A protest that descended into a chaotic confrontation between mounted police officers and fishers outside the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature on Wednesday delayed the release of the provincial budget.

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officers tried to disperse the shouting crowd but were largely unsuccessful and two people were taken away from the scene on stretchers.

The protesters — who arrived at the building at about 5:30 a.m. local time — said the province's fishery is over-regulated and the handful of established processors and buyers are acting like a cartel, pushing down prices.

“Government won’t allow any new buyers to come in. They won’t issue any new (buyers’) licences and they’re protecting these millionaire merchants while the rest of us are struggling," fisherman Jason Sullivan, from Bay Bulls, N.L., said in an interview outside the legislature.

"We’re here today to change government policy … We just want to get paid fairly."

Finance Minister Siobhan Coady had been scheduled to release her 2024-25 budget on Wednesday with an expectation that the books would be balanced. Her department said the budget presentation has been delayed until further notice.

The scene in front of the Confederation Building became confused and disorderly when two constabulary officers rode their horses into the crowd as officers tried to disperse the fishers. Protesters yelled, some fell over and there were shouts from the crowd that people were being injured.

The mounted officers engaged with the crowd for about 20 minutes, as protesters formed a line to push back the horses. The police on horseback eventually pulled back from the crowd, as protesters cheered. An ambulance came to the scene to assist an injured protester, who was screaming in pain, and drove the person away.

"The government has us backed into a corner," Sullivan said, adding that fishers want more buyers and better prices for their catch. "We're trying to go fishing but there's only four or five buyers and now they're acting like a cartel and we're not getting good prices."

Earlier this month, the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union issued a news release urging the province to grant new processing licences and remove restrictions on outside buyers. The union also sought a commitment from the province to undertake an independent review of the province’s licensing policy.  

Elvis Loveless, the provincial minister of fisheries, said earlier this week that the province had started seeking applications for more buyers "starting with the soon-to-be-opened snow crab fishery." He also said the province will increase processing capacity in the snow crab industry prior to the start of the 2024 season.

Doug Trainor, a fisher from Fermeuse, N.L., was covered in dirt after the scuffle with officers. He said a horse stepped on his foot but didn't seriously injure him.

“I felt afraid. I got down on the ground and I couldn’t get up,” said Trainor, who fishes for crab, capelin and cod from the small town 90 kilometres south of St. John’s.

He said he’s protesting because he feels overly restricted in whom he can sell his catch to. “The cartels own us. I’m supposed to be an independent fisherman. That’s what I tried to do all my life, and now I’m not anymore.” 

Fisheries are a crucial sector of Newfoundland and Labrador's economy, with the province estimating there are 17,000 seafood workers and 400 communities that rely on the fishery for their livelihood.  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2024.