Humans vs. the machine

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Ah, technology. It’s always making things better — or, at least, different.

Here’s a short snippet from the SeafoodNews.com summary from Aug. 21. (SeafoodNews.com comes from Massachusetts, where its editor and publisher is John Sackton. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Sackton is well known in the industry — he’s a go-to guy for price settlements and analysis, and he shows up regularly in the Newfoundland media.)

But back to that snippet.

“Baader has unveiled a new snow crab processing machine to a broad group of seafood packers in Newfoundland. The machine ran this summer at Allen’s Fisheries, and produces ‘pack ready’ crab sections, vastly reducing the labour needed to make top quality products.”

On the face of it, that’s not an alarming paragraph. Not, at least, until you start to think about the ramifications of that “vastly reduced” labour force.

Now, the fishery doesn’t get a lot of ink outside specialty publications like SeafoodNews and the CBC’s “Fisheries Broadcast,” so you might be unfamiliar with the role the industry plays outside the overpass. Put it this way: even without cod (or, more to the point, without even a processor willing to buy cod), the fishery is still a huge industry in the province, with most of that work falling outside the oil-hyped Northeast Avalon. There are still some 18,400 people making money from one fishery or another, and they’re making that money in rural parts of the province.

Pass a big truck in Conception Bay North, and if it’s not hauling waste to Robin Hood Bay, chances are it’s hauling some sort of fish product. Depending on the week, it might be lobster. It might be caplin. But the big money’s in crab.

For the last year when the figures were in, 2013, crab had a landed value of $209 million, more than a third of the total $579 million landed value of all fish products here. And sure, it’s a short season, but it’s been a labour-intensive one, and the weeks of work involved are crucial to the people who get them.

Now, having one piece of equipment “test-driven” through a summer doesn’t mean the imminent collapse of crab processing jobs. Fish plant owners aren’t likely to simply order up a bunch of expensive processing equipment just on a lark. Having “the latest new thing” isn’t really part of their lexicon, which you can see pretty clearly from the state of a lot of plants in this province. A lot of them look like they’re trying to wring every last dollar out of their equipment, their surroundings and even their roofs.

But what it does mean is that the ground keeps shifting in any number of industries, and that mechanization will always threaten those whose job skills verge on the, well, mechanical.

For plant operators, like everyone else, the single largest adjustable expense in their business is labour and benefits — and cuts to labour costs can pretty quickly pay for effective and efficient equipment.

Baader equipment in the past  took a huge bite out of those who used to specialize in cutting and trimming fillet. It didn’t eliminate the need for people who work in plants, but it did reduce their number. Crab’s been a bit more of a cipher, but if a mechanical system ends up being faster, cheaper and more economical, the change in the crab fishery will be quick.

That would mean the same kind of dramatic tilt that crab brought to harvesting.

When cod was king, it was caught by a broad-based and large number of licence holders. The total pot was split among the many.

Crab, while more valuable, was caught by a more concentrated number of licence-holders: they grossed more money, had more expensive operations and generally netted more profits, as well.

The overall value of crab isn’t likely to fall that much, as long as the resource stays strong. But if there is a way to trim the number of employees, that money is likely to stay concentrated in far fewer hands.

You hear it all the time: the only real constant is change. The problem in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, and in other parts of rural Atlantic Canada is that there isn’t a heck of a lot to change to.

Russell Wangersky is news editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Massachusetts, Northeast Avalon Robin Hood Bay Atlantic Canada

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