Given the strain on the food supply chain and the fact that strict measures will be in place for some time, it was necessary for the provincial and federal governments to declare fishery workers essential, but no one should be forced to work in unsafe conditions.
Earlier this month, the province confirmed that fisheries ministers around the East Coast are meeting regularly – including with federal minister Bernadette Jordan.
Among the topics discussed by the ministers were the importance of the fishing and aquaculture sectors, the importance of the food supply, and their desire to work together with their respective industries to ensure people remain safe. They agreed to work with the federal government on ways to lessen impacts.
Jordan said she remains in “regular contact with many harvesters, processors, and representative groups.”
Bruce Nunn, media relations with the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, said they are working with public health officials to ensure there is clarity about how the seafood industry can operate, as well as about global market conditions, industry support programs and the availability of labour.
On March 20, the province announced that it is deferring payments and interest for government lending programs until June 30. This includes loans under the Fisheries and Aquaculture Loan Board.
Nunn said the province is worried about seafood exports as shipments globally have declined and demand for some products is low.
Total fish and seafood exports from Nova Scotia were $2.3 billion in 2019, a 13.6 per cent increase over 2018 export earnings. Lobster was Nova Scotia’s most valuable export species in 2019, valued at almost $1.2 billion.
In regards to international market development, Nunn said the province is working on plans for marketing and promotional activities for the late summer and fall, including trade shows and expos.
Not long after this, federal and provincial officials deemed the fishery an essential service and lobster fishermen in areas around the Strait area debated whether to return to the water.
Jordan told The Reporter it is up to fishermen in each area to make the final decision when and whether to return to the water. Even if a group decides not to return, harvesters are permitted to fish when the season opens, and in areas where the organizations vote to fish, individual fishermen have the right to stay home.
Because Canadians rely on that food supply and it’s a vital part of the food chain, Jordan feels it’s important to allow fishermen to fish.
Cape Breton-Canso MP Mike Kelloway said among fishermen and their groups, opinions are divided. On the west side of Cape Breton, Kelloway reports that many want the fishery closed for this year.
Meanwhile, all processors in Nova Scotia agreed to delay the season until at least April 20 while procedures and protocols are implemented, and workers are trained.
Provincial spokesperson Marla MacInnis told The Reporter that fish plant workers are exempt from the five-person rule but all other social distancing and public health protocols must be adhered to in all other day-to-day activities, unless it would impact safety.
The provincial Health Protection Act was amended to include workers in the fishing and offshore industries.
According to chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, any offshore worker, temporary foreign worker or fisher entering the province must self-isolate for 14 days, and fishermen can self-isolate on their vessels.
As a result of consultations, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) delayed the opening of the 2020 Atlantic snow crab season.
Then last week, Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed that the 2020 season for Lobster Fishery Areas 26A and 26B, covering the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, has been rescheduled to May 15.
Jordan told The Reporter that the delays help maintain a shared opening date for lobster fisheries across the Gulf. She said this additional time will enable processing plants to prepare their facilities and workforce and allow everyone across the industry to implement necessary health and safety measures.
This is a fine line for the governments to walk; the fishery is essential and workers are vital, but there are very real concerns about fishermen going back on the water, and even more so, plant workers returning to their jobs.
In the case of fishermen, there are worries about taxing emergency resources, the fact that the public can visit the wharf to purchase seafood, and that some crews will be in tight quarters on their vessels.
In the case of plants, worries of dozens working in tight quarters, having breaks at the same time, coming in contact with harvesters, truckers and others in the industry, then taking potential infection home to be spread in small communities with minimal resources, could be a recipe for disaster.
Making this all the more stressful is the potential for a global food shortage as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which puts a lot of pressure on government and the industry to keep fishing and processing, despite the many genuine concerns of infection and spread.
Both levels of government have no choice but to open the fishery, allow plants workers and back and try to make the fishery as safe as humanly possible.
But if it remains unsafe or healthy for some, they have the right to stay home and governments should continue supporting those individual choices.