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Federal Court protects owner-operator, fleet separation policies

May 16, 2017

The Canadian Independent Fish Harvester’s Federation (CIFHF) is pleased that the Federal Court of Canada affirmed the constitutionality of the owner-operator[1], fleet separation[2], and PIIFCAF[3] policies. In Kirby Elson and Canada (Attorney General) the Federal Court stated that the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans had the authority to both establish and enforce these three policies that are essential for maintaining strong coastal communities.

The challenge to the Minister’s authority was supported by a large group of fish processing companies and trade associations. This group retained the services of one of Canada’s largest law firms in an attempt to bar the federal government from regulating “controlling agreements[4]”, whereby processing companies establish control of a fishing license held in the name of a harvester. These agreements violate fleet separation and owner-operator policies.

“The CIFHF was established in 2013 with the explicit purpose of defending and strengthening the owner- operator and fleet separation policies in the face of unprecedented threats from corporate fishing interests,” said Melanie Sonnenberg, President of the Federation. “We hope this decision is a defining moment for the fisheries across Canada, where we start to roll back the tide of corporate interference that has been so destructive for the past two decades.”

“The CIFHF was at the forefront of this most recent challenge to owner-operator,” asserted Carl Allen, the New Brunswick Vice-President of the Federation. “This is a big victory for DFO, we thank them for their commitment to fishermen and coastal communities, and we urge them to bolster these policies with regulation and to not compromise.”

In her ruling, Justice Strickland of the Federal Court stated that the Minister’s statement of PIIFCAF “indicated that the Minister strongly believed that an independent inshore commercial fishing fleet was an important element of an economically prosperous Atlantic Canada and that the Policy underscored the government’s commitment to building a foundation of economic strength for Atlantic coastal communities.” The Federation believes that fishermen and coastal communities across the country should celebrate this decision.

Justice Strickland went on to rule that “The Minister’s absolute discretion in licensing permits him or her to validly consider social, cultural or economic goals or policies when deciding whether or not to issue fishing licenses.”

To David Decker, Treasurer of the Federation, it is the commitment to the sustainability of our coastal communities that brought everyone together. “There are 31 different fishery organizations in the Federation. We don’t agree on everything, but when it came to the importance of owner-operator and fleet separation for rural sustainability, consensus was not hard to reach.”

“There’s still much work to do,” noted Leonard LeBlanc of the Gulf of Nova Scotia Fleet Planning Board. “This case should give DFO the support it needs for a comprehensive implementation of PIIFCAF.”

Ms. Sonnenberg concurs. “This is an important victory and it needs to empower DFO to use all of its resources to unravel the controlling agreements that already exist and to prevent new ones from coming into existence. It is also important that DFO investigate the processing companies that are at the root of the controlling agreement problem. These companies are interfering in federal fishery policy and need to be held accountable.”


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Courtney Glode

[1] Owner-operator – License holders who are restricted to using vessels less than 65 feet in length are required to fish their licenses personally.

[2] Fleet Separation Policy – (1) One of the objectives of the licensing policy is to separate the harvesting and processing sectors of the industry, particularly in the fisheries where licence holders are restricted to using vessels less than 19.8m (65′) LOA. This is known as the Fleet Separation Policy.

(2) Under this policy, new fishing licences for fisheries where only vessels less than 19.8m (65′) LOA are permitted to be used may not be issued to corporations, including those involved in the processing sector of the industry.

[4] Controlling Agreement – means an agreement between a licence holder and a person, corporation or other entity that permits a person, other than the licence holder, to control or influence the licence holder’s decision to submit a request to DFO for issuance of a “replacement” licence Footnote 1 to another fish harvester (commonly referred to as a “licence transfer”). Agreements between the licence holder and a Recognized Financial Institution (RFI) are not Controlling Agreements if (1) there is no third party involved in the Agreement or (2) any co-signor, guarantor or other surety involved in an agreement does not control or influence the licence holder’s decision to submit a request to DFO for the issuance of a “replacement” licence to another fish harvester.