Not many people can withstand the grueling conditions of lobster fishing.
Even less can imagine continuing to lobster fish well into the age of 80. However, this is the reality for a group of aging fishermen across the Maritimes, many of whom have deteriorating health and continue to work against the risks. Their wish is to sell or transfer their licence and retire. However, a 50-year-old Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) policy prevents them from doing so.
These fishermen are the holders of Category B lobster licences in the Maritimes. Formerly holders of Category A licences, they were deemed “Class B” fishers in 1976 when DFO created the “Moonlighter Policy” which was aimed at removing people from the fishery as a conservation method. The result is that it has unfairly targeted fishers who held other jobs or professions almost 50 years ago.
Many of these fishermen held second jobs in the off-season to help provide for their families and keep food on the table. DFO deemed fishing was not their primary source of income, which became the determinant of those who kept a Class A licence and those who did not.
“I was sent a letter in the mid-70s stating that you had to make 75 per cent of your earnings from fishing. Lobster fishing at this time was not enough money to support a family of five, so I worked at Parks Canada as a labourer,” said William Savory, an 82-year-old Category B holder from Main-A-Dieu Nova Scotia.
William was one of several lobster fishermen across the Maritimes facing a similar situation. Unable to provide from his fishing income alone, he picked up the additional work to keep his family afloat. Suddenly, he was being punished for doing so.
Since the implementation of the policy, Category B lobster licence holders have only been eligible to fish one-third of the trap limit of a Category A licence holder. This provided an immediate burden on these fishermen, who were in many cases making a small amount of money in their second jobs, and now faced reduced income from fishing.
Over the years, it became near impossible to save for a retirement. Class B lobster fishermen still incurred the same expenses as Class A fishers (docking, boat insurance, maintenance) while yielding significantly less catch. Some were also forced into early retirement from their second jobs due to closures and downsizing. With limited education to fall back on, fishing the Class B licence became their only source of income.
With an inability to generate significant savings, their hope for retirement became largely dependent on potential revenue from the licence itself. However, a second implication of the Moonlighter Policy dictated that Category B licences were not transferrable and expire upon death of the holder.
As the licence expires, any compensation for the fishermen expires with it. This has left Class B holders unable to retire, or unable to leave anything behind for their families. They are left with no choice but to continue lobster fishing. They do it to put food on the table, pay for medications, and take care of their loved ones.
Many fishermen, like 89-year-old Arthur Smith from New Bandon, New Brunswick, are looking to pass their licence on to a family member. “Fishing has been in our family for generations, it’s only fair it should continue. My wish is to pass it down to my son and provide much needed income for the next generation,” said Smith.
Other fishermen, like 80-year-old Brian Earl Jagoe of Salmon Beach, N.B., are hoping to sell to an interested party. “My wife passed away from cancer and now my daughter has just been told she has cancer, and I know how much it can cost for treatments and the other expenses. To be able to sell my licence would considerably help,” said Jagoe.
A third group is looking to take a buyout from DFO, which would provide the opportunity to repurpose the licences. Unfortunately, none of this is possible with the existing policy still in place.
“I have something hanging over my head, that when I’m gone, I leave nothing to my son. It all goes to the grave with me — boat, traps, licence. This is not fair,” said Clayton Smith, a 69-year-old fisherman also from Salmon Beach, N.B.
After years of unfair treatment, Class B fishermen are seeking policy changes for what is seen as outdated punishment. It is time to move forward with a new policy that provides fair treatment to elderly fishers, and beneficial opportunities to multiple parties, including DFO.
The hardship felt by these aging fishermen is immense. And yet, a change in policy comes at no cost to DFO and there is no additional impact on harvesting as these licences have been fished for 50 years. In fact, with a catch capacity of roughly 75 traps per licence, Category B licences could be transferred to Indigenous or non-Indigenous fishers.
Given the age of this group of fishermen, there is a sense of urgency with this issue. Approximately 80 Class B lobster fishermen remain today; 50 are located in Nova Scotia and the other 30 are in New Brunswick. There is no longer time to delay. After five decades of punishment, it is time for the federal government to take immediate action in providing fair and just policy change for Category B lobster licence holders.
These fishermen are actively seeking these changes, but they cannot do it alone. To help highlight the issue and garner public support, an advocacy campaign has been launched to support Category B lobster fishermen.
At FishingForFairness.com, visitors can learn more about the issue and directly contact their Member of Parliament to show support and demand change. The goal is to influence a common sense policy that allows these elderly fishermen to sell or pass down their licence so they can stop fishing and still support their loved ones.
Category B lobster fishermen had the livelihood provided by a Class A licence stripped from them. They continue to have the opportunity to receive compensation for their licences stripped from them as well.
But what’s more, they are now being stripped of their way of life. Fishing has been in these families for generations. As Class B holder George Dicks of North Sydney, N.S. puts it, “Fishing has been our culture for three generations now. It is devastating to my family. Not just the lost revenue, but the loss of our culture and heritage.”
Together, we can put an end to the injustices and unfair treatment faced by Class B holders. With your support, these fishermen, and their families, can enjoy the future they deserve.
By Michel P. Samson
Cox & Palmer