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Fishing boats tied up at Fort Amherst, St. John's, N.L. on Feb. 11, 2021.Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

They’re called the sentinel fisheries – a fleet of boats that probe the ocean off Newfoundland and Labrador looking for signs of life from the province’s once-iconic cod-fish stocks. And in recent years, they’ve been returning to the wharf with troubling news.

The sentinel program, created after the cod moratorium in 1992 to monitor fish populations, is run exclusively by the Fish Food & Allied Workers (FFAW-Unifor), the powerful union that represents around 15,000 fishermen, fish plant employees and other workers in the province. The federal department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) relies on data from the sentinel fishery to help assess fish stocks, and has paid the union millions to run the program.

The sentinel fishery has been issuing warnings about northern cod since 2014, when the population declined, and it has since plateaued. Sentinel fishermen are reporting more empty nets, while the overall health of the fish is poor, and fewer cod are surviving from juvenile stage to adulthood. Many of those that are caught appear to be starving to death – all bad signs for a fish that some still think could help rebuild Newfoundland’s economy.

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The DFO says it’s concerned about Newfoundland’s cod stocks, and considers them to be in the “critical zone,” or well below levels seen in the 1980s, when it was already heavily overfished. Environmental groups argue the current harvest levels are unsustainably high, and risk doing further harm to a stock trying to rebuild.

Yet despite running the sentinel program that highlights the problems with cod, the FFAW is advocating for expanding the commercial fishery and increasing the amount fishermen are allowed to catch. Those lobbying efforts put the union in an unusual spot – playing a critical role in conservation work to monitor fish stocks, while also trying to expand the cod fishery against the recommendations of conservationists.

Nearly 30 years after the collapse of the northern cod fishery, Fisheries and Oceans Canada finally has a road map for rebuilding the critically depleted species. But there’s a fierce debate in Newfoundland over who has the best interest of the cod at heart.

The union disagrees that cod stocks are in distress: It says fish populations will fluctuate from year to year. It argues other indicators show the stock is healthy, and says Ottawa’s harvesting limits – which the union says comprise between two and three per cent of the total spawning mass – are killing any chance of reviving coastal communities.

“It’s extremely restricted, more than any other fishery in the country. The levels of removal are miniscule,” said Keith Sullivan, FFAW President. “For anyone to suggest this is an alarming amount of removal, they’re not paying any real attention to the facts.”

The union blames foreign overfishing in neighbouring waters and an overpopulation of cod-eating seals for much of the challenges with the stock’s recovery. But others accuse the FFAW of putting its own agenda ahead of what’s best for fishing communities in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“The FFAW and the DFO are cheating the fishermen out of a resource that belongs to the people of Newfoundland,” said Jason Bateman, a former enforcement officer with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Former DFO officer Jason Bateman outside the DFO detachment in Marystown on Feb. 10, 2021.Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Bateman understands the tension between conservation and fishery jobs in his province. He grew up in Port aux Basques, a fishing community on the southwestern tip of Newfoundland, and was a fisherman before he joined the federal department. As a DFO enforcement officer between 2007 and 2019, his job was to keep fishermen safe, and help protect the resource they depend on.

But too many times, he says, the lines were blurred between the DFO and the union, and he says the union exerts enormous influence within the federal department. The FFAW plays a significant role in running fisheries research programs for the government, including dockside monitoring and stock management plans, while profiting from the sale of fish caught in the sentinel fisheries and charging administrative fees to fishermen.

Mr. Bateman says he witnessed this conflict first-hand, when he investigated a boat that had exclusive rights to harvest crab as part of a multimillion-dollar offshore quota held then by a company called Offshore Fish Resource Harvesters. The vessel, the Katrina Charlene, was referred to as the “union boat” among DFO officers and fishermen because of the close connection between the company that ran it and the FFAW, he said.

In 2011, the boat was caught illegally fishing undersized crab, and its captain – son of one-time FFAW executive Max Short – was fined $25,000. But Mr. Bateman says his supervisors chose not to publicize the conviction, contrary to department convention – proof in his mind DFO was hesitant to embarrass the FFAW.

“I wanted the public to know there was no favouritism, and we treated everyone the same. But they hid it. They swept it all under the rug,” said Mr. Bateman, a Canadian Forces veteran. “It should have been a huge deal. It was a big violation.”

The DFO disputes the suggestion the FFAW influences its policy, and points out the union is often unhappy with the harvesting limits it imposes on fishermen. It says it’s trying to get the fish to a healthy, productive and sustainable level.

“We must continue to ensure we balance conservation and protection with fostering economically prosperous coastal communities,” said Kevin Guest, a department spokesperson. “It is understandable that with so many differing perspectives, not all our decisions are supported by all interests.”

Oceana Canada, an international advocacy group dedicated to ocean conservation, says the DFO appears to be trying to appease industry groups instead of outlining concrete steps to rebuild the cod fishery from its collapsed state. And it’s ignoring warning signs about the decline in capelin, a key food for northern cod.

In 2019, despite evidence the stock was in crisis, DFO increased the cod quota to 12,350 tonnes – a 30 per cent increase from 2018. It held the quota there for 2020. Some say that’s proof of a growing gap between policies intended to help protect fish stocks, and the reality on the water.

“There’s no question Fisheries and Oceans is under tremendous pressure on every decision they make in the fishery,” said Robert Rangeley, a Halifax-based marine biologist and director of science for Oceana Canada. “And there’s probably no louder industry voice in the room in Newfoundland than the fisheries union.”

Dr. Rangeley argues the focus should be on quality over quantity, and diversity in the fishery instead of focusing on one iconic fish – part of the reason codfish became overfished in previous decades. The cost of that approach was the loss of more than 30,000 jobs in Newfoundland and an emptying-out of coastal communities that continues to this day, he said.

Ryan Cleary, a former member of Parliament for St. John’s-Mount Pearl and an outspoken critic of the FFAW, said the union has found a way to prosper since the collapse of cod by integrating itself into fisheries management, acting almost as a regulator – while becoming a vocal industry voice that contradicts science.

Ryan Cleary at Fort Amherst on Feb. 10, 2021.Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Cleary, who spent years trying to create an independent fishermen’s association that would challenge the FFAW’s dominance in Newfoundland, says the FFAW’s powerful position in the sector creates many conflicts of interest and problems for conservation.

The FFAW, however, calls the plan to rebuild the cod fishery “unnecessarily restrictive” and a major setback for the development of a sustainable cod fishing sector in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. The union argues fishermen have anecdotal perspectives on the health of cod stocks that need to be factored into harvesting limits.

“We are trying to rebuild an industry,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We have long argued for a measured, responsible approach to cod quotas, whereby the harvest rate increases as the stock increases. This [DFO] plan does not allow for meaningful development of our cod fishery. It actually deters investment by harvesters and processors into our cod fishery and our rural communities.”

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