Protesting fishermen break into federal office over access to shrimp

Shrimp fishermen break into DFO building

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Staff got a scare Friday as angry fishermen forced their way into the federal fisheries headquarters in St. John’s, N.L., saying unfair access to shrimp stocks is bankrupting them.

About 50 people entered the secure Fisheries and Oceans building after one male protester kicked in the lower plexiglass pane of a front door.

“We want to be peaceful,” said Terry Ryan, a fisherman from La Scie in northeastern Newfoundland since 1996. But he said frustration has built over time with no satisfactory response to more “docile” demonstrations.

There were no arrests Friday as the protesters emerged from the building after more than three hours meeting with officials.

Ryan held a letter signed by senior staff, including Kevin Anderson, the regional director general. It confirms the department will consider the protesters’ views on shrimp sharing decisions this year after quotas were cut last week due to declining stocks.

Ryan said they want priority access to fishing areas adjacent to them, with limited access for those from farther away. He said livelihoods depend on it. The fishermen also want more licensing flexibility.

The letter says DFO officials will make a decision by the end of April.

News that there were no arrests drew some criticism on social media. Ryan told reporters that organizers didn’t want trouble, but he said doors get kicked in when people feel cornered.

Protesters could be seen for much of the day through an upper window sitting in a room, their placards resting against the glass. Several police cars were stationed outside as an officer took photos of the damage.

Federal Fisheries spokeswoman Jan Woodford said it was scary as the men made their way through a second security door, demanding to meet with specific officials.

“They were wandering through the halls calling to these people.”

She described startled staff in their locked-down offices as the protesters streamed in. 

“They tried to get into our offices first and, I have to say, we’re a small group and people were frightened.”

Woodford said policy is not to engage with protesters. But since they were in the building, she said officials defused the situation by agreeing to meet with them if they left the secure office area for the cafeteria.

Woodford said the protesters were polite and there were no injuries.

Const. Geoff Higdon of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary said in an email that police were called at about 10 a.m. to respond.

Some fishermen who came out of the meeting for a smoke more than two hours later said anger had boiled over in the morning when the protesters were locked out of the building and ignored.

Austin Smith of Indian Cove near Twillingate in northeastern Newfoundland said department officials had agreed to make their concerns a top priority.

But he said they wanted that in writing.

The protesters described themselves as an independent group not represented in this instance by any specific union.

“It’s our building,” Smith said of how tensions came to a head when the men were left out in the cold.

Woodford said she had never experienced a similar uproar during her 18 years with the department. New security measures are coming, she added. 

There were about 400 workers inside when the protest started.

Fisheries officials recently announced sharp shrimp and crab cuts after reporting that stocks have diminished.

Shrimp and crab have been vital catches for those in Newfoundland and Labrador since the commercial moratorium on northern cod in 1992 threw thousands of people out of work. Mismanagement, overfishing and environmental factors were blamed for a virtual collapse of the stock.

Another protester who didn’t wish to be named said he was pleased with the letter Friday as long as DFO officials act on it.

“Otherwise, we’ll be back.”

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Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press