"Women and Children First": Fishery Collapse and Women in Newfoundland and Labrador

Fish have been fundamental to the society and economy of Atlantic Canada. In recent years, six cod stocks have collapsed and such species as American plaice, flounder, grey sole and turbot have been massively over-fished. Since 1992, the number have been massively over-fished. Since 1992, the number of fisheries closed by the government for conservation purposes and the predicted duration of these closures have been increasing. The closures have affected over 50,000 people directly employed in the industry in Atlantic Canada and an estimated 47,000 others in fishery-dependent sectors. They have been accompanied by clear policies to downsize the industry and further enclose the commons.

The impact of the fishery closures on the identities and income of fishermen have been profound and are well documented in press coverage and in several documentaries. Impacts on the several thousand women, directly and indirectly dependent on fisheries, have received far less attention. For generations, women's access to fishery work and wealth has depended upon their relationships with men and, more recently, with corporate employers. Neither women nor young people are participating in the decision-making that concerns the fishing industry of the future. Their absence from the table is impoverishing the policy-making process and placing them at risk.

Women's organizations in Atlantic Canada have been concerned about the impacts of the closures on women in fishery communities. They have been working to document these impacts and to reduce the marginalization of these women within the decision-making processes that are guiding government response to the closures and are shaping the industry of the future. This article is based on research carried out over the past two years by FishNet, a coalition of women's organizations in Newfoundland and Labrador. The effects of the closures have been particularly profound in the province, where over 35,000 fishery workers have been laid off. The "voices from the commons" in this article come from action research workshops and from a collection of 87 women's "stories" about their lives in the fishery. Women's Work

For 200 years thousands of women in Newfoundland and Labrador have been directly affected by the fate of the fishing industry. Until World War II, the fishery was largely household based. Men fished while women did much of the onshore work - from gardening, household maintenance, cooking and child care to curing the salt cod that was marketed in Europe, the Caribbean and South Africa. Although women were integral to the survival of these primarily inshore fishery enterprises, the merchants credited the fruits of their labor to their husbands and fathers. In addition, houses, land and fishing gear were passed from father to son. Women's access to the fishery and the wealth it generated depended upon their relationship to men.

Following the industrialization of the fishery after World War II, increasing numbers of women sought work in new, corporately owned fish processing plants. Many also contributed paid and unpaid work to the day-to-day management and survival of fishing enterprises. By the late 1980s, on the eve of the fishery closures, there were 15,000 women working for pay in the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery, making up one-third of the fishery labor force. Women were 50% of the processing labor force, working on fish lines, in clerical jobs and in plant management. Approximately 12% of the province's fishers were women.

"Yes, they're in the boat and in the plant. But there's many that take an active role behind the scenes. They are responsible for banking, picking up groceries for the boats, dispatching trucks to pick up the catches that are landed, going to suppliers for parts in case of motor breakdowns and preparing the books audit." (Fisher)

Women's contributions have also been important to the construction of caring and effective fishing communities. Through caring for children, the disabled and the elderly, and through their involvement in community organizations, women voluntarily provided many services essential to survival in rural areas with limited public services. Women provided moral and material support for the fishery, their communities' reasons for being. The fishery has given women some economic independence, as well as sense of belonging, identity and self-respect. They have been referred to as the "binding force" of fishery communities and the "ground crew" of fishing enterprises.

Since 1992, about 12,000 women have lost their jobs as fishers and plant workers. The closures have also affected women's unpaid work and the future of communities they helped to build. In action research workshops organized by Fish Net, women had much to say about closure impacts on their own lives and those of their families.

Despite experience with plant closures and catch failures, nothing could have prepared them for something as overwhelming as complete stock closures of indefinite duration since 1992. Women who had worked in the fishery for many years suddenly felt differently about their daily lives and about the future. Working for pay had been important to these women, both financially and in terms of self-image. While they recalled that the work was hard and had left them little spare time during fishing seasons, they now felt a loss of purpose and pride. Women fishers in particular have had to struggle to qualify for government adjustment programs and the relatively low support payments they provide. For the past three years, many have gone through this loss alone. Many have felt that others were blaming them for being out of work. "Before, we were considered hard working people, now they speak of us as lazy people who don't have to work for the money they get." (Shore worker) Communities in Crisis

Women describe their communities as devastated. They see businesses closing down, and fewer opportunities for socializing. Many communities are described as "torn apart," because some people are eligible for the adjustment programs but others do not qualify. The ripple effects of the closures in these single industry communities have resulted in layoffs in stores and other businesses. There are no adjustment programs for these workers. Women worry that the divisions will become worse as people are removed from the programs a different times.

In their family roles, women are bearing much of the stress of the fishery closures. Friends and young people are leaving their communities to find work. Those who leave and those who stay are losing social support networks. without work contacts, women feel cut off from one another. They also feel cut off from government decision-makers. Women are finding it hard to get people together for community work and social events, because of a general mood of depression and retreat. Adjustment programs have done little to address these effects of the fishery closures.

To a greater extent than men, women's paid work was concentrated in the smaller scale, inshore fishers where the effects of resource degradation were felt and hardest, making incomes increasingly seasonal and uncertain during the 1980s. As inshore households attempted to protect their declining income and cover the increasing investment in boats and gear required to find fish, more and more women began fishing in family enterprises. Women successfully challenged discriminatory policies that made women who fished with their husbands ineligible for unemployment insurance, and encouraged more women to join the ranks of fishers. However, as fishers and plant workers, their employment and incomes were more vulnerable than men's. This has affected both their eligibility for government adjustment programs and the amount of support they have received. Decision-makers have largely defined the industry, and hence the responses to the crisis, in terms of the work and the concerns of men and companies.

Many women fishers and plant workers have had to fight to be eligible for adjustment programs because such programs are based exclusively on paid work, and their paid work patterns have differed from those of men. Female fishers have been particularly vulnerable. Their more recent entry into fishing, their concentration among those with part-time licenses and their greater responsibility for "shore-related" tasks (the latter are excluded from program eligibility criteria) have affected their access to financial support and training programs. Seventy women in one region have filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, claiming that they were discriminated against when they were deemed ineligible for compensation payments. Those women who have been deemed eligible have received, on average, lower benefits than their male counterparts.

The programs introduced response to the moratorium include little recognition of how women's wage work and earnings are affected by discrimination and by their household and family responsibilities. Fishing industry women have tended to adjust their working lives to their husband's work schedules and their families' needs. Women working in seasonal fish plants talked of "putting everything on hold at home" until the season was over. In the year-round plants, many women worked night shifts in order to be home for their families during the day. As a result of balancing work and home responsibilities, some with a long history in the fishery are classified as part-time fishers or s low-seniority and casual fish plant workers. Because the government was slow in responding to the deepening symptoms of ecological crisis, many women had already experienced a loss of work due to poor landings and isolated plant closures in the years before the fishery closures. As in other industries and countries, much of the work done by women in the home is not recognized by society as real work which has supported the fishing economy and the men working in the fishery. "Working at the plant gave me a sense of security all my own. I acquainted myself with the community and felt more a part of it. My husband had his own boat and our future looked great. At first I worked 40 hours a week, then 32, then 16, and then nothing. That was when my family started to suffer. My husband's boat was damaged by fire and, with no insurance, it was downhill from there." (Plant worker) "... A lot of people, they didn't believe that we were doing the work. They definitely didn't believe that we were going out in the boat. They thought we were all fishermen's wives, and our husbands were going out in the boat and doing all the work and shipping the fish and giving us stamps to let us collect unemployment insurance." (Fisher) Women and Children First

Physicist and feminist ecologist, Vandana Shiva, has argued that "women and children have been first - not the first to be saved but the first to fall into the abyss that is poverty" as a result of ecological degradation in India. Similar patterns are emerging in Newfoundland and Labrador. The primary goal of government adjustment programs introduced in response to the closures is to reduce the fishery labor force by as much as one-half. for at least a decade, officials and experts have attributed the boom and bust cycles in the industry to "too many people chasing too few fish." While scientific research has placed some emphasis on explaining where the fish have gone, the primary focus of government has been the number of people in the industry. Critics of this approach argue that it ignores the potential for fisheries enhancement that might be found through better management. In addition, in neglects the role of technology, price, ownership structures and the level of secondary processing in determining the employment potential and income levels in the industry. Government has not been receptive to calls for a public inquiry into the causes of the collapses.

A focus on removing "individuals" ignores the household and community basis of the industry, particularly the inshore fishery in its present form. It is part of a wider process of enclosing the commons by limiting access increasingly to individual, licensed entrepreneurs with significant financial young people will be disproportionately vulnerably to exclusion. One factor that will influence women's ability to continue to fish and work in plants in the length of time they are eligible to remain on the adjustment programs relative to the reopening of fisheries. The current adjustment programs will end before cod stocks have recovered sufficiently to reopen the fisheries in many areas. While 60% of male fishers will be eligible for financial assistance until May 1999 (the maximum length of the program), only 10% of female fishers will be eligible until that time. In the case of plant workers, 50% of male plant workers are eligible for the maximum period of benefits, but only 27% of female plant workers will be eligible this long.

Fisheries policies and changes to social programs appear to be recreating barriers that women broke down in the early 1980s, in their fight for the right to fish and to be eligible for unemployment insurance when they fished. Some of the women fishers in the FishNet workshops and interviews felt that they would be squeezed out of the fishery. Others worried about what opportunities they might have for training. Still others declared their intention, and their right, to remain. "I do think the femald fisher persons will be `picked off' first because there is still this big macho feeling around that the women can't do what the man can do. I work just as hard as any man; I struggle with the rough waters and winds the same as the men do out there. Women are not recognized a fisher people but, by God, we are there." (Fisher and Plant worker) The Fishery of the Future

Women have a major investment in the survival of their communities. As home owners, parents, wives community councilors and daughters, they feel responsible for community survival. They have been reluctant to leave their communities and to abandon the industry which has been the center of their work and community life, particularly at a time when unemployment is high in the rest of the country. However, they have few means to influence the decisions that are being made by governments that affect these communities.

Access to suitable opportunities for retraining and help in locating new employment are essential for those many women and men who will be forced out of the industry. Those women interested in training have often found it hard to move out of their communities for training or jobs because of their family responsibilities. Many have found themselves being trained for traditionally female, low-wage jobs with no future. Young people who have lost access to summer employment in the fishery and whose parents' incomes have been reduced by the closures have not received any help under the closure programs. Meanwhile, Canadian government cutbacks in funding for post secondary education are driving up tuition costs.

"Some say that their husbands will have to go away, but with their house and children, they can't. You are asking people in their middle and late forties, who have invested their time, money and lives in an industry, to make alternate decisions about the next 20 years of their lives, which, quite frankly, they are unable to do. Not because they don't want to, but because their life, guts and roots are in the harbors they live in." (Wife of Fisher)

Many women in the workshops and interviews felt that governments want their communities to die out gradually through out-migration and loss of services. Some thought that their communities would become "little welfare towns" populated by single mothers and seniors.

Economic diversification could provide a future for some of these communities. Many women recognize that economic diversification in fishery dependent regions must happen around a fishery base. However, it is not clear which communities will have access to fishery resources and employment in the future. Pressures to close up to 50% of plants and to reduce the number of fishers will remove fisheries employment from many communities and, perhaps, entire regions.

"Diversify and have one big plant where everything is done year round. There is no need to have a large number of small plants. Do the fish processing in the summer but do berries in the fall and process wild birds and game in the winter."

Diversification around a fishery base requires that all fishery resources are managed so as to maximize their long-term potential and stability. Employment, regional economic development and wealth generation must also be maximized through diversified production, secondary processing and the integration of fisheries with development in other sectors, such as tourism agriculture, manufacturing and telecommunications. Trends in those fisheries that are still open suggest that this is not likely to occur. An expanded crab fishery is making some plant owners and fishing vessel owners rich. The discrepancy between the income of fishers with crab licenses and those without is creating pressure to open up access to a resource which, scientists believe, is past its peak in abundance. The money accumulated by some crab fishers and plant owners is being used to expand their control over the crab resource, rather than for economic diversification. Exports of semi-processed crab products are increasing. This is threatening plant employment. The closure of the ground fisheries has created large pools of unemployed people. Some plant owners are using the shortage of work to erode unions and plant worker wages.

The capelin, squid and mackerel stocks appear to be in trouble, providing little or no employment in recent years. The closure of the commercial salmon fishery has also affected the incomes of many fishing households. Stocks of some of the other groundfish species, such as turbot and lumpfish, appear to be collapsing. Their apparent collapse since the closures suggests that the management problems that precipitated the collapse of other groundfish species have not disappeared. If the scientific and management problems that produced the current crisis are not identified and addressed, it is likely that the fishery of the future will not be sustainable and poverty will continue to deepen.

Many women believe that decisions about the future of the fishery are being made by people who are nor familiar with the strengths and needs of rural communities. They feel that without this knowledge and the support of local people, development initiatives will not succeed. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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