TORONTO — THERE aren't enough fish left off Canada's east coast to support the fishermen who catch them. The federal government is putting in new surveillance planes to try to stop overfishing. But the biggest industry in Atlantic Canada, already the poorest region in the nation, has been devastated.
``There has been too much fishing power,'' says one of Canada's top experts on the Atlantic fishery who asks not to be named because of his present position. ``By that I mean too many fishermen and too many fish plants on shore demanding the product.''
He puts the blame for the shortage of fish within Canada's 200 mile limit and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence squarely on fishermen. ``If they couldn't get fish legally, using the quota system, they would get them on the sly,'' says the fishery analyst.
The fishermen and plant workers blame the shortage on overfishing by foreign vessels from Europe. In the past four years international quotas for the Grand Banks outside Canada's 200-mile limit have been exceeded by 400,000 metric tons.
Further, the numerous fish plants in Atlantic Canada, competing for fish to process for export to markets primarily on the east coast of the United States, have driven up the price and stimulated overfishing.
The fish shortage has meant a series of plant closings this year in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. In the small town of Canso, Nova Scotia, 750 jobs were lost. It means that just about the whole town is out of work. Almost 2,000 jobs were lost in four towns in Newfoundland.
This week the government announced a $584 million (Canadian: US$501 million) plan to save the economy of the Atlantic provinces. The town of Canso alone received C$26.7 million in aid, part of an overall C$158 million aid for communities hit by plant closings. Ottawa also wants time to rebuild the fish stocks. It will conduct an intensified diplomatic and publicity campaign to discourage overfishing by European trawlers. The issue will be raised shortly when Manuel Marin, the European Community's fisheries commissioner, arrives in Ottawa to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and other cabinet members. There are plans for economic diversification and job retraining.
The plans were promptly denounced by angry fishermen and fish plant workers as not enough. The Premier of Newfoundland called the package ``totally inadequate.'' The head of the fish plant workers union, Larry Wark, said, ``Diversification is a beautiful word until you ask the question: To what? Where do we see ourselves attracting industry?''
But one expert says subsidies are not the answer, indeed they may be the problem.
The biggest subsidy paid to the fish industry is Canada's unemployment insurance. It allows workers in Atlantic Canada to work 10 weeks and then collect unemployment insurance, almost their full wage, for the rest of the year. In that way different members of the same family, or friends, can share the same job and live off ``Pogey,'' as unemployment insurance is known, for 42 weeks a year. They often use the spare time to build or upgrade their homes.
The practice is well known and has been documented in reports calling for reform of the unemployment insurance scheme. In a blistering speech last month, Canada's Fisheries Minister, Bernard Valcourt, said the practice not only costs the taxpayer money but produces a poor example for children growing up in Canada's Atlantic provinces.
``What kind of ethics are we building for our kids in Atlantic Canada?'' asked Mr. Valcourt, whose legislative district is in New Brunswick.
In other parts of Canada people must work for a longer period before qualifying for unemployment benefits.
Valcourt has been surprisingly blunt in telling the people of his region they can no longer rely on the fishery, combined with Pogey. He says it leaves no future for the children of Atlantic Canada and the region must diversify. ``What is there for these little kids out there? Is the prize going to the boat or working in the plant? If that is the prize, then I say let's change the prize.''
FISH FACTS Some 1,300 Canadian communities in the four Atlantic Provinces (Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Novia Scotia, and New Brunswick) and Quebec are supported by the fishing industry. Commercial Fishermen: 66,000. The Catch: 1.3 million tons in 1989. Value: C$2.2 billion (US$1.8 billion). Fish Species: 75 % Herring and groundfish such as Cod and Haddock. Cod alone makes up 35 % of the total. Exports: 80 % of the catch is exported to the US.