to be left out of our fishing area," he said. "We seem to be put behind brick walls."
Paul Okalik, the premier, watched the boat burn away to a charred frame. He told reporters he supports BFC's protest because Nunavut needs its fishery to grow in order to boost economic development.
"We'd like a diversified economy and this [Conservative] government, this minister [Hearn] in particular, has completely denied us that opportunity," he said.
Okalik said DFO was obliged to transfer the 600 tonnes to Nunavut fishers, because it changed ownership.
But Barry Rashotte, DFO's director general of resource management, said GEAC is simply a consortium of six fishing companies that used to compete with each other to grab as much of the quota as possible – a policy that sometimes led to overfishing.
"They all competed against themselves trying to catch the fish before the other guy," he said.
Now, the companies each get a share of the quota, which they can fish as the please, waiting for better weather instead of fishing in January. The companies can also wait for low turbot prices to rise.
"It's the same players, it's just being managed by a different scheme," Rashotte said. "This had no impact on existing allocations that Nunavut interests hold at all."
Nunavut fishers have access to all of the 6,500 tonnes of turbot quota in zone 0A, which comprises northern Davis Strait and Baffin Bay.
Nunavut interests also get first crack at increases in quota in both zones, though it will be at least next year before DFO considers any, Rashotte said.
Southern companies have fished 0B turbot since the late 1980s. But successive crises have devastated the East Coast fishery in the last 20 years, throwing thousands out of work.
As a result, DFO is the most reviled of government departments in some parts of Atlantic Canada. Being burned in effigy is nothing new for the agency, Rashotte said.
"I think we're burned in effigy every second day probably, so it doesn't bother us much," he said, chuckling. "They're free to express themselves the way they wish as long as no one gets hurt and it's done in a peaceful way."