By Brian Lee Crowley
Halifax Chronicle Herald, Moncton Times and Transcript

You have to give Newfoundland Premier Roger Grimes credit for trying. The desperate head of a government that most commentators have written off for the next election is fighting back with everything he’s got. But his arsenal contains some of the worst ideas ever conceived for the protection of the fishery, once his province’s economic mainstays and still an industry of great significance.

The premier’s latest target is the recent federal decision to close the cod fishery completely until the struggling stocks give more convincing signs of recovery. Cod, as Peter Fenwick, the former leader of the NDP in Newfoundland has recently written, has not been king in the province for years. The federal government’s own study indicated that a very small number of people would be hurt by the final closure of the cod fishery.

Newfoundland has undergone huge change in the decade since the 1992 cod moratorium when 35,000 were thrown out of work almost overnight. Cod is now virtually a footnote in a Newfoundland fishery that lives chiefly from shrimp and crab. The value of the industry’s production has finally surpassed a billion dollars annually.

But cod still has emotional resonance, no matter how little economic substance underpins it. Hence Mr. Grimes’ latest grandstanding. Ottawa has jurisdiction over the fishery. The cod stocks collapsed on the federal government’s watch. Ergo, the feds should be booted out and replaced by provincial bureaucrats in St. John’s. If only sage Newfoundlanders who love the fishery and the cod had been in charge goes the refrain, all would have been well. He is even proposing that the Constitution be amended to give Newfoundland jurisdiction over its fisheries.

Of course the very emotion that Mr. Grimes is investing in this story disproves his claim that what he wants is fisheries management in the interests of Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans. The bane of the fishery was not and is not Ottawa. It was and is politics, and Mr. Grimes’ proposed transfer of responsibility from one group of politicians to another would make things worse, not better.

The premier’s legitimate grievance is that the fishery has not been managed in such a way as to maximize stocks and harvests in the long run. But the reason is that, unlike in most industries, the people who derive their livelihood from the resource don’t own the resource, the government does. And the government derives little benefit from managing the fishery on a sustainable basis, but derives lots of benefit from allowing too many people to fish.

The reason is simple. The benefits of sensible fishery management are long-term. They may take years to be realized. But in the interim, people who would like to fish have to be told that they can’t, or that they have to fish less than they would like to. Unfortunately, politics is largely about short-term satisfaction. The next election is never more than four years away. Given a choice between keeping people out of the fishery today for an economic benefit that may be decades away, versus giving people unsustainable access today and leaving someone else to clean up the mess three or four elections from now, politicians can be relied upon to choose electoral success today nine times out of 10.

Mr. Grimes’ proposed constitutional amendment would “solve” the problems of the Newfoundland fishery by giving control to a government politically dominated by coastal and fishing communities. Far from being an improvement, this would make the pressures on politicians to grant unsustainable access even greater than they already are. Mr. Grimes wants jurisdiction so he can give more access, not less.

No, the main solution to the fishery’s challenges doesn’t lie in shifting jurisdiction from one government to another. It lies instead, as our prosperous North Atlantic neighbour, Iceland, has discovered, in giving the fishermen themselves ownership and control over the fish stocks. Just as farmers, when they own their land, manage it to protect and enhance its productive capacity, fishermen everywhere have shown that they can manage the fish sensibly themselves when they will personally realize the benefit of the time and investment required.

They will also, by the way, police the fishery more effectively than DFO ever could. Wherever fishermen own a share of the fish stocks, a fish caught illegally is stolen from the people who live and work in every coastal community, and their eyes are everywhere. Fishermen who own the fish are also more inclined to want to pay for good science and to live by the result, as experience shows in the Canadian fisheries where this system has been tried. And once fishermen get this control over their own lives and their livelihood, they never want to go bask to the bad old politicized ways.

Transferring jurisdiction over the fishery might solve Mr. Grimes’ political problems, but it sure won’t solve the fishery’s

Dr. Brian Lee Crowley is President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies