Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield says he's hearing loud and clear that people don't want him to touch the fleet separation and owner-operator policies.
Ashfield is in the province on August 22 spending time checking out aquaculture facilities on the province's south coast as well as spending time on the Burin and Avalon peninsulas.
The visit comes as the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is in the midst of a sweeping policy review.
Critics say the review could threaten the policies that help maintain the inshore fishery as small, independent enterprises.
During meetings Wednesday, August 22, provincial Fisheries Minister Darin King raised the issue.
"We're standing strong as we've done now since the discussion began around the owner-operator and fleet-separation policy," King said. "We don't believe that it's a good move to take that out right now."
At one point during the policy review, things got so heated that the fisheries union organized a protest that involved banging sticks against the walls of the DFO building in St. John's.
Ashfield said he was surprised by the reaction. He said no decisions have been made and he just wanted the policy to review to have as much breadth as possible.
"I made it very clear when I went into this process that I had no preconceived notions or ideas at all," he told The Telegram. "I just wanted honest ideas and feedback from fishermen and people in the fishery."
Since consultations started, Ashfield said the response has been overwhelming. More than 5,000 submissions have been received, on a whole range of themes, but there was also a consistent trend.
"We got a lot of good feedback and it became very clear that most fishermen or most of the submissions we received were not interested in doing anything with owner-operator or fleet-separation," Ashfield said. "We'll have a response to that probably early this fall, and with no decisions made at this point."
Broadly, Ashfield said, his No. 1 interest is in streamlining the bureaucracy and making the federal regulatory system easier for fishermen to navigate.
Ashfield was particularly interested in aquaculture on this visit to the province. He said as an MP from New Brunswick, he's familiar with the industry but he was amazed by the economic impact it's had on the province's south coast.
In the community of Rencontre, which has no road access and only about 140 residents, Ashfield said 20 people are employed full-time in the aquaculture industry.
"They've embraced aquaculture there," he said. "Aquaculture really hold a lot of hope for a lot of coastal rural communities where they're able to do that kind of work."
But Ashfield's visit has already sparked a bit of controversy, mostly for what he didn't do.
A handful of fishermen on the southwest coast are angry that the government reduced their quota of greysole from 1,000 tonnes to 500.
By comparison, even before the reduction, the greysole quota was around four per cent of the 24,396 tonne caplin quota.
But MP Judy Foote and MHA Andrew Parsons say that a report by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat said harvesters could take 850 tonnes without threatening the fish stocks.
"That report indicated that the catch would have to exceed 850 tonnes before the health of the stock would be negatively impacted, but they went and cut it down to 500," Foote said. "Why did you do it? That's not what the science recommended."
Fishermen wanted to meet with the minister or a senior official within the department; after pursuing the matter through Foote, they were offered a meeting with an assistant deputy minister if they came to Ottawa.
Then Foote heard that Ashfield was coming to Newfoundland.
"You're expecting fishermen to pay to go to Ottawa to meet with an ADM when the minister of fisheries is coming to Newfoundland?" she said. "There's something wrong this picture."
Ashfield said when it came to the quota, he signed off on the recommendations that his officials gave him. He said a lot goes into those recommendations, and it wouldn't be appropriate for him to second-guess that.
As for meeting with the fishermen, he said he just didn't have time on this visit.
"Unfortunately, my schedule doesn't permit me to meet with every individual involved in the fishery. I just don't have that kind of time," he said. "The fact of the matter is we made every effort to talk to these people."
Parsons said that just wasn't good enough.
"I think it's very unfortunate that a minister of the crown can't make time for the people that are directly affected by his decisions," he said. "They should at least be heard; they are a stakeholder. They should at least have their concerns listened to."
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