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Atlantic Canadian fishermen are calling for more help from the federal government as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic threatens the industry’s bottom line.
Crab and lobster fisheries throughout Atlantic Canada have faced delayed season openings due to fears about the coronavirus spreading in small communities and close working conditions.
A significant drop in prices due to a collapse in retail and restaurant markets in the United States, Japan and China, major export markets for Canada’s seafood, overshadow the start of the season for many.
Responding to a question during Tuesday’s virtual House of Commons meeting, Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said support for the industry would be announced in the coming days, but by Thursday no additional details were available.
Mel Arnold, Conservative shadow minister for Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, issued a statement Thursday calling on the government to offer more support for fisheries.
“For two months, the Trudeau Liberals have ignored requests for help from Canada’s fish and seafood sectors and proven that they do not consider rural-based industries to be a priority,” Arnold said.
Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union, said fish harvesters and crew members in Newfoundland and Labrador will head out to sea on Monday to start the crab fishing season in Newfoundland and Labrador, but fishermen say it’s going to be a tough season financially if the federal government does not provide an aid package.
Sullivan told Saltwire Network that with a substantial drop in crab prices, down to an average of $2.90 per pound this year from $4 to over $5 per pound for the past two seasons, the business of fishing is taking a hit.
“The majority of crab from Newfoundland consistently goes into the U.S., to the retail sector and to the restaurant industry. Then the next biggest market would be Japan,” he said.
The COVID-19 impact on those economies, and others around the world, is creating a season of uncertainty for fishermen, said Sullivan.
He says it’s only fair that the Canadian government, which has already supported major industries and corporations across the country with things like wage subsidies, would do the same for fishing enterprises.
The Maritime Fishermen’s Union (MFU), which represents almost 1,300 inshore fish harvesters in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, is calling on the federal government to put in place a number of key support measures, including extended EI benefits and an adapted Canada Emergency Response Benefit until the 2021 fishing season, the waiving or reimbursement of all federal fees for 2020 such as licensing fees, vessel registration fees and wharf fees, an adapted wage subsidy program and an expanded interest-free loan program.
MFU executive director Martin Mallet said that while there are safety concerns about COVID-19 in much of Atlantic Canada, there are now major financial risks to consider.
Changes to the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit that allow seasonal workers who have exhausted their EI regular benefits and are unable to undertake their usual seasonal work to access monthly payments while the season is delayed have been somewhat helpful, but more needs to be done, Mallet said.
He said adapting some already available federal emergency programs to specifically target the fishery would cover most of their requests.
For example, Mallet said, the vast majority of fishermen are not eligible for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program, which provides employers with 75 per cent of wages up to $847 per week per employee, due to the stipulation that it cannot be used for employees who are related to their employer.
“Most fishing enterprises are family-oriented,” he said. “Many fishermen have their wives or their son or their uncle or father working for them, and sometimes it's the whole family working on the boat.”
Expanding the Canada Emergency Business Account interest-free loans of up to $40,000 for small business — with up to $10,000 of that forgivable — to a higher limit would also be helpful for many enterprises concerned about covering operating costs, Mallet said.
Unlike other industries, fisheries already have a short operational period that limits the ability to pick up and dust off after the COVID crisis, he said.
“Fishing for lobster in the spring, for instance, typically it starts early May and everything is done by the end of June. It’s a nine-week fishery, and considering that many days are lost sometimes because of storms and bad weather, if you have issues with markets, if you have issues with plants closing or your own business closing because of COVID-19 … these are all issues that make it really well impossible to survive over a 12-month period if you don't have some aid that is specific to the seasonality of your fishery,” Mallet said.
As such, he said any assistance from the federal government would need to be expanded to bridge the gap until next fishing season in order to truly make a difference.
Mallet said most fishermen are in small communities where the major or only industry is the fishing sector, and if that collapses the impact will be huge.
“Fishermen and deckhands, they want to go to work … but the economic side makes it very difficult for fishermen to plan ahead right now,” he said.
“If the guys can't get enough revenues from their fisheries to pay for their expenses, it’s going to be a huge crisis.”
Mallet is one of a number of individuals representing the Canadian fishing industry scheduled to plead their case at the House of Commons standing committee on finance on Thursday.