ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Canada's potential free trade deal with Europe should raise alarms that open access to lucrative seafood markets will come at the expense of protections for Atlantic fishery jobs, says a new report.
"At stake is the ability of Canadians to pursue public policies that curb domination of the fisheries by large corporations," says the study released Wednesday by the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
"My biggest concern is that Canadian governments and citizens, particularly provincial governments, will lose their ability to regulate the fishery to maximize local benefits," author Scott Sinclair said in an interview.
His study, "Globalization, Trade Treaties and the Future of the Atlantic Canadian Fisheries," includes details reportedly leaked from ongoing closed-door Canada-EU trade talks.
They indicate that "the EU is strongly pressuring Canada to abolish minimum processing requirements" as the two sides work toward a deal known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, says the report.
It's a contentious issue that recently played out in St. John's, N.L., as the provincial government wrangled for months with Ocean Choice International. At issue was the company's push for exemptions to minimum processing requirements meant to safeguard local jobs and share benefits of a publicly owned resource.
The company wanted to ship most of its groundfish catch straight to overseas buyers, saying markets increasingly want less processed product.
In December, the government and Ocean Choice International reached a deal that allows the company to ship up to 75 per cent of its yellowtail flounder quota out of the province unprocessed. The rest will be handled at a plant in Fortune, N.L., that will provide 110 full-time jobs for five years.
Scrapping minimum processing requirements would strip provinces of leverage in future disputes, Sinclair said.
He's also concerned that other policies that protect domestic inshore fisheries could be challenged under a new deal with Europe. For example, only Canadian independent owner-operators can now get inshore fishing licences. For bigger vessels offshore, foreign investors can only hold a minority interest of up to 49 per cent in a Canadian corporation that's licensed to fish.
Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield has denied that such measures are in jeopardy.
"Let me be absolutely clear: the fleet separation and owner-operator policies in Atlantic Canada will remain intact," he said Sept. 21 in Fredericton.
Rudy Husny, a spokesman for federal International Trade Minister Ed Fast, said eliminating seafood tariffs as high as 25 per cent would open access to a $25-billion European import market.
But Sinclair raises the prospect that under a Canada-EU deal, European investors could challenge owner-operator restrictions and other domestic fishery protections using dispute tribunals that would circumvent Canadian law.
"Protecting Canada's ability to regulate the fisheries for conservation purposes and to ensure that the benefits from fisheries are shared with independent fishers and coastal communities should be much higher priorities," his report concludes.
Keith Hutchings, the provincial minister for innovation, business and rural development, said open access to the European market of about 500 million consumers would be a major boon for a struggling industry.
"This holds the potential to create more jobs, higher wages and greater long-term prosperity," he said in an email.
However, provincial officials are pushing for maximum local benefits, Hutchings added.
"We will only support a deal that is in the best interests of Newfoundland and Labrador."
Karl Sullivan, senior vice-president of the Barry Group Inc., said seafood producers have urged the provincial government not to jeopardize more access to European markets for the sake of protecting minimum processing rules.
"If you had to make a choice, obviously it would be for reduced tariffs," he said in an interview. "Minimum processing is becoming much, much less of an issue than it has in the past because it's so difficult now to find workers."
Relatively low-paid jobs in fish plants must compete with increasing job opportunities as the province sees record high employment rates.
"It's a real struggle to get workers in all our locations," Sullivan said.
Still, emotions run high when it comes to protection for a fishery that is still seen by many as a crucial piece of Newfoundland and Labrador's long-term success.
"We'd be flushing the baby out with the bath water if we gained some kind of tariff improvement while at the same time lost critical policy issues that guard our fishery," said Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union.
"We would certainly be very wary because the fascination with these trade deals seems to be more ideological than practical in nature," he said of the federal Conservative government. "And driven more by protection of investor rights than necessarily opening up market opportunities."