Robert's column

Robert Barron Column: Fishers should be listened to

‘I always love a story when someone figuratively fights city hall and wins’

I always love a story when someone figuratively fights city hall and wins.

It’s a typical story of David versus Goliath and everyone [or almost everyone] rejoices when the little guy triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds.

That appears to be the case as prawn fishers on the Island take a stand against what looks to me to be an arbitrary and bureaucratic decision by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to change regulations regarding the harvesting of spot prawns, which now makes the sale of frozen-at-sea spot prawns illegal.

Prawn fishers, who make a large part of their income from local markets, could take a significant financial hit if these new rules are enforced and began what seems to have become an increasingly successful campaign to have the regulations reversed.

Thanks to the efforts of many, including Alistair MacGregor, MP for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, the federal Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans has agreed to conduct an emergency review of the regulations and, hopefully, common sense will prevail and the new rules will be reversed. Unfortunately, that kind of common sense just didn’t appear to exist in DFO when the northern cod stocks collapsed off Canada’s east coast in the early 1990s.

It’s said that when Italian explorer John Cabot discovered Newfoundland at the head of an English expedition in 1497, the cod in the waters off that province’s shores were so thick, Cabot’s ship couldn’t sail its way through them.

The cod fishery was the cornerstone of Newfoundland’s economy for hundreds of years after that, but when the province joined confederation in 1949, management of the stocks switched to Ottawa and things began to quickly change for the worse. Subsequent Canadian governments saw the cod stocks as inexhaustible and began using them as poker chips in their myriad of trade deals with nations around the globe, and allowed huge foreign factory trawlers into the area in the 1960s and 1970s that started scooping cod out of the water at unimaginable rates.

By the 1980s, inshore fisherman who had spent their lives on the sea fishing for a living began voicing concerns to DFO that their catches of cod were becoming increasingly smaller, as well as the size of the fish being caught, and began pointing fingers on the huge trawlers [not all of which were foreign by this time] as the cause.

These concerns were largely dismissed by the DFO “scientists” who spent years explaining the stock declines were, among other things, cyclical in nature and the armchair “experts” claimed they would return in full strength in future seasons.

But the stocks continued to decline until, finally, in 1992, DFO and the federal government finally had to admit that they had been wrong for many years about the state of the cod population, and closed the fishery putting thousands of people who relied on it out of work.

I was working for a newspaper in a fishing area of Newfoundland at the time, and the sights I saw over the next two years as it became apparent that there was no quick fix for the problem were heart breaking. I watched as whole communities nailed up the windows of their homes, which were virtually unsellable after the cod stocks and the economy collapsed, and leave in convoys to what they hoped was greener pastures in other parts of the province or Canada.

The cod stocks never did return in any marketable numbers, and I left Newfoundland myself a few years later to seek a more prosperous future elsewhere. That’s why, to this day, I’m deeply skeptical of many decisions made by DFO, and I hope the local prawn fishermen are successful in having these reckless and inane prawn rules reversed.