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Striking crab fishers vow to resume protests at Newfoundland and Labrador legislature

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The man who led a fish harvesters protest that shut down the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature building last month says he and his colleagues plan to return on Monday to keep up their fight for what he calls "free enterprise."

John Efford would normally be out fishing crab at this time of year, but he and fishers across the province have left their boats at the wharf. They're protesting this year's prices and the formula used to set them, which was established by seafood processors.

"If we don't do it now, we won't have enough (fish harvesters) left next year, there are going to be bankruptcies," Efford said about continuing the demonstrations. "The endgame is corporate control, and this is how they get the corporate control: they're going to break us, they're going to ruin us, they're going to bankrupt us, and they're going to completely take us over."

Prices paid to fishermen for their catch are set each year by a government-appointed panel. Last year, crab harvesters refused to fish for the first six weeks of the season when the panel set the opening price at $2.20 a pound. It was a massive drop after prices soared above $7 per pound during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The revolt prompted the provincial government to launch a review of the panel's price-setting methods. But just before crab season opened this year, the panel settled on an opening price of $2.60 per pound, using a formula proposed by seafood processors.

Harvesters say the formula doesn't give them a fair share of the market, and underlines what they say is a systemic problem in the fishery: it's set up to favour seafood processors, and harvesters can't make a living.

Last month, Efford led protests at the provincial legislature that forced officials to delay their delivery of the province's annual budget. When asked if the demonstration on Monday will aim to shut down the government again, he said, "We'll see what happens."

The Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, which represents inshore fishermen, issued a news release Friday afternoon, asking harvesters to arrive at the legislature at 7 a.m.

Jeff Loder with the Association of Seafood Producers accused harvesters of spreading misinformation about the price-setting formula, saying the system gave fishers more than their fair share.

The market is still recovering from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw record high prices for harvesters, but which ultimately hurt processors, said Loder, who is the group's executive director. When things opened up after pandemic lockdowns, crab prices plunged, and processors couldn't sell off their inventory at prices that matched what they paid to fishers, he said.

The market is still recovering from a bad year last year, and there is still uncertainty ahead, Loder said in an interview.

"We're going through some systemic changes to the way prices are set for snow crab in Newfoundland," he said, adding that parties need to work together to continue improving the price-setting process. "I think all parties agree a formula is needed. It took many years for Alaska to set their formula."

The Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union rejected an offer Thursday from the Association of Seafood Producers to pay fishers $3 per pound for the first three weeks of fishing, and then return to a price set by its formula.

Efford said processors were calling individual fishers and offering them $3 per pound if they'd break rank and go out fishing. He said it was an effort to undermine solidarity.

"This all has to do with free enterprise," he said. "We don't want a group of processors doing backdoor deals with themselves and then trying to break a very, very strong unified group of fishermen."

"I have no intentions of fishing until this is done, and done properly," he added.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2024.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press