Some compensating questions about scallop

Published on February 19, 2014
Peter Pickersgill

I had a pleasant experience last week that was long overdue. I sat down to listen to the entire Fisheries Broadcast on CBC Radio.

It was not for the first time as readers of this column will know. Once upon a time I contributed to the Broadcast. I wrote and presented essays about the fishery that, over time, morphed into general columns about rural Newfoundland and Labrador. These left the airways and eventually found their way into print and into the pages of TC Media community newspapers in this province.

At the same time, following the referendum, the fishery was undergoing a monstrous upheaval including the saddest chapter of all, the rape, murder and dismemberment of Fishery Products International, passively observed by the government of the day.

As circling carrion-eaters gathered up the scraps of what was left, dragging away the remaining chunks of the leavings, garnished with false promises, the Broadcast drifted away from its traditional role as the voice for the small boat inshore fishery. Indeed, at times it seemed that the Broadcast had teamed up with the government to become champions of the fish merchants.

These businessmen, in their stampede to scoop up what profit they could from a diminishing resource, seemed hell-bent on emptying rural Newfoundland and Labrador. This was no longer the Broadcast I had listened to as a kid, as an adolescent and an adult. Over time I stopped listening.

So, when I tuned in last week it was by no means for the first time, just the first time for a long time.

What I heard was a story that I would have expected to hear from the old Fisheries Broadcast, the one I used to look forward to before I stopped listening. A Fisheries Broadcast that was aimed at people wearing rubber boots, that spoke to and cared about their concerns.

That’s because the story I heard raised some fundamental questions about the fishery and who owns it. Questions that have occupied my mind for years.

This particular story was about a Nalcor hydro line passing under the Labrador Straits on its way from Muskrat Falls to the island of Newfoundland and onwards to the Maritimes and the eastern seaboard. The Straits crossing is a key part of what Danny Williams referred to as “the Anglo-Saxon Route” when he first proposed it as a means to show Quebec who was boss, before he left public life so suddenly.

Only part of the line will be buried under the sea floor. The rest of the line will lie exposed on the bottom. Thus it runs the risk of being being caught up by anything scraping along the bottom, like an iceberg or a fishing dragger.

Though icebergs will go wherever they want, Nalcor decided to try and minimize the risk by declaring a no-go zone for scallop draggers in the 10 per cent of their grounds that straddle the undersea hydro line.

When Nalcor discussed this with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, a negotiation ensued. It is not known who said what to who, when or why, but what emerged was a working proposal to compensate fishers for giving up their expected revenue from the no-go zone.

How would that work?

The discussions continue, but at the moment licence holders should expect a cheque from Nalcor based on 10 per cent of the average annual yield dragging for scallops in the Strait. Will it be a lump sum as some fishers prefer, or would this compensation be an annual sum extending over 30 years? Are you confused yet?

Me too.

Here are some questions I’d like answered:

• Since when did Nalcor start paying for things they could get for nothing?

• If they have decided they owe fishers for their loss of revenue, where does the 30-year limit come from? Is Nalcor unlikely to still need the undersea cable fishing ban beyond 30 years? If so, why?

• Has a precedent now been set establishing the obligation of Nalcor to compensate fishers?

Fisherman Edmund Moores stated on the Broadcast that he would prefer to get a lump sum as soon as possible for the 30 years loss of revenue. He’d like it now because, in his mid-50s, a mere youngster among the scallop fleet, he feels he might not benefit from the 30th annual payment, due in his mid-80s, since he would likely be “pushing up daisies by then."

So why does Nalcor want to spread payment across 30 years? Is it because they know they won’t have to pay when all the fishers are dead?

Does Nalcor know that when fishers retire, their scallop licences can be passed on to others thus perpetuating Nalcor’s obligation beyond the 30-year limit, possibly forever?

Is this not really a rental arrangement between Nalcor, the tenant and the scallop fishers, the landlords?

Does this not lead to the most important question of all: “Who owns the sea?”

— Peter Pickersgill is an artist and writer in Salvage, Bonavista Bay. He can be reached by email at the following: 30