06/27/2012 04:27 EDT | Updated 08/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Fishermen fear federal government threatening industry's independence

HALIFAX - A Nova Scotia-based fishing association says it fears the federal government is planning changes that will destroy the very foundation of its industry — independence.

Members of the Eastern Shore Fisherman's Protective Association met Wednesday in Halifax with federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair to discuss the future of the fishery.

At issue are two decades-old policies that govern who can own licences and operate fishing vessels.

The association says the so-called owner-operator and fleet separation policies protect their multimillion-dollar industry from being dominated by large international corporations.

If those policies aren't protected, the association says the industry will be cut off at the knees.

"The fishery as Canadians have known it since forever is going to be gone," Nellie Bakers Stevens, a co-ordinator with the association, told reporters after the meeting.

"This could be China owning our fishery resource. Is this something that we as Canadians want? Is this how we envision our future?

The federal government has not said anything definitive on the policies. Earlier this year, it released a discussion paper with vague plans to modernize fisheries management and began consultations.

Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

However, a spokeswoman for the minister said Ashfield has made no policy decisions.

"The minister has been clear; he's not advocating anything, he's really looking for feedback from industry," Erin Filliter said from Ottawa.

"He is really in a listening mode right now."

But Mulcair said the Conservatives have a history of making changes that don't jive with the realities faced by communities.

He pointed to the government's decision to strip the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly of western wheat and barley sales. Mulcair said the board has allowed farmers to weather the ups and downs in the industry for generations.

He said any change to fishery policies would be a threat to small communities and the people who earn their living from the sea.

"What we're trying to protect is a way of life, and there's absolutely no reason to allow an economic model to defeat something that actually works," he said.

He said threats to the fishing industry began with changes to the employment insurance program. Some fishing organizations have said the changes will force young fishermen to abandon their chosen profession and head elsewhere.

"It's a two-pronged approach by the Conservative government to try to bring in the large corporations and defeat a system that has allowed these local communities to continue to survive," he said.

Bakers Stevens said the government hasn't given fishermen any reason to be confident in the future of their industry, citing recent budget cuts to the Fisheries Department.

"We're not stupid people," she said. "You put all that together. We look at the actions, what's coming out of Ottawa and we're very afraid.

"We're very afraid of what's coming down our way and we're going to have to fight this as hard as we can."