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'SEA-NL must be bigger than any one leader'

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

No matter who you like or don’t like on a personal level, no matter which organization you support, no matter what flag you fly, we’re all NLers, and long-standing problems with the inshore fishery will only be addressed when owner-operators "Unite for the common good," as is SEA-NL's motto.

The inshore fleet of Bay de Verde.

The following is my Feb. 8th "state of the fishery" address during SEA-NL's virtual Founding Convention.

It’s been a long road to get to this point with SEA-NL, and the Founding Convention.

For me, this is my seventh straight year plugging away at the fishery, with lots of water under the bridge.

First with FISH-NL, which was a certified union, challenging the FFAW on the right to represent inshore fishermen and women.

I would have been happy just to see fishermen get the right to decide for themselves who they want to represent them — happy with a vote, in other words — but that’s not the way labour democracy works around here.

There is no real choice.

The FISH-NL battle went on for four years, involving two card-signing tours around every nook and cranny of the province.

This photo was taken in September, 2016 following a meeting in Corner Brook to gage interest in a new union for inshore harvesters. Dozens of harvesters spontaneously marched on the nearby FFAW-Unifor office.

It’s funny that in Newfoundland and Labrador — which is all about fish, fishing boats, and the sea — and we had no idea who the fishermen were.

It took the labour board the better part of two years to come up with a definition of a fisherman.

The FFAW had a list of names and would’t give it up, the bureaucrats at the Labour Board wouldn’t force them release the list, and the politicians wouldn’t have anything to do with any of it.

No wonder the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery has a hard time getting ahead — everyone’s afraid to touch it.

We folded up the FISH-NL tent in December 2019, but the drive for change in the fishery did not end with FISHNL. The drive continues to this day, with even more resolve.

There were days, mind you, when I couldn’t get far enough away from the fishery, but I’ve always been drawn back because I can’t let it go. Right is right, wrong is wrong.

Last April, almost nine months ago, Merv Wiseman and I announced a new association to represent independent licensed owner-operator inshore fish harvesters.

An association now — not a union.

The union was for everyone — skippers and crew — and we were forced to jump through Labour Board hoops, and pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to try and achieve the impossible.

Again, SEA-NL is not a union. We don’t have to go through that again.

SEA-NL is a non-profit professional association just for licensed owner-operators or skippers, like the associations that represent teachers or doctors or police officers.

Right now you can’t tell the difference from the voice of a skipper from the voice of a crewman from the voice of a plant worker from the voice of a fish farmer from the voice of an offshore trawlermen.

All voices come from the same mouth.

Owner-operators should lead the fishery, not be led by the nose.

It’s worth noting that the idea of a distinct voice for owner-operators — which is what SEA-NL serves as — was an idea that first came from the FFAW.

“Government should be dealing with owner-operators — not the crewmen who fish with them. DFO gives no more status to the owner-operator than it does to the part-time fisherman. At present, owner-operators are not recognized as a distinct group, and are not consulted on policy matters, or about what should happen in the fishery generally.”

Personally, I have never agreed more with the FFAW — never. That statement is dead on the money.

SEA-NL will serve as that distinct voice of owner-operators.

If an issue impacts your fishing enterprise, SEA-NL will be all over it.

SEA-NL will not replace the FFAW.

The FFAW remains the bargaining agent, and the union will continue to negotiate the price of fish.

The difference will be that SEA-NL will have an eye over the FFAW’s shoulder every step of the way, to make sure the price of fish is the best it can be.

When the price of snow crab was set last March at $5.73/lb in Newfoundland and Labrador, and fishermen in Nova Scotia were paid $1.50/lb more at the wharf, SEA-NL made sure owner-operators knew about it.

When the price of crab was set at a few weeks later at $7.60/lb, and the market price continued to climb every week after that and fishermen had no way to appeal for a higher share — a fair share of the market price — SEA-NL made sure owner-operators knew about that, too.

You did not receive a fair market return for your snow crab in 2021 because the government system stopped you.

I can’t say it clearer than that.

SEA-NL also made sure the Minister responsible for the fish price-setting panel knew about the problem — with a formal request that he allow for more price reconsiderations — and make a decision on that before the start of the 2022 crab seasons.

There’s still no word on a decision, but SEA-NL will stay on top of it.

When the price of sea cucumbers was set at 60¢/lb last summer, SEA-NL pointed out how the price-setting panel admitted it was basically operating blind.

SEA-NL also made it known that new protocols for measuring water loss in the sea cucumber fishery — protocols that cost fishermen money — were introduced without a word of protest.

As the distinct voice of owner-operators SEA-NL will help you land the best price for your fish, and hold governments to account for management, safety and science.

When DFO went outside its own rule book last year to limit the increase in the northern shrimp quota.

SEA-NL took a stand for owner-operators.

When halibut fishermen from western Newfoundland complained about having to choose in spring when to fish their halibut in summer.

SEA-NL took a stand for owner-operators.

When hundreds of thousands of pounds of herring were dumped at sea last year due to bad DFO policy in Newfoundland and Labrador.

SEA-NL took a stand then, too.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds of herring were released dead in the water last year because of at-sea protocols to measure for length.

It was SEA-NL in August last year that called on the provincial government to investigate foreign control and corporate investment in the fish processing sector, a review that began last month.

When 3Ps inshore fishermen were excluded from the 3Ps cod rebuilding plan, SEA-NL made sure they knew about it — they and every Newfoundlanders and Labradorian within ear shot.

When “pirate” foreign trawlers were accused of destroying the Grand Banks under DFO’s nose, SEA-NL made that an issue, too, and we will again, and again, like a broken fishery record.

When Transport Canada came down like a hammer this past fall on owner-operators who had fishing vessels modified or cut in length without advance approval — because they were told it wasn’t needed — SEA-NL was there.

SEA-NL has picked up the torch for non-core groundfish licence holders, and we’ve written the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to request that the policy be changed so that non-core licences can be sold or passed on.

So that they don’t die with the license holder. A petition to that effect will be launched soon.

SEA-NL has also asked Fisheries and Oceans to ban bottom-trawling for cod in 3Ps the same way bottom trawling is outlawed for northern cod and Gulf Cod. All three adjacent cod stocks are in the critical zone.

DFO cannot scientifically defend its decision to ban bottom-trawling from two adjacent cod stocks, and not the third.

SEA-NL wrote the Prime Minister last month to request an independent third-party investigation into the operations of DFO in the province.

The request came after the union representing DFO scientists in Newfoundland and Labrador said that interference with scientific work is common place — and everyone’s implicated — DFO management, the FFAW, the offshore dragger crowd.

Conflicts of interest in the fishery are a dime a dozen.

SEA-NL wrote another letter to the federal Fisheries minister last month to say that unions and associations representing fishermen should not hold fish quotas in conflict with their membership.

The FFAW holds quotas — and has requested more — at the same time that it has a monopoly over dockside monitoring in the province.

So the union effectively monitors its own catches.

How is that right?

I’d like to shift gears for a moment and speak about SEA-NL’s structure.

Four executive positions will be up for election today — President, Secretary-Treasurer, Captain of the over 40 fleet, and Captain of the under 40 fleet.

I was President of FISH-NL, but I cannot serve as President of SEA-NL, and neither can Merv Wiseman.

SEA-NL’s executive positions can only be held by licensed owner-operator inshore harvesters.

We purposely structured SEA-NL that way for owner-operators to take ownership of your own association.

SEA-NL must be bigger than me or Merv Wiseman or any one leader.

Once the executive is elected today they will meet either in the coming days, and they will have to make certain decisions — including hiring decisions.

I have served as interim executive director. I say interim because the decision on who’s hired on a more permanent basis will be up to the board — not me.

All hiring/firing decisions will ultimately be up to the SEA-NL leadership, and that will hopefully eliminate empire building within the association, and the idea of jobs for life.

The staff must be hireable and fireable.

In a lot of ways, Merv and I have created SEA-NL as a gift to owner-operators.

Here you go, this association, this distinct voice, is now up and running — and yours.

SEA-NL will serve as an opposition to the labour monopoly that exists over all sectors of the province’s fishing industry.

We’re not looking for leaders today who are bought and paid for. We’re not looking for leaders who are out for yourself. You must be loyal to the inshore fishery, and all her fleets.

That’s the big-picture ask.

SEA-NL’s mission is to champion the fishing industry and enhance the interests of owner-operators.

SEA-NL’s vision is for a thriving fishing industry driven by prosperous inshore fleets to the benefit of rural communities, and future generations of harvesters.

SEA-NL’s goals are to support owner-operators, to advocate for healthy fisheries, to strengthen fishing communities, to educate policymakers, and to inform the membership of what’s happening.

Finally, I want to thank the people who helped put this virtual convention together, and rolled with the punches when it was delayed. We went from in-person, to virtual and in-person to strictly virtual.

I’ve known Merv for a while now — we ran against each other in a federal election almost 15 years ago. (This mention of Merv played at the top of the speech when it was delivered.)

Merv was blue back then, and I was orange. Today we’re both blue — only it’s a particular shade of SEA-NL blue.

I knew Merv from his work with the Canadian Coast Guard and as an advocate for fishing vessel safety, but I didn’t really get to know Merv until last year when we moved forward — together — with SEA-NL.

I can tell you this: Merv’s a dog for work, he’s guided by the best interests of Newfoundland and Labrador. He has his own mind, and steely resolve. He’s no push over.

Merv’s also the best kind of leader — a leader by example …

I thank Rose Genge, my sister Rhonda Larmand, and Ron Woodman.

It’s not possible to have a raw raw founding convention in a pandemic, but you make the most of the hand you’re dealt.

None of us are computer experts, and just signing on to this virtual convention is a job in itself, so thank-you to those who signed on.

I also want to thank the former executives of FISH-NL because the reality is we got here today on their shoulders.

Boyd Lavers of Port Saunders, Peter Leonard of Southern Harbour, Richard Gillett of Twillingate, Jason Sullivan of Bay Bulls, Johanna Ryan Guy of St. Brendan’s, Harvey Jarvis of Fairhaven, and Keith Boland of St. John’s.

No matter who you like or don’t like on a personal level, no matter which organization you support, no matter what flag you fly, we’re all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

We’re known for our fishery, an industry that rides high on the price of snow crab, but whose foundation is as shaky today as it’s ever been.

DFO scientists have raised a red flag — again — about their own science.

Too many stocks have been on their knees for too many decades.

We’ve been warned — again — about pirate foreign draggers pillaging the Grand Banks outside 200 miles.

Our share of fish adjacent to our shores lessons every year.

Control of fish processing is investigated after it's sold to a foreign country — not before.

John Crosbie once asked, with his eyes half closed I imagine, “Who hears the fishes when they cry?”

When I served in the House of Commons I asked a follow-up question, “Who hears our fishermen when they speak?”

Today, I predict that SEA-NL will be heard as the voice of owner-operators, and we will listen for fishes when they cry.

Because their pain is ours.

Onward and upwards,

Ryan Cleary

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