Conne River commercial fishing company very active
The Miawpukek First Nation Band (MFN) in Conne River, which has no historical ties to the Newfoundland commercial fishery, has become a fairly big player in the province’s traditional fishery.
© Contributed photo
The Miawpukek First Nation Band has grown their crab enterprise to a one million pound quota by buying licences and expanding their fishing fleet.
In 1999 the Netukulimk Fisheries Ltd. (NFL) bought its first harvesting licence and there’s been no looking back since then.
Shayne McDonald is the Executive Director of the NFL.
McDonald said that with the collapse of the traditional ways of making a living in Conne River — such as trapping, hunting and woods related activities — the Band was looking for ways to build the community’s economy in the 1980s and 1990s
“In 1999 we had a food fishery on the go where some of our people were developing skill sets related to this type of work,” he told The Advertiser last week. “A couple of the participants suggested that it might make sense to enter the traditional fishery on a commercial scale to help some of our band members make a living.
“At the same time the Marshall Decision came down in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia which basically said that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) could acquire fishing licences and transfer them to aboriginal communities.”
The government took the view that the Marshall decision did not apply in this province. However, there was another program, a DFO Aboriginal Transfer Program that could help First Nations obtain licences from retiring commercial fishermen which would, in turn, become First Nation communal commercial communal licences.”
The MFL’s first step was to acquire a crab licence.
A dip in crab prices early in their fishing enterprise made them wonder if they had made the right decision.
However, the organizers stuck with the program and today, according to McDonald, they are involved in a viable industry.
“When we started we had a three to five year goal to have all our vesselsmanned by aboriginal crews,” he explained.
“However, we quickly realized a couple of things. Building a human resource pool of commercial fishers that can crew your vessels comes very slowly, especially from a community with no commercial fishery background.
So, we realized that we would not have fully staffed First Nations crewmembers in a short period of time. We came to understand that it makes sense to give job security to whoever your fishers are, whether they are from Conne River, Harbour Breton or Marystown.
“In the meantime our pool of First Nations fishers grows each year.
“Early on we were experiencing turnovers because non-aboriginals thought the jobs were eventually for Mi’Kmaq people only. The First Nations crewmembers, after a lucrative crab season, would leave thinking they could get back automatically the next year.
“It is not an efficient operation when you have turnovers so we made a change in our corporate policy saying that all fishermen would have job security and stability which has resulted in a much better harvest track record.”
Today they employ 46 people, 28 of whom are non-aboriginals.
“We sell our catches of crab and groundfish to Quinlan Brothers and Beothuck Fisheries which helps create more employment in the province.”
The one licence has grown into eight combined licenses licences and eight vessels that are used by NFL today. In 2014 the company will have approximately one million pounds of crab to catch, along with a groundfish quota.
Chief Misel Joe heard some criticism about the First Nations fisheries at a fisheries meeting in Clarenville last December. One fisherman at the meeting alleged the First Nation was receiving preferential treatment from the DFO when it came to acquiring licenses and other matters.
McDonald said, “A popular misconception is that DFO has bought all the licences we’ve attained.
“When we obtained our first license we did have some help from DFO, but we took on significant debt financing to enable us to enter the fishery.
“Almost every enterprise purchased since then has been either paid 100 percent by us or, in some cases, with partial help from DFO program. The point is, the community has invested significantly in this venture in the past 15 years.
“Some people have a total misunderstanding about this operation. We are governed by the same regulations as any enterprise owner and DFO is not treating us in any special way.
The only difference in a communal fishery is that we can designate who we want our captains to be; we do have the flexibility to do that.
“Other than that, we play by the same rules, regulations and quota amounts as everyone else.
Benefits to NL as a whole
“What we’re doing is offering fishers outside Conne River a good chance to fish on an enterprise with multi species, with decent percentage pay and with good benefits. More fishers approach us to sell out than the other way around.
“Anyone who has worked here has indicated that we are a good employer to work for.”
“Individuals outside the community look at the growth of our communal fishery and say that we have close to a million pounds of crab - that we have a large share of the 3Ps resource.
“But when you look at it from the point that we have eight enterprises with over 2000 band members as collective owners in the communal commercial licenses then it is not really big at all.
“Ours is a different type of ownership structure where every individual in the community owns a piece of the entity.”
McDonald said that the NFL plans to be a part of the Newfoundland fishery well into the future.
‘We’re hearing from science that the 3Ps crab biomass may be dropping because of a climate change. However, cod may be making a comeback and the upcoming European Free Trade Agreement might translate into better prices for cod later on.
“The 3Ps (zone) could be returning to its historical orientation where cod and other groundfish species are the main core. So, we must look at this to equip ourselves with gear and the type of vessels that may be a bit different from what we have today.
“We could be targeting larger enterprises in the future with vessels in the 60 to 64 foot range as we’ll be looking to build enterprises around those parameters.
“Whatever happens,” said McDonald, “if we do well so will Newfoundland and Labrador.”