Hunger striker Richard Gillett, via. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

This Reality TV Star Is on a Hunger Strike to Save a Fishery

A week in, Newfoundlander and Cold Water Cowboy Richard Gillett says he ain't eating until he gets a meeting in Ottawa

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Apr 20 2017, 4:07pm

Hunger striker Richard Gillett, via. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

The Newfoundland and Labrador fishery is in a crisis.

The industry has been roiling since last fall, when a group of fish harvesters attempted to leave the established Fish, Food, and Allied Workers union and form a breakaway union called the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador, better known as FISH-NL. Their union drive—or union busting, depending on who you ask—is a long and convoluted affair that has divided the fishery for months. FFAW and FISH-NL are currently fighting before the labour board over union certification. That story, with its Biblical drama and Shakespearean cast of characters, remains to be told in full.

But regardless of where inshore harvesters fall on the union split, the real tension in the industry, going back to the 1992 cod moratorium and beyond, has been between the workers and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans over the health of fish stocks and the corresponding quotas. And now, 25 years after the moratorium that scarred the province, that tension is boiling over.

DFO has slashed the quota for shrimp off the northeast coast by 80 percent since 2015, and quotas for snow crab have been gutted by 22 percent for this year as well. These two stocks have been the backbone of the post-cod fishery. (In a black irony, they are now imperiled by the return of the cod itself.) Harvesters fear that these cuts mark the death knell of the industry - and with it, rural Newfoundland and Labrador, the heart and soul of the province.

These desperate feelings have translated into increasingly desperate measures. In early April, shrimp fishermen from the northeast coast smashed the front doors of the DFO building in St. John's and stormed the premises, forcing a meeting with fishery officials in the cafeteria. Fish harvesters on the Northern Peninsula gathered in front of the DFO building in Port au Choix to incinerate their gear, claiming they wouldn't need it anymore anyway because "the fishery is gone." And for over a week now, Richard Gillett—vice president of FISH-NL, erstwhile reality star of Discovery Channel's Cold Water Cowboys, and lifelong fisherman—has been staging a hunger strike at the front gates of DFO headquarters in St. John's.

Amidst all the chaos in Newfoundland's oldest and most important industry, I wanted to find out what was going on. So I drove out to Gillett's camp on White Hills Road to ask the man himself. I met him in his Labrador tent along with his father John and FISH-NL president Ryan Cleary. Sitting around a small woodstove, we spoke about the fishery for nearly an hour. What follows is a condensed account of our discussion.

VICE: Hey, Richard. Do you mind telling me a little bit about yourself? 
Richard: My name is Richard Gillett, I'm a fish harvester from Twillingate. I've been in the fishery now for 32 years. I'm 45 years old.

Ryan: He got married on a Saturday. On the Sunday morning, he was gone in his boat fishing turbot.

Richard: I'm a sixth generation fisherman, yeah.

So what brought you out here on this hunger strike? 
Richard: Where do we start and how much time do you got? [laughs]

It's been going on for years and years and years and years—the mismanagement of our stocks, equated to lower quotas. Our quotas have been going down and down and down and down and... you know, down to a level where you can't make it anymore. And that's where we're to. And over the past 20, I'd say 25 years, we went from a number of about 18,000 in the fishing industry down to... maybe a little over 5,000. Which is as you can see, is very dramatic.

But the thing is, the last 5,000 now that's into it, if we soon don't get answers or get changes, we are all gone. And what's going to happen is the rural communities in Newfoundland and Labrador—that really shows the identity of Newfoundland and Labrador—will be no more. Because... I'm not saying there won't be a fishery, but there will not be an inshore, community, outport-based fishery. That'll be gone.

Because we can't take 60, 70, 50 percent cuts in our incomes in one year and expect to survive. If somebody told you now, "come in the office I got some news for you... you're going to take a 70 percent cut to your pay," now how are you going to do it? No warning, really. Because last year they told you everything was great, everything was fine. And then this year they tells you you're going to lose 70 percent of your earnings. This is not management.

And that's what I'm here for. This is why I'm on this hill—what we ask for is a meeting with the [federal] minister of fisheries [Dominic LeBlanc], and in that we're asking for an independent review of management and science. The second thing that we're asking for is a review of the relationship between the FFAW and DFO. That's what we're looking for.

We were in Ottawa—me and Ryan actually were up in Ottawa last Tuesday—to make a presentation to the Newfoundland caucus. We did not get to see the minister, after traveling all the way to Ottawa. Very, very disappointed. The fact is that the Newfoundland fishery has never been in this crisis ever before, because this is way worse than the moratorium. And we didn't get to meet with the minister. Even a five or ten minute meeting, we could stress how important it is that we need changes to this fishery.

So we met Tuesday and Wednesday with more DFO officials... Wednesday night we came down on the plane, and I was thinking, me and Ryan were talking, and... you know, everything's been that big of a mess, you've attended meetings, and you get a little bit of an upcry, basically kick the can down the road. And then you get a little bit of crumbs from DFO or whatever, bit of a price boost or something, and everybody goes on their merry little way again, right?

So I was thinking... b'y, we can't do this anymore. We can't do this anymore. And it's time for somebody to stand up and say enough is enough. We need an overhaul of this system. And I made me mind up coming down on the plane—I didn't tell Ryan til the next morning.

And anyway, he thought I was... he didn't know what to think first. Tried to talk me out of it, but you know, it's my way of doing a non-violent, non-confrontational demonstration, okay? I'm not willing anymore to let this fishery die on my watch, OK? We've been here now for 500 years and it's not gonna die with me.

I'm a sixth generation fisherman, and the thing about it now is, I'm going to be the first one in all my generations of fish harvesters that's possibly gonna be forced out of this industry by something other than a wage. And my six generations of history, going way back, is only what it is: history. And that's what the inshore fishery will be.

I'm not prepared to kick the can down the road anymore.

You mentioned that this is worse than '92. Admittedly, in 1992 I was 5 years old, so I don't remember much, but my understanding is that it was a pretty apocalyptic event, right?

Richard: It was, yeah. At the time.

At the time, right. But you're saying this is worse? Richard: Alright, well, this is where we get into the relationship between science and fishermen.

Back, I'd say, from about the mid-1980s to the moratorium, the inshore fish harvesters were saying, VOCALLY saying, to DFO that "the fish stocks is not there." And scientists were saying "oh, the fish stocks are there," because the offshore draggers would go out and have phenomenal catches. But no one realized that they was catching fish in the spawning biomasses where they all migrate from all the bays, and come into a clump, right? And everyone would go in, and they'd take out phenomenal catches. And they would catch what the science was saying.

But the fish harvesters was saying, once it come time for those fish to migrate back into the bays, there was nothing to migrate back into the bays. You know, the fishing was good because everything was concentrated in a five-by-five mile radius. Every fish that went to Trinity Bay, Bonavista Bay, Conception Bay, every one of those places, was concentrated in the one spot. Well sure you had to get 'em! Like they say, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

But when it came time for all those fish to migrate in the summer, where inshore fish harvesters could partake in the fishery... there was none left. There was none left to migrate in. So like my father was saying, it's like paper fish. Paper fish. Paper fish! And they didn't listen to him! They didn't listen to him. Science did not listen to him. Until 1992, when the bottom fell out of it, and they realized that the fishermen were right.

But the difference now with this... this is going to make the moratorium look like - and I mean no disrespect—but the cod moratorium is going to look like a church picnic compared to this.
Because the thing is: back then, we didn't have no debt. Right? We didn't have no debt. We didn't have nothing to go float in. You only had an old wooden trap skiff, right? You had a speedboat. Most of the longliners were less than $100,000.

John: A big enterprise was $50,000.

Richard: Right? That was a big enterprise. But right now, you know most of the enterprises now, you're talking multi-million dollar enterprises. So everybody's carrying the debt now. And it's a disaster waiting to happen.

Ryan: And all the species are in trouble.

Richard: We had a meeting now a few days ago. Management came out here in the tent, and the head of science came here. And one question that can sum all this up, and why I'm on this bank, and why we need changes, and why we need a review, all comes down to this statement: I said to that gentlemen that was head over science, I said "name me one species in Newfoundland and Labrador waters that's at a prosperous level. Name me one."

That gentleman, who is head over science, could not answer me.

Fuck. 
Richard: Yeah, exactly. Fuck. Like, what the fuck. And you tell me we don't need an independent review, or an overhaul of science and management? Where you're up on the 25th anniversary of the cod moratorium, and we're still at a critical level?

There was a big feature in the National Post not long ago about how the cod are coming back but they're eating all the crab and shrimp. 
Richard: Right. And this is the other thing about the science too: if you're going to manage the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador, you manage the whole ecosystem. It's like... ok. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the science is, there's a group over here, a group over here, a group over here... this is herring, this is capelin, this is crabs, this is seals, whatever.

Now, it's like the 2006/07 Ford Pickups, right? Wonderful pickup. Pickup of the year, right? Number one seller, okay? You got engineers working on that pickup—beautiful pickup. But when it come time to do regular maintenance, changing the sparkplugs, you know that they had to spend eight and a half hours to take the cab off the trunk to change the last two spark plugs in the engine? Because the engine engineers, and the chassis engineers, and the cab engineers, the body engineers, were all not talking to one another! So you see what big of a state you can get into, if you don't manage the whole industry.

So this is what you need to do: say, 'the shrimp is going down, okay, we need to take some more groundfish, we need to take more turbot out of the water, we need to take more seals. We need to manage a balance.'

Image via. Wikipedia's public domain space

John:  Need to keep the predators out.

Richard: You need a balance. But right now, everybody is going to bank on the cod again, like they banked on the shrimp back in the 90s, you know, when they said there was shrimp for everybody. And that's what they tried to fix the problem with, was to give everybody, everybody shrimp. It's like the old saying, putting your eggs all in one basket. And that's what you've done with shrimp. They gambled on the shrimp.

And I tell you what—they busted. And other fishermen who's on the west coast and the east coast [of the island] that fish shrimp are paying the price. And it's an awful, awful, awful price to pay.

We was talking to a fisherman last night, young, aggressive—I can tell ya, I don't know if there's any more aggressive fisherman on the island... in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador—he's that stressed out, that he had a condition, caused by stress, that his mouth had a medical condition, that he thought he had cancer. That's what he thought he had. So he went to the doctor like that and the doctor confirmed that this is a common thing with anybody with severe stress. So now this is what you're doing with people in Newfoundland and Labrador.

We should be the most richest province in Canada. We got oil, we got hydro, we got the fishery, we got the resources, we got... You know, if you done up a plan to make you successful as a province, my God! Check 'em off, we got 'em! But yet we're the worst off in Canada.

It seems strange that you would have people who work in the industry, who have that kind of local knowledge about the ecosystem that they work in for multiple generations, and not be able to give that meaningful input. Like it just seems like 'good science' would require that the people on the ground would report stuff. 
Richard: Well that's our point too! [laughs] That would be my... and you on the outside, looking in, don't that make sense to you?

But like the mackerel fishery... and I told the guy up in Ottawa when we met him, we knew that the mackerel was going to show up this year. And I said, we don't have any science. We're fishermen. This is our job. This is what we make our money at. If we're not good at predicting what's going to come in the years coming, we're not going to make it. So we seen mackerel... we knew the mackerel was coming, because we seen the small mackerel three, four, five years before.

But, there's nowhere for me to plug in the numbers of small mackerel, to tell DFO. There's absolutely nowhere. So how can I go, how can I say, "there's a lot of small mackerel." They'll say, "well how do you know?" "Well b'y, we sees 'em." "Well that's no good, you got any samples or anything?" "Well b'y I'm gonna tell ya, I can't get ya any samples because if I brings them in and they're less than 10 inches long, I'm gonna be charged." [laughs] That's a fact.

Ryan: The sheriff's officer knows him personally.

John: He was just here before you came down here.

Yeah, I saw him come in. 
John: Yep, he was just down here. So that shows you how many times [Richard's] been in court with DFO. First we thought it was the fire chief come to tell us off about the stove in the tent again.

Ryan: Yep. "Can't have a stove in a Labrador tent." Jesus.

Richard: Yep. That sums it all up, right. That summed it all up. I was there with my hand on me head while the authority was saying that you can't do what Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have done for years and years, which is your tradition and culture. And that's Canada telling Newfoundland.

So what's the endgame here? 
Richard: Well, the endgame is, they know where I'm to, they know my demands. I ain't going nowhere. And anybody that knows me, knows that my resolve is true. It should never, never have to come to this. But enough is enough. It had to be one man start to stand up and say, "no more." 

I'm not taking it anymore. I'm not going to be with my family in body, and not in soul and mind. Year after year. I'm not going at it. And somebody else, who don't know what they're talking about, making decisions that threaten my livelihood. It's not happening anymore. It stops here.

Look. I'm not an educated man. I got my grade 12. And I'm a fisherman, right? But one thing I got, that a lot of 'em haven't got, is common sense. Right? And you know, fellers like us... we're not people who got half the alphabet behind our name.

And sometimes people think that we don't matter, because we haven't got half the alphabet behind our name, because we haven't got a PhD, or a Masters of this, or a doctorate of that. But I guarantee that what we do have is true life experience. Boots on the deck. That's what we have got. Boots on the deck.

Anything else you want readers up on the mainland to know? 
Richard: This is a very, very important issue to Newfoundland and Labrador. Lots of times, you know, we get overlooked, just because we only have 7 MPs in Ottawa. We get overlooked a bit. But we're no less important. We're a province of Canada. We're a province and we're a very, very big contributor to Canada too, with the oil and all that stuff, and the natural resources that we got. If Canada give us the control and the benefits of our resources, we would be one of the richest provinces in Canada. That's what I want the rest of Canada to know.

We're not down here begging. We don't want any handouts. We don't want anybody to give us some scraps. All we want is for someone to give us the opportunity to make a living on our own. That's what we're asking for. And not to trade off our fish for something else, to tell some foreign boat or some foreign country to come in and catch our fish, while our own people is starving. Basically exactly what the sign says. We're starving. They are starving us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, but we kept in as much of the original Newfoundland dialect as we could.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.

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