Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Hunt for Jobs Intensifies as Fishing Industry Implodes Overfishing and Large Seal Numbers Have Shaken Canada's Multibillion-Dollar Sector, Halving Its Work Force

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Hunt for Jobs Intensifies as Fishing Industry Implodes Overfishing and Large Seal Numbers Have Shaken Canada's Multibillion-Dollar Sector, Halving Its Work Force

Article excerpt

DOWN on the docks by the moored boats of this idyllic little fishing village are the shops and galleries favored by summer visitors. Gulls wheel overhead as tourist dollars flow in with tidal regularity.

But behind the picture post-card image cultivated by Lunenburg and dozens of harbor towns like it lies a sense of desperation hidden from tourists traveling Nova Scotia's craggy coastal highway. It is a fear that the ocean's once bountiful fish stocks that have fed this province for centuries will soon vanish, along with peoples' jobs.

Overfishing by foreign and domestic fleets, poor survival rates among young fish, and large seal populations that prey on fish are all blamed for an implosion of Canada's multibillion-dollar maritime fishing industry. Scientists say they don't know when the fish stocks will be restored.

In just two years an industry that employed a work force of 100,000 in 1,300 communities across New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia has been cut in half, by some estimates.

The frustration is palpable and growing. Just over a month ago in Shelburne, a village an hour south of Lunenburg, hundreds of fishermen used their boats to blockade for eight days a Russian trawler trying to unload its cargo of cod fish. They eventually relented and let the boat unload. For a while it appeared the protest against foreign overfishing might spread up the coast to Lunenburg and beyond. It did not.

Yet the restlessness of communities that depend on fishing is mirrored to some degree by the vigor with which officials are pumping tourism, high technology, and manufacturing. A multimillion dollar advertising blitz early this year aimed to attract more tourists. It worked. Tourism, an $800 million (Canadian; US$608 million) industry in Nova Scotia, is up again this summer.

Nova Scotia's economy has diversified greatly in recent decades with fishing falling from 44 percent of exports in 1981 to about 26 percent today. Yet the $1.4 billion fishing industry here remains a potent symbol and major employer, especially across rural Nova Scotia, including Cape Breton, the southern and eastern shores.

In Lunenburg, for example, tourism is a boon, but fishing is still the economic heart of the community.

Etched on the horizon in the late summer sun are the hulking forms of eight large ships. From 130 to 175 feet long - huge compared with most fishing boats - these trawlers are equipped to drag nets up to a football field in length, depending on the fish species.

The ships are the pride of National Sea Products Ltd., one of Canada's largest fishing companies. They sit idle, however, lashed to the docks because the dearth of fish makes it uneconomical to send them out, a company official says.

As one of the province's largest employers, National Sea Products's Battery Point plant and fleet provide jobs to 1,170 workers, pumping $730,000 in wages each week into Lunenburg and surrounding towns.

National Sea Products and a few others still dominate fishing on Canada's east coast. Yet tight government quotas protect what few fish remain, cutting deeply into the company's raw material supply, sales, and profits.

Lately the company has been buying 75 percent of its fish from Russians and others to keep factories running, according to a provincial economic report. Despite laying off thousands of workers and closing numerous plants, the company lost $32.5 million last year, the fifth loss in five years. Company directors described the 1990s as a "survival of the fittest" test in the company's 1992 annual report.

Such Darwinian statements are hardly reassuring to the likes of Randy Baker - an independent fisherman working out of tiny Jeddore Harbor - who competes with the National Sea Products fleet for fish, but is only the tiniest of minnows by comparison. …

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