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N.L. fishermen declare victory, head home after protests in St. John's

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Fish harvesters in Newfoundland and Labrador are declaring victory in their negotiations with the provincial government, and are heading home after a recent protest that brought out riot police in St. John's.

Protest leader John Efford Jr. told harvesters just after noon on Friday that provincial officials had met their key demand, and will start to open up the market for unprocessed fish and crab in the province.

"We got it done!" Efford Jr. exclaimed. "Every fish harvester in this province got it done."

Fishermen celebrated the deal as historic, and a game-changer for their fishing businesses. Efford Jr. was emotional as he worked his way through his speech — using a megaphone from the bed of a white pickup truck. Many harvesters credited Efford Jr., particularly, for his work leading the demonstrators.

"I can't put it into words how happy I am today," said Bruce Short, who travelled to St. John's from the rural community of Long Island, in Newfoundland's Green Bay.

One man told Efford Jr. that his father would be proud of him — John Efford was a former fisheries minister and a longtime provincial politician. He died in 2022 after revealing he had been battling Alzheimer's disease.

Efford Jr. has struggled to speak about his father without breaking into tears, and has repeatedly declined to speak about his father’s legacy and their relationship.

The protest site cleared out quickly after news of the deal was announced. Dozens of police officers also filed out of the Confederation Building in St. John's, the site of the provincial legislature.

In a statement, the Association of Seafood Producers, an industry group representing fish plants, panned the reported deal. The group said allowing fish harvesters to sell to outside buyers would harm fish plant workers.

"Additional processing licenses does not create new employment. It only redistributes the work across additional facilities," it said.

"Changing government policy to allow outside buyers could result in the loss of economic value and employment benefits to the detriment of our workers, local businesses, and communities."

The protest had been running since March, but tensions heightened on Wednesday when harvesters moved to block off access to the Confederation Building.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary brought its mounted unit to the scene, and an officer tried to push his horse into the crowd of people. One fish harvester broke a hip, demonstrators said, in a separate encounter with police. One police officer was also injured and taken to hospital.

The chaos outside the legislature delayed the tabling of Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial budget. Politicians returned to the legislature Wednesday night, after the sun set, and stayed in their offices overnight to ensure the budget could proceed on Thursday.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the RCMP met protestors who arrived early Thursday with riot gear – shields, masks, batons and weapons marked "less lethal."

Tensions remained high Friday as some feared a repeat of the clashes between officers and protestors. Efford Jr. told the crowd to stay in an adjacent parking lot until the end of his meeting.

Efford Jr., along with representatives from the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union met with Fisheries Minister Elvis Loveless for almost four hours.

In a statement, Loveless said his meeting with Efford Jr. was "productive."

"[It] has led to positive outcomes intended to support FFAW harvesters, plant workers, and all stakeholders in our province's valuable fishing industry. We all share the same goal of seeing an organized start to the 2024 fishing season."

Efford Jr. told the crowd that demonstration organizers would give government five business days to create a written record of the deal that was reached. He said there are already two applicants who are interested in buying crab and other fish from Newfoundland and Labrador fishers.

Applicants would need to meet criteria met by the provincial government in order to start exporting raw fish. The Association of Seafood Producers said they expect the regulated price would extend to any new entrant into the market.

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