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The History of Owner-Operator and Fleet Separation Policies: Cornerstones to Protecting the Independence of Fish Harvesters

January 11, 2022

This article was originally published in the Winter 2021/2022 Edition of the Union Forum Magazine, and was written by Courtney Langille, FFAW-Unifor Government Relations & Campaigns Coordinator. 

Fleet Separation was established as policy in 1979 and holds that only inshore fish harvesters are authorized to own inshore licenses, and processing companies or other corporate entities are forbidden from doing so. Owner-Operator was established as policy in 1989 and places obligations on inshore harvesters by requiring those who hold a fishing license to be aboard the vessel when the license is fished.

These policies are the pillars that protect the independence of fish harvesters and are clear in their principles to keep the value of the fishery within communities not corporations. FFAW is a long-time champion of the Owner-Operator and Fleet Separation policies and has been a consistent advocate for their greater enforcement.

What has been the reality since the late 1990s, however, is a clear undermining of these policies.

Corporate control of fishing licenses has altered the landscape of the fishery. Harvesters operate their enterprises according to their own rules and DFO regulations, and they retain the ability to negotiate fish prices as a collective group of independent harvesters.

Corporate control removes these key pillars of inshore economic success. A corporate controlled license is fished according to the direction of the corporation and fished at prices set by the corporation, not at the price bargained by harvesters. If a harvester fights against these positions, the corporation facilitates the movement of the license to another harvester looking for work.

In 2007, the Policy for Preserving the Independence of the Inshore Fleet in Canada’s Atlantic Fisheries (PIIFCAF) was announced because controlling agreements were then recognized as a threat to the viability of the inshore. But PIIFCAF was toothless and controlling agreements proliferated in the years since it was established. Over its lifetime, PIIFCAF cancelled fewer than five licenses in all Atlantic Canada for being in controlling agreements.

In 2018, the then Minister of Fisheries, Dominic LeBlanc, made a statement that fish harvesters had been waiting to hear for decades – that he had the opportunity to make amendments to the Fisheries Act that will strengthen fish management policies, and that he intended to use this opportunity to enshrine Owner-Operator and Fleet Separation in law.

FFAW representatives attended the meeting in Chester, Nova Scotia when Minister LeBlanc had made these statements. There was an overwhelming feeling of both success but also a realization that there was still extensive work to be done to ensure this commitment was upheld.

Officially known as “Regulations Amending the Atlantic Fisheries Regulations, 1985,” Owner-Operator and Fleet Separation became federal regulations as of April 1, 2021.

The presiding Minister of Fisheries and Oceans when these policies became regulation, Bernadette Jordan, noted in a press release:

“By enshrining the policies of Owner-Operator and Fleet Separation into law, we will help ensure that the revenue from the fishery stays in our coastal communities. Thank you to the harvesters whose advocacy and partnership have led to these changes that will bring greater prosperity and opportunity to Atlantic Canada. Over the course of its lifetime, fleet separation alone has safeguarded thousands of jobs for the province and millions of dollars to coastal economies.”

To enforce the new regulations, DFO has established an administrative review team to initiate and conduct reviews of license holders. This review team will provide recommendation to the Minister on whether they believe the license is compliant or non-compliant. What the team will be looking for is not specified, though DFO has noted before that they have identified certain indicators to guide them.

Unlike in PIIFCAF, which allowed harvesters to still fish while under investigation, the new regulations place licenses under immediate suspension when enough evidence is produced to substantiate a claim that the harvester had transferred the beneficial interest of his license to someone else. Once that suspension starts, the harvester will have 12 months to prove to DFO that they have ended whatever arrangement they were in that saw their beneficial interest be transferred.

During this year’s provincial election, FFAW lobbied for the new federal Owner-Operator and Fleet Separation regulations to spur action at the provincial level. FFAW again emphasized that this was not just a federal issue, that the province held jurisdiction over the licensing of processing plants whose owners were the main culprits behind controlling agreements.

Owner-Operator and Fleet Separation regulations are an extension to the Principle of Adjacency. The arrangement of Fleet Separation is that the Owner-Operator fleet lands it’s fish locally. This maximizes employment and local value for the fish caught by the Owner-Operator fleet.

Owner-operator and fleet separation play a central part in the ongoing debate on adjacency. These are crucial foundations for decisions on allocation and access for the emerging Unit 1 Redfish Fishery, which is expected to become commercial in the next two to three years. In the redfish fishery of the 80’s and 90’s, inshore harvesters had been denied a significant share of the Gulf redfish fishery, and the majority was allocated to the offshore sector. Thirty years ago, redfish were landed by offshore vessels fresh to processing plants in communities along the Gulf of St. Lawrence and sustained onshore processing jobs. However, the offshore sector is fundamentally different today and vessels are equipped with factory freezers that will now process redfish onboard and then ship it off to a low wage country for further processing. Redfish represents a significant socioeconomic development opportunity for the Western region, and federal Government must actualize its own Owner-Operator and Fleet Separation regulations to protect the harvester-producer relationship that keeps the wealth of our wild resources in adjacent communities, not exported by corporations.

FFAW will continue to participate in the legislative process as it unfolds to ensure the independence and protection of the owner-operator fleet for this generation, and the next.