Ontario needs fishing boat captains — and thus has called Newfoundland

Ontario’s commercial fishing industry needs new captains to keep boats out on the Great Lakes. In order to train them, fishers are working with Newfoundland's Memorial University
By John Michael McGrath - Published on January 18, 2017
commercial fishing boats moored in a Great Lakes harbour
Memorial University is working with the Ontario Commercial Fisheries Association to certify 14 new captains. (Mark Spowart/CP)

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Lake Erie needs boat captains.

The fishery, one of Ontario’s relatively quiet but successful businesses, is facing the same problem as fisheries around North America: its labourers are aging into retirement and too few young people are interested in replacing them.

“We have boats right now that aren’t able to fish because there’s no one to captain the boat,” says Jane Graham of the Ontario Commercial Fisheries Association (OCFA). “People on the fishing tugs require specialized training, and we’re having a hard time finding them.”

So who do you call when you need more fishing boat captains? Newfoundland and Labrador, it turns out.

In this case, Memorial University of Newfoundland, which is working with the OCFA to certify 14 new captains with federal licences. The students are from Ontario, largely around the fishing ports on the Lake Erie shore, Graham says. Memorial offers part of their course online, which the OCFA’s students began last October; training features the basics of safely operating a fishing boat, including first aid, radio operation, and other emergency preparedness procedures. (Georgian College’s Owen Sound campus also offers certification classes, but not online.)

“This is our first time working in Ontario,” says Roger Bath, an instructor at Memorial. “It’s like any course, I guess. Overall, I get the sense most students really like the flexibility the online courses offer.” That flexibility is part of what attracted the OCFA to Memorial, giving interested local students the opportunity to fit learning around the rest of their lives rather than having to travel to Owen Sound for training — including, in this case, some who currently work on fishing boats and want to move up in the world.

There are four classes of certification issued by Transport Canada, starting with Fishing Master Fourth Class (which allows someone to captain a ship up to 100 tonnes in near-coastal waters) and going all the way up to First Class (unlimited tonnage, in any waters). Bath says that given the smaller vessels used, and the smaller sizes of the Great Lakes themselves, it’s unlikely that any students in Ontario would need a First Class licence.


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Ontario’s fishery has a long history, with settlers in what is now Toronto having caught Atlantic salmon in nets at the mouth of the Don and Humber rivers before the province itself existed. But starting in the 20th century a combination of overfishing and invasive species sent fisheries across the Great Lakes into a long decline. For example, the yellow perch catch peaked in the late 1960s at around 15,000 tonnes, but in 2014 fishers landed just 3,400 tonnes. Pickerel (walleye) is the other commercially significant fish, bringing in 2,200 tonnes in 2014. Lake Erie provides 80 per cent of the province’s landings, operating from towns like Port Stanley, Port Dover, Kingsville, and Wheatley. (Of the total haul, 90 per cent is exported to the U.S. and Europe.)

But after a rough century or so, there has been some recent good news: the OCFA succeeded in having the Lake Erie perch and walleye fisheries certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2015. That certification is part of ensuring the future of the industry, as consumers increasingly prefer more sustainable food options.

a young man at a desk looking over maps

In one sense, Ontario’s problem is no different from that of other fisheries around the world. Bath, who got into the east coast fishery just before the 1992 cod moratorium that devastated the industry, wasn't able to convince his own son to follow his footsteps — and that’s in Newfoundland, where there’s a long historical and cultural attachment to the fishery.

“I was hoping, but my young fellow now is 19, and before we sold out [of the industry] he had no interest whatsoever,” Bath says. “Young people today might do it for a month or two in the summer, but there’s no interest in making a career out of it.”

It's a common issue. “Not a lot of young people want to be involved in fishing, even though it’s pretty good employment," says Bath. "There’s a lot of opportunity, but people want stability and a regular schedule. When you’re fishing you never know how much you’re going to make.”

In Ontario, this is compounded by the fact that the Great Lakes fishery is barely on anyone’s radar. The industry’s small size (there are about 500 active commercial fishing licences in Ontario, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry), plus its basis in smaller waterfront locations, also means it has a perception problem — not in that the public has a negative perception of the industry, but that they aren’t aware it exists at all. Even Bath admits that before meeting Graham, he wasn’t aware Ontario had an operating commercial fishery.

A dearth of captains isn't the only difficulty our fishery faces. The processors who buy their catch also have an aging workforce (and employ about as many people as the fishing boats themselves do). The Ontario government also raised the royalty on fish for the first time since 1999 this month, something that will cut into the industry’s profits. But the focus for now is on solving the first problem, since without boats on the water the processors and taxes are moot.

“We’re going to keep needing an influx of new captains over time,” says Graham. “It’s going to be a continuing process.”

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