ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Richard Gillett is a bull of a man, with hands that make the bottle of water he’s holding look small. He’s thick-necked, stands almost six feet tall and weighed 250 pounds before he stopped eating almost a week ago.
On Wednesday, this tough-guy Newfoundland fisherman, known for his three seasons on the reality show “Cold Water Cowboys,” fought back tears outside the federal fisheries headquarters in St. John’s.
“I’m prepared to go as far as I’ve got to,” he said.
He started a hunger strike last Thursday, and has slept in a tent here in freezing temperatures and biting winds every night since. He holds up a slushy bottle of urine, the only toilet he needs on a water-only diet.
Gillett is protesting what he says is dire mismanagement of stocks ranging from crab to capelin. His home is now a donated canvas Girl Guides cook’s tent with a small wood stove in the corner for warmth.
Gillett said he will die if he has to. It’s a pledge he made repeatedly during an interview Wednesday as his parents, John and Linda, sat listening. They have been at his side along with his wife, Joyce, and supporters who’ve dropped by offering everything from firewood to blankets.
Gillett thanked them all.
His demands include a teleconference call with federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and an independent review of science and management for all provincial fish stocks. He also wants a review of the relationship between the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, representing harvesters, and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
Gillett is vice-president of the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL), a splinter union group seeking certification. But he said his protest goes far beyond any political wrangling.
“It has really been coming to this for a long time,” Gillett said of fisheries turmoil stretching back to and beyond the ongoing commercial moratorium on northern cod that threw thousands of people out of work in 1992.
He said he decided to do something drastic last week after LeBlanc refused to meet with him and FISH-NL president Ryan Cleary as they visited Ottawa.
“We should have had the minister’s ear — even if it was only for five or 10 minutes.”
As Gillett spoke, passing drivers frequently honked in support. The fishery, he says, is “a mess.” And he fears that after six generations plying the North Atlantic in every type of weather it could all end for his family with him.
“Without the fishery, I’m no good,” said the 45-year-old father of two daughters, aged 18 and 19, and a 16-year-old son who fishes every summer with him. He took another long pause to collect himself.
“I’m no good to nobody.”
Federal fisheries officials recently announced sharp cuts to shrimp and crab quotas as stocks dwindle. Harvesters who say they need priority access to what’s left — with more flexible licensing rules and more input to help monitor stocks — have ramped up protests.
About 50 demonstrators streamed into federal fisheries headquarters in St. John’s earlier this month after kicking in the Plexiglas window of a locked door. In another incident Tuesday, harvesters set fire to their own fishing gear in Port au Choix as a show of frustration.
In an emailed statement, Kevin Anderson, regional director general for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, says he understand it’s a difficult time and the department is willing to listen.
“It is of course concerning when anyone takes a course of action such as the one Mr. Gillett is pursuing, and we share the public’s concern for his health.”
Anderson said scientific stock assessments are shared publicly and that fish harvesters are consulted.
Last year’s federal budget included $197 million over five years for oceans and freshwater science, creating 18 new research positions in the province alone, he added.
“Our fisheries management decisions are evidence-based, and their ultimate goal is to conserve our important public resources so that they are available now and for future generations of Canadian fishers.”
Anderson said LeBlanc “has been kept apprised” of recent protests and Gillett’s hunger strike. But spokeswoman Laura Gareau said Wednesday the minister was not available to comment.
Gillett’s father, fisherman and author John Gillett, said his diabetic son has had past heart issues. He wants him to eat, but also stressed that he supports his push for change at Fisheries and Oceans.
“They’re going to have to step up and have a captain that’s going to run the ship, and run it properly.”
“It breaks my heart to see these towns, fishing villages, all dying,” he added. “Our Newfoundland should be one of the richest provinces in Canada.”
Richard Gillett can’t imagine a life on dry ground.
“Once you’re a fisherman, you’re always a fisherman.”
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