The Challenge of Change – dependency and its origins

This was a presentation to a fisheries based conference in Aberdeen

First of all I am delighted to be able to participate in this forum dealing with the opportunities and future for fishing communities. In particular, it is encouraging to discuss these issues with the knowledge that a human tragedy hasn’t happened or is in the making, as has been my experience in Atlantic Canada.

It is important that we are aware of the impacts our economic efforts are having on fishing stocks and cognisant of the need for preservation and good management.   But most importantly, we must understand the implications for all those who have derived incomes from the fishery, as we begin to recognize the changes that are upon this industry, similar to most others that form the basis of our economy.  Some would suggest the changes that are being experienced are more dramatic than any before in society, affecting, even those, who in other eras were removed enough from the main stream of such so called market adjustments.  Today there is little escape for anyone, no matter their locale, and we must begin the process of providing the mechanisms and support for all that are or will be affected.

That is why I would suggest that this is a human issue, a people issue, not primarily a fishing issue.  Ways must be sought that allow those in rural and fishing communities to continue to play a role in the economy, to earn livelihoods, provide for their families and futures for their children.  Mechanisms must be found to build stronger connections between rural and fishing communities with the mainstream economies which are in themselves undergoing profound changes.  This will entail recognizing the role that the fishery plays, not only economically, but fundamentally, in the way of life of people and their communities.  One fisherman was quoted in Newfoundland as saying “ if I am not a fisherman what am I”.  This statement more than any other exemplifies the depth of attachment that is felt by fisherfolks with what they do.  I will revisit this point later.

What happens to people and communities when their whole way of life suddenly disappears as was evidenced in the Atlantic Region of Canada and more definitively in the rural fishing communities of Newfoundland?  There have been closures in fourteen fisheries since 1992.  About  60,000 fish harvesters and processing plant workers depended on groundfish for all or part of their livelihood.  Presently some 40,000 of those are unemployed because of these closures, and have been for some time, 30,000 of them in Newfoundland.  Groundfish such as cod, sole and flounder had accounted for some $1b approximately 50% of the total value of fishery products in the Atlantic region.  These are the fisheries most affected by these closures.  Such impact could be equated with a complete closure of your present offshore oil industry which employs I am told some 46,000 people.   But, I would suggest that the people impact would be greater because those that live in the coastal communities of the Atlantic Region were completely dependent on the fishery not only for their livelihood but their way of life.

How different is this from here?  For example, Grampian Region, has 10,000 people employed directly in the fishery with communities such as,  Fraserburgh, Buckie, Lossiemouth and Whitehills with just  under fifty percent of their employment directly in the fishery, Gardenstown 60% and Buckie 38% .

In Atlantic Canada now, there is much analysis and investigation as officials and local people alike attempt to understand the causes and who really is to blame.  The extent of the impact is only now being felt as others who were only indirectly tied to the fishery experience the effects- the shops and small businesses etc., including many young families who have to give up their homes, many privately owned, to try and find work elsewhere.

Programs can and have been developed and fiscal support provided to somewhat alleviate the economic impacts.  But, can we ever find ways to offset the trauma and despair that people have felt over the past four years and which is still continuing.  Can we ever rebuild the destruction that is happening to coastal communities throughout this region faced with such massive change?  Could not have efforts been made like those you are attempting here to forestall such calamity?

Yes, I think there not only can but must be approaches to deal with such radical change before it gets to such destructive stages. Money and organizational structure in themselves are  not the answer to the present crisis facing fishing communities.  One such community in Nova Scotia discovered this and after two years newspaper headlines decried “ Even twenty five million dollars couldn’t bring back the fish.”  The article went on to say that it only helped to repress the spirit of the people because now they had no hope.  The people were aware that they had their bailout and wouldn’t receive another.  Like many such communities, in which I have worked, the only accomplishment of such approaches to development has been to diminish the hope, encourage despair and enhance the dependency syndrome.  A phenomenon that exists in most such communities.

A more natural approach entails involving people more in the response to change, making them more aware of the changing economy and its implications for their incomes and communities.  It can be enhanced by reassessing the overall fishery and finding ways to diversify economies so that more of the wealth is retained and spread around .  Despite what I have said there still is a fishery in other species that generates $1.6 b in the Atlantic Region of Canada which will again increase with a renewal of the groundfish stocks.   The cold reality of our society today is that technology, product changes and  the need to preserve will entail less effort, less employment and more consolidation to achieve economies of scale.   This will cause challenges for those in communities and those that develop policy and programs to alleviate such impacts.  It is readily acknowledged that in Atlantic Canada up to two thirds of those employed previously in the fishery will no longer be needed when stocks regenerate.

That is what is encouraging about this forum and about PESCA. You, at least, are   beginning the process to evolve programs, and to create mechanisms to engage people in discussion and to develop an understanding that change is imminent.  The challenges are great, as conventional approaches are redundant and the implications of such change little understood.  The question arises  – will the programs implemented by government  to address these issues be sustainable over the long term or will they face the guillotine of cutback and restraint only to bring another form of crisis to these people.

I  requested some material from colleagues working in  Newfoundland in order to prepare this talk.  One report  suggested that “people’s lives have become a mishmash of government acronyms -NCARP, TAGS,  SEC, HABS and a pile of red tape.  They know more about appeals and bureaucracy than ever before.  The frustrations of having to deal with a government program where the rules change daily, where training components vary depending on the day of the week and where threats of being cut off are a regular occurrence, are overwhelming for most people who are also trying to find ways to ensure their communities survive this most difficult time”.

There has been similar focuses to fishery restructuring as here – early retirements, licence buybacks, boat decommissioning, etc.  For instance, as we decommission boats, or offer early retirements to people who fish what will be the longer term impacts.  Will people at 50 be content to stay at home, play golf and enjoy “the good life” or will they be like the Newfoundland fisherman who  “ is 50 years old now and he’s done all the work around his house and with his (fishing) gear over the past two years that can be done.  He’s got nothing left to fix or repair, no painting left to be done, no fence left to be mended…… and, he fears for the fisheries benefit cut-off notice that will sooner or later be in his mail box”.

That is why I said in the beginning that I wanted to stress the human issue why I titled my presentation The Challenge Of Change- Dependency and its Origins.  Because we need to be aware of the implications of response on peoples lives and we have to be cognisant that we might only be changing the nature of dependency from the fishery to government.  And, as we are all aware the sustainability of government support is now under debate in most countries in the Western world.

There has to be efforts that encourage community involvement and co-operation that builds local capacity that encourages recognition that other opportunities are possible.  Interesting enough in many of the communities that I was involved with there were no shortage of ideas.  There was recognition that there were opportunities  and that small scale operations were preferable, that diversification was necessary but it was also known that education and information were fundamental to re-development.  It was also considered important to attempt to involve as many as possible in the discussions.  All key elements of  process and not activities that enter the realm of programs but involve community building.

Development – community, social, or economic – must begin with basics and focus on the human resource.  An examination of ourselves, our history and our environment is crucial.  Understanding the full extent of this self-knowledge, its relationship to where we live, and why we live here is fundamental.  True development is a long term prospect : it is one that has been to long postponed  in favour of short term escape routes – routes that end up being complicated traps.

Realization is dawning that development for its own sake has little purpose, is destructive and really doesn’t satisfy people’s needs or fill the voids that they are experiencing.  This realization has resulted in disillusionment, despair and anguish.  The fear of not knowing who they are, where they fit or the direction of society has become a compelling passion for most (for instance the fisherman who wondered who he would be if he weren’t a fisherman).

Thus, new community development approaches must begin with human resource inven­tories that identify the natural abilities, talents and cultural attributes of the local populace.  People’s ability to be self-reliant, self-motivated and mobile are key consider­ations.  Physical strengths and weaknesses have to be categorised in relationship to more global developments and new regional integration’s.  The challenge is to evolve institutions, programs and structures that are relevant.

Local strengths are the basis for a innovative coastal mapping process that is spreading across Nova Scotia.  A process where local people are employed and involved in developing maps of coastal and marine resources, some of which are known to only those that live in communities.  The intent is to use it as a basis for diversification, for fishery habitat renewal and environmental protection.

This also forms part of the work of my colleagues in Newfoundland who used the medium of music and theatre to create a choir of fishermen and women ( mostly men) some 100 strong.  The intent was to demonstrate their additional skills and for them to learn to appreciate that they have talents, skills and attributes that are of value and benefit to society.

A specially commissioned theatre piece for this group generated the following response by a local newspaper editor- “ first was the affirming fact that in fishing communities around Newfoundland and Labrador, there is tremendous talent in men and women who are equal to almost any challenge that goes out to them……here are the fisherfolks …who are usually at their best hauling a cod trap or trawl – proving that they know how to anchor an audience in their seats. 

Another message coming from Ged Blackmore’s masterpiece is that despite the rantings of ambitious union leaders and talkative politicians then and now, its the real fisherpeople who must free themselves from their bondage.  It was that way in 1913, in 1932 and now in the 1990’s.  They must come forward with their ideas, their talents, their strong backs and uncluttered minds and plot courses for the future.  There is no Messiah of the North, no government man in a bowler hat, no economic development group, no town council, no union that can get the job done.  Fishermen and plant workers are going to have to find whatever it takes within themselves”.

As this work and the articles response indicates culture provides both the key to unlock the potential of our human resource and the opportunity for economic growth.  This  cultural aspect of development was affirmed for me last week when Ann Bell was giving me an introduction to coastal communities along Grampians Regions Northeast.  I realized that these were similar communities that I have been in before, not in Scotland, but in the Atlantic Region of Canada.  The tie to the sea and the fishery is deep and transcends distance and time and is genuinely rooted in our history and thus our culture.   The depth of such attachment is possibly little understood even by those who live in these communities on either side of the Atlantic.

The task here is no less onerous and no less daunting.  Your real advantage, at this juncture of history, is that time is on your side.  You have an opportunity to bring people into a process that affords them participation in designing new and diverse economies without the pressure of  social calamity that is evident elsewhere.  You have the real scope to evolve new ways to bring fishing communities once again into the mainstream of economic activity by building on their inherent and cultural strengths.

It is my contention that Community begins when two people share.  The sharing is what creates the economy, and subsequently, lifestyle.  Development is neither the beginning or the end; it is the process and the measure of the success of our ability to share.  It relates to people, their aspirations, their dreams and, fundamentally, their own efforts to bring these to reality.  Thus each sharing is a new beginning, new development and a new reality.


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