'Harvesters are practically slaves to a provincial fish price-setting system that often works against them, and governed by federal licence conditions that render them even more powerless."
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Most of the south coast sea cucumber fleet — which has remained tied to the wharf so far this season in protest over the low price imposed on them — may be forced to fish or loose their fishing licences.
What’s also clear is that harvesters are practically slaves to a provincial fish price-setting system that often works against them, and governed by federal licence conditions that render them even more powerless.
FIRST, THE PRICE
On June 2nd, the province’s Standing Fish Price Setting Panel set the 2021 price paid to harvesters for sea cucumbers at 60¢/lb. SEA-NL wrote about it here.
That low price is hard to swallow when you consider the export value of dried sea cucumber products to the U.S. for the first few months of this year was $34.24/lb (down from $51.24/lb in 2020).
PANEL WAS 'SIGNIFICANTLY CHALLENGED' The panel set the price at 60¢/lb even though it was “significantly challenged” in that it had practically no information on “the industry, logistics, its products, and yields.”
On top of that, this is the first year the price-setting panel has dealt with sea cucumbers, and there was no market assessment by government or industry.
Find the panel’s written decision here.
In fact, privacy legislation prevents the province from releasing information on the sea cucumber industry — including the number of processors, and the products they're producing.
Indeed, processors, represented by the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP), hold all the market cards, and can't be made to share them.
By law, when the FFAW and processors can’t agree on a fish price, the decision goes to the price-setting panel, which must choose one or the other (no where in between).
In the case of sea cucumbers, the panel choose the ASP’s 60¢/lb over the FFAW’s 80¢/lb (which was also the 2019 price, prior to the union taking over price negotiations).
The panel made it a point to say it felt the “right” price is likely in the middle — meaning harvesters lose 10¢/lb at the very least.
NEW PROTOCOLS CAUGHT FFAW OFF GUARD
Besides approving the processors’ price for sea cucumbers, the price-setting panel also signed off on the ASP’s new quality/grading protocol for measuring water loss.
That caught the FFAW off guard, with the union assuming “processors would pay the landed price based upon similar procedures for dockside determination of net weight that processors have independently used in the past, outside any collective agreement.”
The FFAW assumed wrong.
On a 260,000/lb sea cucumber quota, some harvesters were already losing 60,000/lbs to water loss. It’s feared the new protocols could mean an even greater loss (in the range of 80,000/lbs).
Instead of 60¢/lb for sea cucumber, fishermen would end up walking away with 40-45¢/lb. Ridiculous.
PERMITS VS LICENCES
There are 19 permanent sea cucumber fishing licences off the south coast (fishing zone 3Ps), and 40 temporary permits.
Licence holders can fish as much (or as little) as they want. As a condition of their icence, permit holders must make at least five trips a year and/or land 50% of their harvest cap of 260,000 lbs.
This year, when most of the permit holders got their fishing conditions from DFO the documents referred to “licences” — NOT permits.
The harvesters assumed DFO had converted their temporary permits into permanent licences, meaning the fleet could remain tied on in protest over the price/new protocols without worrying about meeting minimum fishing requirements.
Below are the sea cucumber licence conditions issued to a fisherman in 2020 and 2021, with DFO referring to a "permit" last year, and a "licence" in 2021.
DFO SAYS PERMIT STATUS HASN'T CHANGED
A DFO official said Friday the status of the temporary permits hasn’t changed. Rather, the change in language was “related to ongoing efforts to streamline conditions in the licensing system.”
The official also said a decision "to extend or possibly convert to commercial status" will be made after the 2022 fishing season when "the eligibility list for sea cucumber licences/permits is due to expire.”
HARVESTERS HAVE SUSPICIONS
Harvesters suspect a more deliberate attempt to force them to return fishing for a low price. It certainly looks funny.
At the very least harvesters say they've suffered mental anguish — and they have a damn good point.
If the panel isn't given the power to obtain the information necessary to make a fair decision on price then what's the use of it?
PROCESSORS CAN PAY MORE THAN MINIMUM
Clearwater — which is not a member of the ASP — has told some sea cucumber harvesters that the company can’t pay harvesters any more than the 60¢/lb set by the price-setting panel.
That’s not the case.
The panel sets the “minimum” price to harvesters, meaning there's nothing to stop processors from paying more, which they do.