Awareness is one of the toughest hurdles facing the Newfoundland and Labrador seafood industry today. While on any given weekday you can tune in to talk radio and listen to someone lament the current state of the fishery, many in the province, including government, have tuned the voices out.
Our fisheries and coastal communities have weathered some severe storms, including the 1990s collapse of the groundfish stocks. In their wake, Memorial sociologist Dr. Barbara Neis has seen a significant change in the public’s perception toward the fisheries. During the last two decades, she’s watched the public outlook ride a rollercoaster from pride to despair, anger to blame, and protest to apathy. Now many people have come to see our fisheries as a liability. A few claim they’re broken. The conversation is rife with dissent over what the future of our fisheries entails.
Dr. Neis has been studying Newfoundland and Labrador’s fisheries and coastal communities for more than 20 years. She has worked in teams with other social scientists, natural scientists, artists and humanists, and with a wide range of community groups. Their most recent program of research, the Community-University Research for Recovery Alliance (CURRA), set out to identify ways to rebuild collapsed fisheries and threatened communities. Once completed, the study yielded some pretty surprising insights. The researchers identified real strengths in our fisheries; a strong foundation that, with more support, has the potential to thrive.
Dr. Neis’s team released a policy booklet with 22 recommendations that, if implemented, could substantially improve the state of our fisheries. These pragmatic recommendations aim to see our fisheries prosper in the marketplace and increase their contribution to the health of our population, our cultural heritage and the strength of our communities.
The overarching goal was to encourage government to shift its focus from downsizing to revitalizing the province’s fisheries and coastal communities. The recommendations touch on everything from experiential tourism to niche product branding, from regional government to policy changes, from reduced regulations to increased research and training and the promotion of youth engagement.
Now that the research is finished and the report is published on the CURRA website, Dr. Neis says it’s up to local governments and the public to carry the torch. She says politicians, industry, researchers and residents of Newfoundland and Labrador must get engaged and change the conversation about our fisheries from one of a dying or broken fishery to a conversation that values the skills and infrastructure of our fisheries as an integral part of our everyday life.
Dr. Neis suggests inviting your friends and family around for a hearty meal of locally sourced, high-quality seafood. Talk about the place of seafood in the province’s food security and the effect of diet on our health. Reflect on all the places along Newfoundland and Labrador's stretch of Trans-Canada Highway where you can get food and on the virtual absence of any place to buy fresh (or even frozen) local seafood. Discuss the state of the fishery and our right to access its nourishing bounty. Talk to local chefs about the challenges they have accessing the roughly 50 species landed off our coasts and what those different types of seafood might taste like.
She also suggests reaching out to our children’s teachers, parent-teacher associations and local school boards. Request that more nutritious food options like low calorie, nutritional varieties of local seafood be served for lunch. Talk through the value of educating students about the historical and cultural significance of fish and the fishery within this province and look for ways to get them on the water and into local fish processing plants to see what the fishery involves. Ask how schools can inspire students to study and train for work in the local seafood industry.
Dr. Neis says in addition to families and students, the patients in our province’s hospitals, the residents in our seniors’ homes and the inmates in our prison systems should all be consuming a diet rich in locally sourced seafood. But for this to happen, change needs to occur.
Since the late 1980s regulations have made it illegal for the public to buy fish directly from fishermen. Legally sanctioned retail seafood outlets are scarce — particularly away from the major centres and along the highways. In other places, like Nova Scotia, Europe and in the U.S., community-supported fisheries — where consumers pay harvesters for fish in the spring and get a weekly delivery of fresh seafood — have increased access to fresh, local seafood. The harvesters (or in some cases fishermen’s spouses) also teach consumers about the different species available in local waters, how those species are caught and how they should be prepared for consumption.
Dr. Neis suggests that the provincial government calculates the current per capita consumption of locally sourced seafood (including seal) in Newfoundland and Labrador and seek to triple it by 2020. She suggests the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture’s budget be dramatically increased, but be contingent on the department working closely with other departments, such as tourism, health and rural development, to find ways to use our fisheries to promote regional economic development. Dr. Neis points to the need and strong demand for more experiential tourism in the province. She also calls for more opportunity to connect tourists with fisheries, and for the development of local economusée-type businesses that combine the production of niche seafood and other products with education and opportunities to watch work being done.
Dr. Neis explains that in the past most people had friends and family who worked in the fishing industry. As such, access to fresh fish was less of an issue. Since the collapse, the number of people directly involved in the industry has gone down substantially and will continue to decline as more plants are closed and more consolidation takes place. This will make it harder for people, including those in rural areas, to benefit from our fisheries and it will affect everything from our economic dependency to our dinner tables.
Building strong, resilient fisheries creates jobs in and outside the seafood industry and strengthens our coastal communities. Schools, hospitals, municipal services, retail and skilled trades are all needed to support a community with a thriving fishery. Taking measures to revitalize small-scale fisheries throughout the province will also empower our coastal communities.
Norway’s prime minister recently announced that that country’s future was no longer in oil but to a greater degree in fisheries. Oil is finite; sustainable seafood production is not. Dr. Neis says it’s crucial that we refocus our attitude toward fish and celebrate our fisheries, not just for the seafood industry, but also for ourselves and the future of Newfoundland and Labrador.