Hunt for Jobs Intensifies as Fishing Industry Implodes

Overfishing and large seal numbers have shaken Canada's multibillion-dollar sector, halving its work force

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.

Like his father before him, 34-year-old Baker had high hopes when he began as a young man to fish Nova Scotia's Scotian shelf, the huge underwater plateau that juts more than a 150 miles from Canada's coast until it dips into the deep Atlantic.

The shelf was rich with fish then. And young Mr. Baker, after fishing summers during high school, began fishing full time after graduation. It was an honored tradition then, he says, based on the presumption many shared that if a man worked hard, he and his family would live well off the ocean's bounty.

Few here in Nova Scotia hold that view anymore.

"Three-quarters of our income is gone," Baker tells a visitor as he hurriedly prepares to leave his modest home, his wife, and three children, for three days at sea. "We've remortgaged our home, refinanced the loan on the pickup truck, and the car is nine years old. We're looking at other jobs, anything we can do to make it."

But big companies and small independents are only part of the story. Dozens of privately owned fish processing plants on Nova Scotia's coast have long been the main local employers, are going out of business.

Harold Baker (no relation to Randy), foreman and part-owner of a small processing plant in East Jeddore, tells of his hefty payments on a $500,000 German-made fish filleting machine he bought when fish were plentiful a few years ago. He has only 20 workers cleaning fish part-time this year, while last year he had 70 men working. "The fish just aren't there to be caught," he says. "We're going backward right now, we're not even breaking even."

Randy Baker blames big Canadian companies, not just foreign fleets, for using net-dragging fleets to vacuum the sea of fish. He says the limited fish stock would employ more people if big companies did not have so much of it. In 1988 the government gave National Sea Products alone 37.4 percent of the entire Canadian offshore quota. This year it is 28 percent.

"There's just too much fishing pressure, too much cheating," Baker says. "Most of us have to have one hook and one piece of bait to catch one fish. But these companies can 'high-grade' if they want to," he says, referring to the practice netting tons of fish, but then picking out smaller, less valuable fish and dumping them dead into the ocean.

"Everyone likes to find a villain in this," says National Sea Products fleet manager Michael O'Connor, who says the company is a target of small fishermen and the news media. Federal inspectors, he counters, are on nearly 100 percent of company ships to ensure high grading does not happen.

Back in Jeddore Harbor, leaning against his boat, Randy Baker recalls a time when cod, pollock, haddock, red fish, and hake thrived on the Scotian Shelf. Cod, in particular, swam in enormous "mega-schools" 20 miles wide by 30 or more long and scores of meters deep, scientists say.

But today, unlike the old days when a fisherman only had to go a dozen miles offshore, Baker, his partner Barry Slaunwhite, and a helper will take their 42-foot boat 14 hours and 115 miles from shore.

Baker's last catch brought him just $6,000, though it cost $1,200 for bait, food, and fuel, and thousands more to pay hired help and loan payments on the boat. He splits the tiny remnant with Slaunwhite.

"Before, everyone made a half decent living," says Baker tying up loose lines while preparing to leave Jeddore Harbor for the outer shelf. "Now there's too many fishermen chasing too few fish."

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