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Right here, right now: Are Canadian small-scale fisheries getting the support they need?

by Vanessa Eyng, Bruna Brito, Marzana Monefa and Mirella Leis

Small-scale fishers can be a crucial source of food and income for local communities. We must urge that governments pay attention to their demands and create opportunities for them to maintain their livelihoods and ensure food security.


Life ring at the Portugal Cove wharf in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada ©Mirella Leis

The current global economy undermines and insufficiently supports small-scale food producers. Crises such as COVID-19, and the vast changes they bring, offer an opportunity to create something new - to overcome existing models, which are too often inadequate and partisan. The political arrangements usually leave behind small producers, while allocating huge amounts of financial support into the hands of a few large companies.


As governments around the world establish aid packages in response to COVID-19, now is the moment to demand proper support for small-scale food producers, including small-scale fishers. Small only in name, these fishers work to protect the oceans and fish through sustainable practices and provide nutritional food for their families and communities at large. Even though small-scale fisheries play a critical role in food security across the globe, the support they have received so far is minimal or inadequate, urging action for Blue Justice for Small-Scale Fisheries.

Alarm bells for food security


In Canada, food insecurity is on the rise with one in eight households, or 4.4 million people, being food insecure, according to a PROOF report. With the disruption of supply chains in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, food security is an even bigger concern.


However, with COVID-19, the Government of Canada is channelling funds to food banks, ”supporting the most affected households, those in precarious employment, those experiencing homelessness, and the working poor, including many working in food production, processing, and foodservice sectors”, according to Food Security Canada. By reconsidering the current supply chain, adequate political support could guide a deep transformation in production models, leading to healthier, fairer and more sustainable food systems. Economic measures need to include basic rights such as food, shelter, education, and an adequate standard of living.


Empty nets, empty pockets: Financial support for small-scale fisheries


Small-scale fisheries landings are mainly destined for human consumption. In the COVID-19 context, they need support to keep operating safely and to be able to reach markets and consumers. In Canada, small-scale fishers represent about 6% of the fishers. They live on Indigenous lands or in coastal communities in the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic coasts. Although small-scale fisheries in Canada account for a smaller percentage in comparison to other regions across the globe, they contribute social and economic benefits to the areas in which they are located, as well as to regional identities.


The Government of Canada announced funds to help small and medium-sized Indigenous businesses, and to support Aboriginal Financial Institutions that offer to finance to these businesses. The Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard stated that “not only is the fish and seafood sector essential to our food supply chain, [but] there are [also] many coastal communities that depend on it for their own food and economic security. Indigenous peoples are particularly dependent on fisheries as a source of food for their families, income for their households, and revenues for their communities. Additionally, many processing plants are managing increased operating costs and reduced efficiency; the longer the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the harder it becomes for them to operate. They all need our support.” The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is also applicable for seasonal workers, including some fishers, but the lack of specific references to small-scale fisheries once again raises concerns about the support this group will actually receive. Once they start fishing and have an income of over $1,000 they are no longer eligible to benefit from the CERB funding.


On April 25, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an emergency funding relief for fish and seafood processors. “We’re giving more money to processors, so they can purchase personal protective equipment for workers, adapt to health protocols and support other social distancing measures," Trudeau said. While the attention to the fisheries sector is encouraging, the measures do not benefit fish harvesters, who are still suffering from uncertainty. “It’s an incredible amount of stress and worry that could be somewhat alleviated if our federal government would step in and help like they’ve done for the processing companies and in other industries,” says harvester Dennis Chaulk of Charlottetown, Newfoundland.


A couple of weeks later, on May 14th, the Prime Minister announced a new support measure for Canada’s fish harvesters, with a Fish Harvester Benefit and a Grant. They provide income support and financial aid to the sector. “The fishing sector faces unique challenges that require direct solutions. With this announcement, we are ensuring that Canada’s hardworking fish harvesters get the support they need now and into the future”, highlighted Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.


Besides the lack of government support, the Standing Fish Price Setting Panel set as $2.90 the minimal price for snow crab for the 2020 season - almost half of last year's deal. "Enterprise owners are seriously concerned about whether they will manage to get through the season without bankrupting, let alone being able to support their families and the families of their crew members," explains Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union.


Physical distancing aboard vessels – real possibility or wishful thinking?


Many fishers are concerned about going out fishing. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the season-opening date for snow crab and other species has been delayed multiple times, but an overall quota level increase of 10% from 2019 has already been announced for the province. As mentioned in a CBC article, “The inshore fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador will not start until May 1, a delay that has bought planners more time — but has done little to answer questions about how a key industry is supposed to operate in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.”


The Newfoundland and Labrador Fish Harvesting Safety Association (NL-FHSA), in collaboration with other institutions, has released a COVID-19 Safe Work Practices protocol. According to the document, “fish harvesters address new challenges every day as they prepare for the 2020 fish harvesting season. How to operate a safe, commercial fishery in the midst of a COVID-19 global pandemic is their latest and most complex challenge”, they wrote. Similar action has been taken in British Columbia, where fishers prepared protocols focused on rural coastal communities, First Nations, and fish harvesters. “The protocols offer practical instructions covering everything from quarantine time and pre-season preparations to best practices while at sea. They include guidelines for safely offloading the catch and re-supplying the vessel with fuel and food, instructions on dealing with non-COVID health issues while at sea, and recommendations to communities on how they can safely support fishermen.”


Fisherman Bruce Short shared his concerns on CBC Radio's The Broadcast: “We are human beings. A lot of our workers in the industry already have underlying health issues as it is. There's absolutely no way to do social distancing. There's not enough Plexiglass or sanitizer available to make it safe. I have a family who works on fishing vessels, and what a terrifying thought to know that they're going to have to go fishing if this opens.”


Additional stories about the impacts of COVID-19 on fisheries are being covered by Coastal Routes Radio, based in Guelph, Ontario, which has started the new podcast series ‘Social FISHtancing’. The stories are about the impacts of COVID-19 on North America’s coastal fisheries and fishing communities, thus opening space to other fishers across Canada and the U.S. to connect and share their concerns. The situation pressures fishers across the board and requires proper governmental responses, in a strategy to ensure food supply while also accounting for the health and safety of essential workers.


Buy local, eat fresh - An ‘Economy of Care’


If going out fishing is still a challenge, coming back to shore is not any easier. Small-scale fishers are struggling with traditional markets closed while innovative marketing strategies are being tested. In Nova Scotia, for example, fishers are adding extra steps to their already busy routine: they have been directly contacting buyers to sell their products in different places, such as supermarket parking lots, keeping the recommended distance from buyers or going online.


In St. John's, on April 10, the Good Friday, the ‘Fish for Fridays’ initiative led by Fishing for Success, connected fishers, consumers and locally-caught fish. They delivered over 200 meals made with cod caught in Petty Harbour, a small fishing community close to St. John’s. The initiative brought together the concept of food as part of a whole and integrated system. “[...] The concept of fish as local food is often the last consideration among the reasons we fish. Commercial profit and game or recreation often outrank time-honoured tradition, ceremony and food” highlighted Kimberly Orren, Jenn Thornhill Verma and Dean Bavington in a two-piece comment published on The Independent. They mentioned an “Economy of Care”, that means more just for fishers and consumers. “If we believe food is a right, then we have our answer. Programs like ‘Fish for Fridays’ supply some of the necessary details around how we could turn our values into longer-term actions”, reinforced the three authors. The organizer, Kimberly Orren of Fishing for Success, hopes to continue the successful program and extend it to weekly fish deliveries.


As an important food supplier, fishers have a fundamental role in terms of food security. This is especially true for small-scale fisheries. “Perhaps the disruptive power of this pandemic, in combination with how seafood producers are adapting, will create space for a more resilient model for fisheries and community food systems to emerge. It could happen with support to small-scale fisheries”, as mentioned in a recent The Conversation article.

Small-scale fishers can be a crucial source of food and income for local communities. We must urge that governments pay attention to their demands and create opportunities for them to maintain their livelihoods and ensure food security. Let’s not forget that small-scale fisheries which, if appropriately supported and adequately invested, can aid in achieving real sustainable development in a just society.


Written by Vanessa Eyng, Bruna Brito, Marzana Monefa and Mirella Leis.

Bruna Brito and Marzana Monefa are Memorial University international students who have been hired as part of the COVID-19 Job Initiative, a joint effort between OFI Module I, Too Big To Ignore, and the Nippon Foundation Nereus Program. Vanessa Eyng and Mirella Leis have supervised the group of students throughout the writing process.

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