OTTAWA — Canadian fish harvesters welcomed the announcement Thursday of $469 million in federal support for the sector during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying they're watching closely for clarity as fishing seasons open across the country.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the programs in Ottawa, acknowledging the financial pinch and safety concerns harvesters are facing.
"You can't harvest lobster from inside your house, so that leaves you trying to figure out how to either space people out on a fishing boat or cancel your operations. It's not an easy call to make," Trudeau said.
He also pointed to decreasing prices and reduced demand for products that have put pressure on harvesters and their families.
"This adds up to a really tough time, so I want you to know that we're listening," the prime minister said.
The new aid comes in the form of an industry-specific benefit and a grant.
The Fish Harvester Benefit, structured similarly to the previously announced federal wage subsidy, offers income support covering 75 per cent of losses for harvesters who see their income drop by at least 25 per cent this year.
The program will provide a maximum individual amount of $847 per week for up to 12 weeks — the same as the existing wage subsidy program.
The Fish Harvester Grant is a sector-specific grant similar to the Canada Emergency Business Account, offering up to $10,000 of non-repayable support to self-employed harvesters.
Trudeau also addressed concerns among harvesters who may not generate enough income to file a valid employment insurance claim for next year.
He said proposed measures would allow self-employed harvesters to access benefits based on insurable earnings from previous years.
A statement from federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan said the fishing sectors, which drive the economies in many coastal and rural communities, face unique challenges.
"With this announcement, we are ensuring that Canada's hard-working fish harvesters get the support they need now and into the future," Jordan said.
The relief measures come amid mounting concerns about support from Ottawa as fish harvesters prepared to head out on the water this spring.
Crab harvester Jason Sullivan said the announcement addressed his biggest concern about employment insurance for his crew, though he was waiting on the fine print on issues like whether the funding will be dispersed to individuals or enterprises.
"Right now, it seems to be pretty good," Sullivan said from Bay Bulls, N.L. "It's something the industry needed. It needed help."
Volatility with prices and demand were already challenging the industry, Sullivan said, and the pandemic has highlighted the fragility in the sector.
"Hopefully people realize that changes need to be made and the fishery needs to be modernized so you can weather a storm on your own," he said.
Tony Doyle of Bay de Verde, N.L., who fishes lobster, crab and other fish in Conception Bay, said the measures seem likely help a lot of people during a difficult year, though he's hoping to see the finer details about applying to the programs as soon as possible.
He said distancing on boats will be a challenge, and some older fishermen in the community may choose to stay home this year. But fears about COVID-19 infecting coastal communities have subsided as cases flattened in the province over the last month.
"We'll do our best," he said. "It's a later start than usual, but we're hopeful that we can land the product we need to land and if I need help, I'll be able to avail of the help the federal government is providing."
Conservative fisheries critic Mel Arnold said harvesters were let down by the Liberal government's delayed announcement and lack of clarity about when people can apply and who qualifies.
He also raised concerns about labour shortages and market uncertainty.
"As fish harvesters in Atlantic Canada head out (Friday), what is the Trudeau government doing to secure new and traditional export markets and to make fish and seafood more available to Canadian consumers," Arnold said in a statement.
NDP critic Gord Johns agreed that the announcement was overdue, adding that the loan program should be raised to meet fishers' needs.
He also urged the government to help bring Canadian seafood to local markets by clarifying how seafood will be included in the Canada Purchase Program, especially given tightened restrictions on seafood entering the United States.
"A government focus on selling domestic seafood to Canadians would not only support, but also validate, the hard work of Canadian fishers and harvesters," Johns said in a statement.
— By Holly McKenzie-Sutter in St. John's, N.L.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2020.
The Canadian Press