FISHERIES Minister Ezekiel Joseph has implored fishers to cooperate with government which, he says, has plans to improve their lot since the ceasing of operations of the Saint Lucia Fish Marketing Corporation.
Minister Joseph blamed subsidies in the millions of dollars by the Government of Saint Lucia to the Corporation for its termination, which today is still negatively impacting fishers on the island.
The Minister, last Sunday, attempted to inspire fishers to look to the future but his sales pitch fell flat as fishers were not moved by his comments.
Speaking at Sunday’s grand opening of the newly constructed building that houses the Castries Fishers Cooperative Society located opposite the LUCELEC building at Sans Souci, Joseph said things were looking up for fishers because of government’s understanding of the role they play in the continued survival of the economy.
Fishers, right after Joseph delivered his address, explained to this reporter the long and hard road they have had to travel up to the point where, according to one of them, they have yet to sell fish to the entity that replaced the Corporation, Lucian Blue Ocean Seafoods.
In fact, fishers in Vieux Fort just this month lamented a one-time purchase from them by Blue Oceans Seafood despite a promise by the company to continually purchase fish from them. Efforts to contact the company have not been fruitful.
The woes of fisher folks on the island escalated when government, on 1 March, 2019 closed the Saint Lucia Fish Marketing Corporation after 34 years of existence. Fishers in Vieux Fort have expressed concern about their future since the closure while those in Castries say their catches are purchased by members of the public some of whom buy to resell.
Joseph said government subsidies to the Corporation by both past and present administrations, were just too much hence the reason for its closure. He said the Labour Party government, during its five-year term in office subsidized the Corporation to the tune of over EC$12 million.
“When I came in as a minister after a year and a half, I had to get EC$2.5 million to subsidize the Fish Marketing Corporation,” Joseph said.
Minister Joseph said government simply could not continue subsidizing the Corporation when fish was being bought, stored and sold and with the Corporation not breaking even despite its commercial activities.
“Something was drastically wrong with the management of that facility,” Joseph said.
Government’s first attempt to restructure the Corporation and the Saint Lucia Marketing Board in order to make them viable, failed.
“Initially we believed it was important for us to look at a tripartite approach in the management of these entities. That was the initial intention,” Joseph said.
The idea back then was for the Corporation, Hotel and Tourist Association and the government to get together to work on a restructuring plan.
“Unfortunately, we were not getting any feedback as it pertains to the tripartite approach and time was running out as Cabinet had taken a position to close if the tripartite approach was not possible,” Joseph said.
He said closing the Corporation was not an option “because if we had closed you all would have appreciated the negative impact it would have had on the fisheries sub-sector. So, we had to look at another option,” Joseph said.
That other option resulted in the formation of Lucian Blue Ocean Seafoods, a development supported by government to provide for the storage and sale of fish and other seafood, and also a delicatessen.
The Corporation’s cessation did not sit well with the bargaining agent for its 40 employees, namely the Saint Lucia Seamen, Waterfront and General Workers Trade Union.
The employees were made redundant, a move the Union opposed by writing to the Labour Commissioner advising to invoke section 167 of the Labour Act, stating that it relates to the Corporation’s claim of redundancy.
Dissatisfied with the Labour Department’s response, the Union moved to have the matter heard before a Labour Tribunal, writing twice to the tribunal on the subject matter.
“We have written to the tribunal twice. There has been no response from the tribunal. We objected to the decision taken by the Department of Labour. They should have at least considered my objection. I have not given up. I will pursue the matter,” a Union spokesperson said Tuesday.
With fishers unhappy with Blue Oceans Seafoods, government is looking at ways in which the company could incorporate fishers in the operative and managing sides of its business.
“I am aware of a number of plans to involve the fishermen. I am aware that the management of that company has been interacting with fishermen and I am hoping that this year we can really see tangible results from that decision,” Joseph said.
His parting words to fishers were to cooperate with what is happening to improve their situation since through cooperation they all can benefit from what is being done on their behalf.