Newfoundland fishermen protest interrupts environment ministers’ press conference

Newfoundland fishermen protest interrupts environment ministers’ press conference
Newfoundland fishermen protest interrupts environment ministers’ press conference

ST. JOHN’S, NL — About a dozen fishermen interrupted a news conference with the country’s environment ministers in St. John’s on Wednesday to push the federal government to reinstate a 32-year moratorium on commercial cod fishing in the province.

The protesters sounded their sirens and carried signs reading “Save our cod” and “Stop the sea trawling” as fisherman Glen Winslow took to the stage to deliver his message.

He said he and other members of the union representing coastal fishermen oppose Ottawa’s recent decision to reopen the fishery and allow foreign and offshore vessels — what they call “draggers” — to take a share of the catch.

“This is very important to all Newfoundlanders, this is the lifeblood of rural Newfoundland and Labrador, make no mistake about it,” Winslow said. “It’s unfortunate that we had to disrupt your meeting here today to get the message across, but it seems we have no choice.”

The Canadian Council of Environment Ministers was in St. John’s for a regular meeting, where they discussed climate change. Bernard Davis, who holds the climate change and environment portfolio for the Liberal government of Newfoundland and Labrador, hosted the meeting.

He and his colleagues seemed unfazed by the fishermen, who left after Winslow and Greg Pretty, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, each gave short speeches demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“I support what they’re trying to accomplish in terms of protecting the fishery long-term for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador,” Davis said of the fishermen. “I can totally understand that this is their livelihood.”

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, who attended the event in St. John’s, said responsibility for fisheries lies with Canada’s Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier. He said he would deliver the fishermen’s request for a meeting to her and Trudeau.

In 1992, Ottawa first imposed a moratorium on commercial fishing for northern cod off the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Cod were once the backbone of the province’s fisheries, but the northern cod population collapsed after years of mismanagement, overfishing and environmental change.

The federal government announced last month that it would reopen the fishery with a total allowable Canadian catch of 18,000 tonnes for the 2024 season. Another 950 tonnes could be caught by foreign offshore vessels.

Although ministers from many provinces opposed to the federal carbon pricing plan were present at the conference in St. John’s, Guilbeault said carbon pricing — often referred to as the “carbon tax” — did not dominate discussions. When it did come up, he said there was little tension.

“I would say that the tone of our discussions over the past few days has been collegial,” he said.

He spoke about the urgency of climate change, noting that extreme weather events like fires and floods now occur annually across the country. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is drilling a deepwater well in waters about 300 miles off the coast of St. John’s in hopes of finding more oil.

In 2022, Guilbeault approved an offshore oil development project led by Norwegian energy giant Equinor in the same area.

“We’re trying to find ways to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and increase our reliance on non-emission technologies,” the minister said. “We’re going to continue to use fossil fuels in a carbon-neutral world in 2050. We’re going to use far less fossil fuels, whether it’s oil or natural gas, than we use now, but they’re still going to play a role in our energy portfolio in a carbon-neutral world.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2024.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press