When the crab fishery resumes next April, the Northern Peninsula town of St. Anthony plans to impose a tariff on shellfish landed in their harbour and shipped out to other Newfoundland centres. It is the next battle in a shellfish processing war that has pitted Newfoundlander against Newfoundlander in a desperate attempt to secure work for their fish plants.

It is also the latest in a series of attempts by the province to shield workers from having to compete with the rest of the world on a level playing field. While individual provinces have tried to bar workers and other companies from competing in their internal market, we now have a town attempting to secure work for its citizens by levying a tariff on fish that is shipped out of town.

And, while the means being proposed are as destructive as any tariff barriers, the people of St. Anthony themselves have been victims of government policy that is equally destructive.

The war is being fought over a huge prize. In the decade since the imposition of the groundfish moratorium in 1992, annual shellfish landings have climbed from $60 million to almost $400 million, eclipsing the crippled ground fishery that dropped from $175 million to less than $70 million. Today Newfoundland fish landings are worth almost twice their pre-moratorium levels, but it is queen crab, not king cod, that rules.

But shellfish requires much less labour. Ground fish had to be gutted, split, filleted and trimmed, traditional work for tens of thousands of rural Newfoundlanders. Crab, on the other hand, requires little processing. Cooking and quartering is as much as is needed. Shrimp, the other main shellfish, requires even less processing. Often freezing whole is as much as is called for.

The competition for this minimal work has been intense. The traditional crab fishery was located on the east coast, in Conception Bay. Processing plants shipped shellfish across the province to the east coast in an attempt to keep their plants working as efficiently as possible. As the shell fishery exploded in the mid nineteen nineties, the provincial Department of Fisheries handed out several dozen new licences around the province, unfortunately, St. Anthony missed out.

When St. Anthony arranged to transfer an unused crab licence from Ramea on the south coast last July, it needed permission from the provincial Department of Fisheries. The department asked for public input and was faced with uprisings in many of the established fish plants that saw another competitor taking some of their shellfish stocks.

Early in September the minister, Gerry Reid, bowed to pressure, and refused the request for transfer. “To transfer the license would have negatively impacted the current workforce in the crab processing sector, which is already struggling to maintain reasonable periods of employment,” he said.

The people of St. Anthony were dismayed. John Efford, the previous fisheries minister who had issued most of the new licenses had encouraged St. Anthony to apply for the license transfer, but had moved on to federal politics by the time the application was filed. His successor reneged on the deal, and the citizens of St. Anthony, after holding a mock funeral, regrouped to consider their options. Next April, when the shellfishery reopens they plan to impose a levy on all shellfish that leaves the town, ostensibly to cover the cost of repairing the roads the shellfish trucks damage on their way out of town. St. Anthony is one of the most readily accessible harbours adjacent to the rich shellfish grounds off Labrador and northern Newfoundland, it has become a major shell fish transhipment port. A bottleneck there would seriously impair the fishery.

The people of St. Anthony are the latest victims of dirigiste fisheries policy that has stalled any rationalization of the Newfoundland fishing industry. When the province under the former minister handed out new shellfish processing licenses he argued that the plants should be closer to the stocks. In decades past so many fish plant licenses were issued that almost every small rural community had its own plant. At one point there were over 200 licensed fish plants in the province. Often the plants were nothing more than plywood shacks that operated for a few months in the summer and closed in the winter. With a steady flow of money available from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), and its predecessors, any politician with a modicum of political clout secured a fish plant for their communities.

Since the start of the 1992 moratorium, the easy money for fish plants has dried up, but the province still allocates fish processing licenses species by species to individual plants, and has insisted that all fish landed in the province be processed before it is exported. Often fishermen are forced to land shrimp at ports for cooking and peeling that diminishes the value of their catch. The crab that is landed is cooked and shucked of its shell, but after processing the crab is worth less, not more.

This value-subtracted approach is justified as a job creation plan for fish plant workers, but it eats into the take of both fishermen and fishing companies. In the end it impoverishes the entire rural sector of the province and prevents capital formation that could be used to expand the economic base of rural Newfoundland. Poor fishermen cannot invest in their local economy to create work for the unemployed. Desperate fishing companies cannot invest in Newfoundland’s anemic aquaculture industry.

Ironically both levels of government then use this lack of rural capital to justify government funding of business through ACOA and provincial departments.

The provincial department of fisheries has become a major obstacle to the rationalization of the fish processing sector. When the minister barred the St. Anthony Transfer he observed that all the shellfish landed in the province could be processed in four plants operating less than ten months a year. His department has licensed five times that many.

The ideal solution would be to remove the Department of Fisheries from any role in determining where any species is processed. They could then confine themselves to issues of food safety and product quality. Previous provincial governments have toyed with that idea, but a combination of cowardice and political opportunism has prevented the province from instituting free trade in fish processing. When this was suggested to the minister, he claimed that it was only his intervention that prevented all processing of shellfish in the older established plants on the east coast. He freely admitted his role in maintaining an inefficient status quo.

Unfortunately the provincial government will eventually have to face up to the need to rationalize the fish processing sector. When, and if, the ground fishery recovers to its pre-moratorium levels, major advances in groundfish processing will keep employment at a fraction of previous levels. Which is fortunate, since most of the workers in the industry are aging fast and few young people have been recruited in the last decade.

In the meantime the whole province is awaiting the spring shellfishery, and with it the attempt by the town of St. Anthony to further Balkanize the Newfoundland fishing industry. If it is successful, all of the landing ports may decide that their little principality should do the same. All the mice will roar.

If so, Canada’s poorest province will have found a new and ingenious way to impoverish itself even more.