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. 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. 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.
Many of these fishermen held second jobs in the off-season. 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. They were issued letters and left with a choice: leave your job and maintain your Category A licence or keep your job and be reduced to a Category B licence.
Ultimately, for many this was not a choice at all.
Lobster fishing at the time did not provide enough money to support a family and these fishermen needed the additional work to keep food on the table. Suddenly, they were 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 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.
This has left Class B holders unable to retire and unable to leave anything behind for their families. They are left with no choice but to continue lobster fishing to provide for themselves and their loved ones.
Many fishermen, like 85-year-old George Dicks of North Sydney, N.S., are looking to pass their licence on to a family member. Fishing has been in his family for generations and the ability to pass the licence down to his sons would provide a much-needed source of income.
Other fishermen, like 80-year-old Brian Earl Jagoe of Salmon Beach, N.B., are hoping to sell to an interested party.
Brian’s wife passed away from cancer and his daughter has just been told she has cancer. Knowing how much it can cost for treatments and other expenses, he is hoping the compensation from selling the licence will help provide the support needed.
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. These fishermen and their families face being stripped of their generational way of life—lost income, culture and heritage.
After years of unfair treatment, Class B fishermen are seeking policy changes for what is seen as outdated punishment. The hardship felt by these aging fishermen is immense. And yet, a change in policy comes at no cost to DFO. 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, there is a sense of urgency with this issue.
Over the last year alone, five Class B licence holders have passed away and their licences have been lost along with them. We are urging our Fisheries Minister to meet with us. Together, we can put an end to the injustices and unfair treatment faced by Category B licence holders and get a common-sense policy put in place that allows these elderly fishermen to sell or pass down their licence.
Visit Fishing4Fairness.ca to contact your Member of Parliament and support Category B lobster fishermen.
Michel P. Samson is a former 19-year Liberal MLA and cabinet Minister in Nova Scotia.
By Michel P. Samson
Counsel, Cox & Palmer