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Fishing groups welcome announcement of aid package for Canadian fishers

Crab bots sit on the deck of a boat in St. John's harbour.
Crab pots sit on the deck of a boat in St. John's harbour. - Glen Whiffen

FFAW will seek more details on how fishers will qualify for financial help


At least two groups that represent Canadian fish harvesters say they are pleased with Ottawa’s announcement of a $469 million aid package.

Melanie Sonnenberg is president of the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters Association.

That association, based in New Brunswick, represents 12,000 independent fishing enterprise owners, as well as thousands more crew members, across the country.

She told SaltWire after the Thursday announcement that they need to review the details of the package but “There’s enough (information) . . . to give us a sense that there is something here to help.”

Jessica McCormick, Director of Public Affairs with the Fish Food and Allied Workers union in Newfoundland and Labrador said the announcement relieves some of the frustration felt by those facing an uncertain season and who did not qualify for wage subsidy programs geared to other business.

However, union members would also like a little more detail.

The wording of the announcement is open to interpretation, says McCormick, but what seems to be clear is that funding will be available only to those who lose more than one quarter of their usual fishing income.

Here’s how the Department of Fisheries and Oceans explains it.

“Support will be provided to those that experience fishing income declines of greater than 25 per cent in the 2020 tax year, compared with a reference period to be identified,” the DFO release states. “This measure covers 75 per cent of fishing income losses beyond a 25 per cent income decline threshold, and covering up to 75 percent of lost income, for a maximum of $872 per week and $10,000 for the year.”

McCormick says members are also asking whether this wage subsidy will be available immediately, or will come at the end of the 2020 fishing season and tax year, when the fishing is done and incomes are totalled.

“The biggest concern from fish harvesters is they need income security now, so they can make some decisions about how they are going to run their enterprises this year. So we need that to come now, not a year down the road.”

Sonnenberg adds one of the thing that wasn’t clear in Thursday’s announcement was how the aid package would help new entrants in the fishing industry.

The program does offer a non-repayable grant of $10,000 for owners of fishing enterprise, to cover some fixed costs for the 2020 season.

McCormick said that’s just a “drop in the bucket” for enterprises that have taken out significant loans to purchase licences and equipment.

Sonnenberg adds: “The people who have come into the fishery very recently, as new owners of a fishing enterprise, we have to acknowledge that they have made a very serious financial commitment … and that debt load has to be acknowledged.”

She says something similar to the Farm Credit program is needed for the fishing industry, but it must be built to fit the specifics of the business of fishing.

“What we don’t want is for folks to fall through the cracks, go bankrupt, because the fishing industry carries coastal communities in a very big way. And if we are going to get the economy going again in these communities this will be paramount.”

“But for today,” Sonnenberg said, the announcement by Ottawa, marks “very, very important steps forward.”

McCormick noted the FFAW has been fielding many questions from its membership since the aid package was rolled out on May 14.

Plant workers also want to know whether this aid package will provide help for them if they don’t get enough hours of work this season to qualify for Employment Insurance benefits.

The union will be seeking those details from DFO.

“We need to get some clarification on how people will qualify and when they will receive these benefits.

“People have been waiting for months for this announcement, and obviously there is a high level of anxiety among our members and many, many questions.”

The global pandemic has caused a slump in fish markets..

Prices paid to crab and lobster harvesters in Atlantic Canada have dropped sharply from last fishing season as restaurants, casinos and cruise ships in the United States and Asia closed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Crab prices for Newfoundland and Labrador fishermen tumbled from a high of $5.15 last year to an offer of $2.90 to start the 2020 season.

The Standing Fish Price Setting Panel is reviewing a request by the FFAW for a crab price increase to $3.50 per pound for this season. The panel is expected to make its decision Friday, May 15.


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