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Opportunity is Knocking

As it is with every profession, the fishing industry is not devoid of myths, fallacies and distortions.

One of the most common falsehoods, especially in Atlantic Canada, is the widespread view that the commercial fishery is in decline and offers few long-term employment opportunities. In fact, as you all know, nothing could be further from the truth.

In Nova Scotia, notably in the Southwest region, the value of seafood catches, particularly lobster, has been on the upswing over the last decade. These increased catches, combined with near-record prices, have provided very good livelihoods for those harvesters directly involved.

A closer examination of the Nova Scotia primary harvesting sector actually shows an employment increase. In 2016, a total of 12,649 people were employed as core and non-core marine fish harvesters and crew members. According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) statistics, that number increased to 12,920 in 2018.

But it comes as no surprise that currently, more than 80 per cent of self-employed fish harvesters in this region are 40 years of age and older. However, in comparison, the aquaculture sector enjoys a younger workforce, as only 40 per cent of workers are aged 40 or over.

So how does the commercial fishing industry deal with this systemic employment problem? Who will be prosecuting the fishery of the near future?

In 2015, the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters (CCPFH) commissioned the Fisheries Labour Market Information Study, with the aim of shedding some light on this ongoing issue.

The CCPFH study found that guidance programs at the high school and community college levels provided little or no information on career opportunities in fish harvesting, even in fishing regions. “Stakeholders felt that for too long parents and school authorities have been counseling young people to move away from their communities and rural industries and these attitudes need to change. Systematic provision of information to young people in high school and community colleges on employment opportunities, income levels and the lifestyle attributes of fishing careers could help stem the outflow of young people from fishing communities” the report stated.

While stakeholders and educators continue to ponder how to attract young people to the fishery, many of our competitors are already taking action.

“Industry and community leaders in other countries have recognized the need to rebuild the fishing labour force and are pursuing a variety of innovative strategies to achieve that goal.”

A report from the University of Alaska described such approaches, including youth permits or student licenses and mentorship or apprenticeship programs at no cost to allow new entrants to gain experience, learn fishing skills and/or earn fishing income without the financial burden and risks of purchasing market-based access rights.

In nearby Maine, the Eastern Maine Skippers Program (EMSP) provides students and prospective fishermen with training and mentorship to become successful in the industry. The training covers fisheries governance, business planning, communications and maritime safety.

The program strives to produce graduates who are prepared to become flexible, skilled and knowledgeable commercial fishermen who have attained leadership skills and industry expertise in order to serve as advocates for their fisheries and communities.

Maine also has a Lobster Apprenticeship Program to protect access for young people growing up on the coast of that state.

“To become a lobsterman, a person must complete the apprenticeship program that includes fishing 200 days and/or 1,000 hours over a minimum of two years. The state also issues special licenses to youth still in school to draw them into the industry. To qualify for a student license, an individual must be a full-time student and between the ages of 8 and 22. Students can fish up to 150 traps and must log 1,000 hours onboard by their 18th birthday (or 22nd if attending college). If students complete the program prior to their 18th or 22nd birthday, their entry into the zone is not dependent on retiring trap tags (like non-student apprentices). From 2001 to 2011, 847 new lobster licenses were issued in Maine and roughly half were issued to students,” the CCPFH study outlined.

It is worth noting that these serious demographic and labour supply challenges are not unique to the Canadian and U.S. fishing industries. Other countries and global seafood industry competitors have taken extraordinary measures and creative innovations to address them.

In Norway there is a recruitment quota for young harvesters to acquire fishing rights at no cost. Young fishermen in Norway received recruitment quota between 2010–2016, and only two subsequently left the industry, while several others went on to develop fishing businesses with more vessels and more quota.

“After the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that the Icelandic ITQ system violated the human right to work, a coastal fishing program was created by the Icelandic government in 2009. The program allows residents of coastal communities in four regions to use up to four jig machines to harvest up to 650 kg of groundfish per day, four days per week, May through August, without purchasing ITQs. Up to 750 boats participate in this fishery nationwide. This provides opportunities for young people to get started in the industry and to build up capital to purchase quotas,” the report explained.

Iceland also introduced a Community Quota in 2003 through which community members are given free shares of quota to be landed in their home port. This program is small — less than two per cent of the total cod catch — but it provides an opportunity for young people to get started in the industry.

The CCPFH also found that Denmark provides another interesting example of ways to get new entrants started in the fishery.

“Denmark has launched a new subsidy scheme to help young fishermen buy their first vessel, in a bid to help a generation shift in Danish fisheries. The growth and development package for Danish fisheries has allocated DKK 10 million ($2M CDN) to the subsidy scheme to help fishermen under 40 gain a foothold in Danish fishing. Fishermen under 40 can apply to take part in the first-time pool, managed by the fisheries fund. Support is granted up to 25 per cent of the purchase price for a new vessel, but with a ceiling of DKK 500,000 ($105K).”

Our international seafood competitors are obviously trying to address this labour shortage problem now. We need to do the same and it is going to take a collaborative effort on everyone’s part and the work has to start now.

In the words of Milton Berle, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”