The mood of a nation: Brigus, Nfld.

Two new houses under construction in Brigus, Nfld. stand in stark contrast to the town’s collection of squat, tiny homes. Resident Graham Hiscock worries Brigus could end up as a summer vacation spot for wealthier residents in St. John’s, something he already sees happening. “Brigus becomes a ghost town in the winter,” he says.

Graham Hiscock, general manager of the Independent Fish Harvesters Inc. plant in Brigus, Nfld., had at least three large issues on his mind when I met with him recently: a U.S. recession, workers leaving the province for Alberta, and the longstanding problem of overcapacity in the seafood processing industry. Oddly enough, both the recession and the labour shortage could help relieve the industry’s overcapacity situation — though it will be far from painless.

Hiscock had a kind of weariness about him when talking about these problems. That’s probably to be expected of someone who has toiled in the seafood business his whole life. “We’re all out fighting to keep our plant and our community alive,” Hiscock told me. “The fishermen have got something to sell and we’ve got to fight to try and buy it.” Overcapacity is so severe that the province can process five times the annual seafood quota. Hiscock struck a deal four years ago to sell the plant, which he previously owned along with his cousin, to a consortium of fishermen, guaranteeing him a supply of seafood to process each year.

That model is in part why Hiscock is relatively optimistic about the year ahead. “The market is still fairly strong. People are buying,” he said. But there is a lot of uncertainty around the impact of a U.S. economic slowdown going forward, since all of the seafood (predominantly snow crab) processed in Brigus — a town of 794 people an hour west of St. John’s — is exported down south. And the industry as a whole still has to consolidate to survive, Hiscock maintained.

But could a U.S. recession speed along that process? And what about Hiscock’s other problem of not being able to find enough workers? If labour isn’t available or Americans stop buying snow crab, then those factors could force the industry to slim down.

“Hopefully, companies will go bankrupt, or smaller plants will be bought,” Hiscock said. That would allow the industry to attain some kind of equilibrium, and reduce the competition among processors and the price they pay for seafood. Perhaps that could even free up money for better wages for workers, a grievance of Hiscock’s. “You can’t afford to pay your worker,” he lamented. “You’d love to pay them $20 an hour to keep them here and keep them happy, but you can’t throw money down for seafood, and then pay your workers what they really deserve.”

Hiscock believes the unique model at IFH will allow it to continue, but that won’t be the case for other plants in other towns. Consolidation in the $1-billion industry is necessary, but there will be casualties. The IFH plant’s importance to Brigus is evident after visiting the town — there simply isn’t much else happening, especially at this time of year. The streets were empty and the shops were closed when I visited. The population isn’t shrinking, but it’s hardly skyrocketing: Brigus gained exactly 10 people between 2001 and 2006, according to Statistics Canada.

“There are houses here that come the fall, the doors are barred and you don’t see any activity until next spring,” Hiscock said. “The thing I’m wondering, Is it going to be a cottage town where people spend their summers, or are people actually going to live here year round?”