??Why someone, anyone, should own the fish.
by Don Cayo


When Grandpa Cayo and Grandpa Frappier came West in the early-teen years of this century, the government gave them each 160 acres of land. Gave it to them! And to thousands and thousands like them!

Imagine. A precious resource, one owned by all Canadians. And those bozos in Ottawa went and gave it all away.

But think for a moment what things might be like if they hadn’t.

What if farming was like the buffalo hunt? Everybody’s land. Everybody gets a shot.

Well, we know what happened to the buffalo. And I can’t quite envision how a common-property prairie gets broken or seeded. But my mental image of harvest time moves me first to laughter, then to tears.

Picture this. Scores and scores and scores of combines – the bigger the better – as far as the eye can see. They bounce and jounce in a mad race though fields of still-green grain, each grimly determined to cut the most first. A couple of guys play chicken, swerving only at the last minute, shaking fists and hurling insults as they pass. I see grain slopping from the hoppers, spilling from the trucks dashing to and fro. A poor man with a shovel and a pickup tries to scavenge a little of what’s been lost. Then – Look out! – here comes a corporate combine, one specially made, one as big as three houses, one able to overrun anything and anybody. . . .

You know, your province might not have a very vibrant agriculture sector if Ottawa hadn’t given my grandfathers and those other guys their land.

“Of course,” you may be thinking, “he would say that. Both sides of his family got free land.”

If so, you’ll be pleased to know that nobody gave away Atlantic Canada’s most precious public resource – the water and the fish in it. Yet I, a guy who has lived 30 years in the region, am saddened.

Oh, I understand why taxpayers might want to hang on to as much as they can. Trouble is, the fishery I see near my home looks a lot like the absurd harvest scene I imagined near yours. And our fish are going the way of your buffalo.

It’s mayhem on the water when a season’s open. A mad, mad race to catch the most first.

Ottawa “controls” the race like an elementary school teacher on Field Day. That mainly means firing the starting pistol – or perhaps blowing the whistle if someone’s caught stepping out of line. As with the teacher who must bone up on six subjects, then ends up supervising a dozen diverse sports, it also involves bluffing – pretending knowledge where there is little or none.

Fact is, fishery scientists do a lousy job of counting fish. And what little they know – or think they know – generally gets overruled by politicians bent on shutting up the largest possible number of vocal voters.

The main conservation tool is a shorter and shorter season. And that just intensifies the race.

What happens is that fishermen buy bigger and bigger boats in often-vain attempts to beat the other guys. They build debt to the point where many feel forced to cheat on quotas; they build the fleet, both its size and technology, to the point they can literally kill the last fish in the water.

Fish plants also over-build because the catch all lands at once. Quality may go overboard; it’s hard to be careful when running flat out.

In a few weeks it’s over. And few have made a real living on land or on shore.

It’s such a mess, so tragic. I wish Ottawa had given it all away to other people’s grandfathers who would have taken care of it the way mine took care of their land.

It’s hard, of course, to for ocean resources to be owned the way we own land. But there are ways to do it. And it’s urgent that we do it now.

In a few cases – bottom-crawling lobster, for example, or new-fangled fish farms and old-fashioned fixed weirs – it’s easy to stake off turf. Holdings can be either individually or community owned.

For species that swim from place to place – and most do – the only realistic “property right” is a fixed, long-term percentage of the total catch. Such rights, as buyable and sellable as the family farm, actually exist in several parts of the world, including experimental zones off Atlantic Canada. While they aren’t perfect, they greatly enhance stewardship – just as when people own land.

What happens, in short, is that if you overfish you devalue your own property; if you manage it well you build assets. You harvest at the best times – when the weather’s good, the price high and/or the plant idle. You equip yourself more moderately. You manage debt based on a reasonable estimate of income.

I wish I could tell you why fishermen aren’t clamoring for individual transferable quotas. But whenever the subject comes up, someone’s sure to say, “Give it away? Imagine. A precious resource, one owned by all Canadians.”

The pity – and the puzzle – is that we Easterners, unlike you property-owning Westerners, don’t even have to imagine what things will be like if we don’t.