Newfoundland’s largest seafood company, with a major division in Danvers, MA, is living in interesting times.

Fishery Products International Ltd. (FPI) and its U.S. division, Ocean Cuisine, recently announced layoffs in the province and a shakeup in U.S. management. FPI was picketed by Newfoundland plant workers fearing for more job losses, reached an impasse in union negotiations, was charged by the fisheries minister for illegally shipping fish to China for processing, and criticized by government officials for proposed corporate changes.

Contentious negotiations with union plant workers ended in mid-May with a deadlock that sent FPI to the provincial Labor Minister seeking “contract conciliation.” FPI had already announced layoffs, but is seeking more and encountering fierce opposition from union members.

Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams told reporters his government wants to see changes in the FPI Act to ensure the company’s interests were more clearly aligned with the Province, adding he has serious concerns about how FPI is approaching its restructuring plans. “Too few people control decision making at FPI,” said Williams.

FPI is a company created by the province of Newfoundland in 1984 out of a group of small, failed seafood processing plants. Upon its formation, it became for a while the largest seafood company in the world. It is still governed by the provincial legislative act named for it, even though the company was privatized at the time of the cod collapse in 1992. Until the cod moratorium, FPI had been primarily a processor of cod, operating a large fishing fleet and plants all over the province.

The provincial fisheries minister, Tom Rideout, threatened to lay charges against FPI in March for allegedly sending unprocessed flounder out of Newfoundland to China for processing, a move not allowed without the department’s approval, said Rideout.

“Did you know this company, this flagship of the industry in Newfoundland and Labrador… didn’t have permission from the minister of fisheries in this province to ship one yellowtail out last year?” asked Rideout at a heated speech to protestors outside FPI’s headquarters. “But they shipped and they shipped and they broke the law — they’re under investigation and they’ll be charged.”

The minister also supported the picketers, telling the CBC, “You have a three-plant operation on the Burin Peninsula now, and we expect a three-plant operation on the Burin peninsula, whether it’s you [FPI]or somebody else.”

FPI officials maintain its exports were legal and that provincial officials were consulted.

Fish, Food and Allied Workers union president Earle McCurdy said at the time, “The Government of Canada didn’t allocate generous resources to FPI so it could create jobs in China. This company has been granted many privileges including lucrative offshore scallop and shrimp licenses and the most generous allocation of groundfish of any corporation. We expect this company to create meaningful employment with these resources.”

“While they won’t come out and admit it, what their plan really is to take two-thirds of the yellowtail, or close to two-thirds, and process it in China,” McCurdy said.

The company receives an allocation for yellowtail flounder every year, and if cutbacks in processing are made at three Burin plants where layoffs have already occurred and more are feared, FPI hopes to ship up to 60 percent of the yellowtail allocation for processing elsewhere, and cut production from 22 million pounds to 11 million. Since there are no individually owned quotas, the province says FPIwould have to give up fish quotas unless the fish were processed in Newfoundland.

Workers picketed FPI’s main office in St. John’s for several days in mid-March, protesting potential layoffs and plant closures on the sparsely-populated Burin Peninsula on the southeast coast of Newfoundland where the company employs 1,100 workers. FPI sought a court injunction to ban the picketers when someone chained the company’s front doors shut. Negotiations reportedly broke down completely in mid-May.

FPI says it needs cuts in staff and production to make up for  massive losses experienced by the company in recent years.