Two decades of disaster: Newfoundland’s fishery

Inshore fishermen leave the village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland at dawn to haul their cod traps. Photo by Greg Locke © 1992

Inshore fishermen leave the village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland at dawn to haul their cod traps. Photo by Greg Locke © 1992

By Greg Locke
PETTY HARBOUR, Newfoundland, Canada. July 2, 2012

It’s a cold foggy day in the fishing village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. Just 20 kilometers south from downtown St. John’s, it feels much further. There is not much activity or many people out and around the few remaining wharfs and twine lofts that once were buzzing hives of fishing activity ringing the harbour. Today, there are just a few frozen tourists looking to make photos of a Newfoundland that doesn’t exist anymore.

Fisherman, Reg Best, unloads nets in the village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland.© Greg Locke 1992.

Fisherman, Reg Best, unloads nets in the village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. © Greg Locke 1992. …click to enlarge

Twenty years ago I was here, too. It was a beautiful warm summer day and I was standing in this same spot on the breakwater with my cameras in hand. The harbour was filled with fishermen and their boats coming and going to the nearby fishing grounds. But there were no fish on that day. Their boats were filled with cod traps and anchors being returned to their storage places to rust and rot.

The grim faces and tears of the people of Petty Harbour, and other fishing communities around the eastern Canadian province, told the story of a great calamity.

The infamous cod moratorium imposed by the Canadian government came into effect on July 2, 1992, putting an end to the inshore cod fishery and a 500 year old economic activity that was the basis of Newfoundland culture and society.

It put an estimated 30,000 people out of work and escalated the exodus of people from rural Newfoundland.  It was the single largest layoff off of workers in Canadian history. Some social scientists say more than seventy thousand people have left the bays, coves and outports of the province since.

A few nights before in a St. John’s hotel ballroom, iconic Newfoundland Member of Parliament and cabinet minster, John Crosbie, had delivered the news to reporters while angry fisherman pounded on locked doors trying to get into the room.  Crosbie had to be escorted from the building by dozens of police officers. It was the closest the city has come to seeing a riot since 1932, when Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires ran for his life from protestors at the Colonial Building.

 

It’s not as if the fishermen hadn’t seen it coming.

 

It’s not as if the fishermen hadn’t seen it coming. For years their catches had been getting smaller. The fish were just not returning to the inshore waters in the spring after a long winter on the spawning grounds hundreds of miles out on the Grand Banks.

Fishermen told the politicians and scientists at the federal Department of Fisheries there were no fish. They were ignored, and DFO continued to issue catch quotas. The scientists said fishermen didn’t know anything, but the politicians refused to lower the quotas.

Just last week, John Crosbie, said in a retrospective interview with CBC that the scientists’ information wasn’t very good, so the government would not cut quotas based on the data.

The Gatherall brothers rounding Bay Bulls Head on the Southern Shore. Photo by Greg Locke © 1992 Copyright.

The Gatherall brothers rounding Bay Bulls Head on the Southern Shore. Photo by Greg Locke © 1992 Copyright. …click to enlarge

When we talk about fishermen in Newfoundland, we are usually referring to the individuals and their families who caught fish in season, from small 11-meter boats along the coast, in cod traps and, at one time, with jiggers and hand lines using passive fishing techniques

In today’s environmental parlance, it would be called a sustainable economic activity. It was not possible to over fish in the inshore fishery.

The Newfoundland fishery was nothing like the factory-freezer trawlers of multinational fish companies that worked 24/7, 365 days of the year, dragging massive nets through the ocean, vacuuming up every living creature and destroying the ocean floor until it was uninhabitable.

It was these floating fish factories owned by Canadian, Spanish and Portuguese corporations (plus other European Union countries) that fished the Northern Cod to the brink of extinction, before moving on to do the same with other species in South America and West Africa.

That’s why many Newfoundlanders are more than a little touchy when they hear people, especially their own politicians, say that Newfoundlanders over fished the cod stocks. It’s simply not true and it’s just an exercise in diluting the blame.

Spanish and Canadian offshore fishing trawlers at the Canadian 200mile limit on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. © Greg Locke 2000

Spanish and Canadian offshore fishing trawlers at the Canadian 200mile limit on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
© Greg Locke 2000 …click to enlarge

Unrestrained technology, international fishing and trade agreements, and government officials, are responsible for this ecological disaster — and they need to wear it.

Ironically, the establishment of the 321-kilometer limit (The 200 Mile Economic Exclusion Zone) in 1977 by Canada did more to destroy the Newfoundland fishery than protect it. With the new limit the government encouraged, licensed and financed Canadian fisherman and fish companies to build bigger boats and enterprises to exploit the new fishing zones. A 400-year-old passive fishery became an active and aggressive commercial hunting enterprise. Governments were encouraging overfishing.

Scientists estimate that the world’s total biomass of cod, tuna, and other large predatory fish has dropped 90 per cent since the industrialization of the fisheries in the 1950s.

 

Today’s $1 billion Newfoundland fishery is a different business

 

The fishery in Newfoundland today is still worth $1 billion, but it does not employ the same people who were in the inshore cod fishery. It is primarily a shrimp and crab fishery prosecuted by multi-million dollar boats fishing in the mid-shore regions. It’s a different business than what most people think of when they hear the words Newfoundland fishery.

But even this industry is under the same pressures as the cod fishery once was, with over capacity in the fleet and processing sectors, and diminishing catches. Dozens of fish processing plants have closed this year alone.

Recent provincial governments appear to have washed their hands completely of the industry, yet they are responsible for the processing sector. Fish is just not sexy when you are rolling in oil revenues and you don’t have to do deal with the socio-cultural implications and angry citizens.

 

There is a future for Newfoundland’s fishery if the province’s politicians, fish processors and unions open their eyes

 

 Spanish and Canadian offshore fishing trawlers at the Canadian 200mile limit on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. © Greg Locke 2000

Gerald Cooper of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland bring home the only thing he caught, a lone mackerel, on his last day of fishing before retiring. Photo by Greg Locke © 1999. …click image to enlarge

There is a future for the fishery in Newfoundland if the province’s politicians, fish processors and unions choose to open their eyes to it. Fish is a renewable resource, but you can’t catch more fish than are being reproduced.

A sustainable fishery is one that does not deplete the population or jeopardize the environment. A sustainable fishery can protect the environment and provide some people with jobs and food, and government with revenues, indefinitely.

Fishermen-run co-ops in Petty Harbour and Fogo Island were positive models even in the darkest days of the Newfoundland fishery. While the union, government and fish merchants squabbled, organizers saw a new way of doing business that side-stepped the status quo and saw fishermen process their own fish and chose their own markets to sell to.  It put management back in the hands of the fisherman, the ones who owned the fishing licenses and had the right to fish.

However, none of that reflects the current free-market capitalist fashion of resource management, that says greed is good and the faster and cheaper you can extinguish a resource, and move on, the better. In biological science that is the definition of a parasite.

Maybe the best Newfoundland fishermen can hope for is a total collapse of the global industry to the point where politicians, unions and companies are no longer interested, and move on. Then they can organize again, pick up the pieces, and go back to a local sustainable fishery where those who choose can live in beautiful coastal fishing villages and enjoy a livelihood that benefits us all.

 

Fishermen haul in their cod traps near Trouty, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. Photo by Greg Locke © 1992

Fishermen haul in their cod traps near Trouty, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. Photo by Greg Locke © 1992

Copyright © Greg Locke 2012

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald in 2012.

Related:

Life goes on in rural Newfoundland, by Greg Locke

Travelling around Newfoundland this summer I began seeing signs of life, culture and a society I thought were lost forever.

 

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