A crisis of sustainability in the fish harvester labour force

August 24, 2005

The labour force in the independent owner-operator fishery, the cornerstone of the commercial fishery in Canada, faces an uncertain future on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, according to a comprehensive federally funded study.

The Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters (CCPFH) is the national human resources sector council for the fish harvesting industry in Canada. It undertook the National Fish Harvester Sector Study with support from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC). The 5-year, 2-phase research project, the most comprehensive study of the fish harvester labour force ever undertaken in Canada, calls for a concerted cross-jurisdictional
effort to preserve independent owner-operator fleets, the economic backbone for hundreds of coastal-rural communities on three ocean coasts.

“Independent owner-operators produce three-quarters of the $2.3 billion in fish landings, and $4.5 billions in exports, in the Canadian fishery,” said Earle McCurdy, chairman of the CCPFH, at the report’s launching in St. John’s today. “Owner-operator fleets generate close to $1.7 billion in business income, most of it flowing through economically disadvantaged rural regions. Without a clear and concerted policy commitment we may lose the highly skilled labour force that produces such great value from the sea.”

As with many skilled trades and professions, there is an aging workforce in the fishery. Close to half of the approximately 14,000 full-time fishing skippers in Canada will retire from the industry over the next decade. The CCPFH study reveals that, with reduced fishing opportunities due to problems with a few key fish stocks, and shrinking rural populations generally, there has been a dramatic drop in young people coming into the industry over the past
twenty years. The skilled and experienced new entrants just are not there to take over from retiring skippers and crew members in many fleets. “With the present fishermen getting older,” Mr. McCurdy said, “we face the danger of losing the next generation.”

The study also documents a radical shift in the recruitment patterns in the labour force. In the past there was an informal apprenticeship system that worked very well. Young people went to work on local fishing boats -- most often  within the family -- acquired the requisite knowledge and skills on the job, and took over the enterprise from a retiring relative or neighbour. About a third of the harvesters – and a larger proportion on larger vessels – also did formal training to get their “masters’ tickets”.

Today, with fewer boats and shorter fishing seasons, there is less opportunity to learn on the job. However, knowledge and skill requirements have expanded in the areas of safety, more sophisticated technologies on vessels, participation in fisheries management and science, and management of more complex business enterprises. Harvester organizations have set up professionalization programs to address these challenges, but there is a need for a more accessible and relevant training system to support the current labour force and bring skilled young people into the industry.

Another serious barrier for recruiting new entrants is the high cost of commercial fishing licences and quotas. A single lobster-fishing licence in Nova Scotia, or a halibut license in BC, can cost more than a million dollars. The costs of financing licences, boats, and quotas make new fishermen even more vulnerable to downturns in fish landings or prices. Tax provisions that treat fishermen differently from other businesses also make it harder for fishermen to pass on their licences and operations to their sons and daughters or other young independents.

As the value of fisheries and therefore access privileges has increased, the traditional pattern of ownership of fishing enterprises is being threatened, with serious consequences for hundreds of coastal communities.

In the Atlantic licensing system, the “owner-operator” and “fleet separation” policies have protected the independent fleet from takeover by processing companies and other outside investors. But as the value of fisheries has risen, non-harvesters have found legal loopholes that give them control over hundreds of licenses.

The study states, “The traditional community-based owner operator fishery on the Atlantic coast is in serious jeopardy.”

On the Pacific Coast, there have not been policies to support an independent owneroperator fleet. Fleet rationalization programs and concentration of the control of licences and quotas have resulted in a 40 per cent decline in harvester employment between1991 and 2001, with devastating impacts on many coastal communities including, in particular, First Nations.

The study findings point towards actions to improve the future prospects for the Canadian fishery, including changes in the licensing, incorporation, and tax rules to protect the status of independent fishermen; better training and capacity-building programs to prepare them for the safety, conservation, business, and other requirements of the modern industry; and a federalprovincial financial support system to help young harvesters finance their independent

“Fishermen and their communities have supported our economy, our society, our way of life, and even our sovereignty, Mr. McCurdy said. “Governments and the general public are well aware of the conservation challenges for fish stocks. They need now to understand, and be prepared to act on, the serious challenges facing the highly skilled and specialized fisheries labour force. Following the massive fisheries restructuring programs of the 1990’s, it is time now for government agencies and legitimate fish harvester organizations to address the critical human resources challenges identified in this study so we can build a better fishery.”

Independent owner-operators account for the vast majority of the 20,000 vessels fishing from more than 1,000 towns and villages on the Atlantic, and of the more than 3,000 vessels that have traditionally fished from coastal communities on the Pacific. Landed value for the two coasts totalled $2.3 billion in 2004; export value came to $4.5 billion.

HRSDC funded the sector study, and it was managed by the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters. Recognized by the federal government as the national sector council for the fish-harvesting industry, the CCPFH represents member organizations in the Atlantic, Pacific and inland fisheries. The sector study, carried out by PRAXIS Research Inc. in Halifax, involved surveys of 1,500 enterprise owners and 600 crew, as well as focus groups, key informant interviews, international study tours, literature review, and regional policy workshops.

You can see the media release in its original format here.