Curse of Geography: <br>Western Newfoundland
Curse of Geography (3/10)

Curse of Geography:
Western Newfoundland

During the early 1990s, when cod stocks in Western Newfoundland were on the brink of extinction, a moratorium on fishing caused the “largest mass layoff in Canadian history” and threatened the cultural fabric of coastal communities reliant on the ocean for their livelihoods.

“I’ll tell you a tale about Newfoundland dear
We haven’t got money or riches to spare
But we can be thankful of one small affair
Thank God we’re surrounded by water”
– Arthur Scammell, 1928

There is a shale and limestone rock formation in Green Point, Newfoundland that attracts geologists from around the world because of its unique sedimentary build up. Carved up from the earth and flipped on its side in a violent act of subduction, you walk alongside 30 million years of history sketched in layers of stone and clay. Around the corner from the cove in which this geological wonder quietly rests are a dozen boathouses and sheds of varying sizes and colours. All but one sits empty.

Inside a shed painted bright yellow with forest green trim, Roger Shears bangs a hammer to run out dents on the metal cage of a lobster trap. Fishing season is over, but maintenance needs to be carried out on the gear before the winter hibernation begins.

Roger Shears has been an in-shore lobster fisherman for 40 years. From his work shed, he points to a smaller, more weathered cabin a short-ways up the single dirt path that connects to the main road. This has been his home away from home—in nearby Rocky Harbour, 12 km south in Bonne Bay—for his entire adult life.

“There’s not ten people in their twenties living in this bay,” says Colleen Howell, a 54-year-old cook at the Merchant Warehouse restaurant in Woody Point, which is about 30 minutes south of Green Point. Nodding her head in resignation, she adds, with absolute certainly, “there’s not going to be a younger generation of fisherman.”

Bonne Bay is an area adjacent to Gros Morne National Park, off the Western coast of Newfoundland, comprised of six small towns, with roughly 7000 residents in total. Colleen explains that in and around Bonne Bay, there are few benefits for young people to take up fishing when they can make more money training as big machine operators or at other industry jobs on the mainland, which come with security, health care and a retirement pension. “My son will never step foot in a fishing boat, 100% certainty. They don’t need to do it. They don’t want to do it. They know how hard it is, so they’ll never do it.”

Cody, a taxi driver in his mid-twenties from the larger town of Deer Lake, remarks that “there’s nothing here (in Newfoundland) for young people to do.” So, they leave in search of more rewarding employment with secure futures on the mainland. At the same time, he is clearly proud of where he is from and, like an overzealous nature guide, speaks enthusiastically about moose and whale sightings. But that’s not to say Cody wouldn’t take an opportunity to earn more on the mainland.

This outward migration is not a new phenomenon. For decades industrial Canadian and foreign fisheries trawled the ocean floor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. By 1992, “the once-plentiful fish stocks had dwindled to near extinction and officials feared they would disappear entirely if the fisheries remained open.” At that time, John Crosbie, the Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, imposed a moratorium on fishing for North Atlantic cod. This precautionary measure to halt the species depletion put “about 30,000 people in the province out of work and ended a way of life that had endured for generations in many outport communities.” Though it seems there is consensus among fishermen that the moratorium was necessary at the time, its harried execution and the sense that local fishermen were being scapegoated for a level of overfishing that was physically beyond their means, continues to be a point of contention.

Colleen Howell, Woody Point

The natural beauty of Western Newfoundland is astounding, marked by a distinct topographical, ecological and biological diversity. Towns like Woody Point enjoy a vibrant tourist season during the summer months with visits from guided groups, hikers, and naturists, and the town offers a robust choice of art, music, and literary events. Travellers sit on decks looking out at the bay, enjoying beers and deep-fried cod, hoping to spot a whale or pod of dolphins. But in other communities that do not enjoy the same affluence and are not as easily accessible, opportunities outside of fishing are rare.

While the tourism industry has flourished, the fisheries central to the vibrancy of the community—in terms of diet and culture—are shrinking. But tourist season is only roughly three to four months of the year, before heavy snow and ice make much of the island—both land and sea—difficult to access. Similarly, fishing is not a year-round activity or source of income. Strict regulations and quotas dice the fishing season into slivers of opportunity to earn enough money to break even, repair boats and gear, and survive the winter months, where fishermen are often left unemployed. There is an abundance of obstacles and considerations for a young person contemplating life as a fisherman.

“There’s basically four or five fishermen here in the bay,” says Colleen Howell, “the youngest of those is maybe late 40s, my husband is 60. So in five-year’s time, ten at the most, they aren’t going to be fishing. But then there’s no one to take over for them.”

Natalia Crocker, Trout River

The diminishing of the local fisheries of Western Newfoundland is not just the result of a younger generation disinterested in the trade. Natalia Crocker, a 26-year old resident of nearby Trout River, says the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is strangling the local fisherman through absurd regulations imposed by distant decision-makers in Ottawa. While the DFO may be unaware or unconcerned with how these policies force small family fisheries deeper into debt and financial instability, it is a clear cause-and-effect understood by seemingly everyone on this coast.

Ernest Decker is a 59-year-old lobster fisherman from a fishing village about halfway between Green Point and Rocky Harbour, called Bakers Brook. He is a childhood friend of Roger Shears and maintains the average age of active fishermen is close to 60 years old, significant given the average retirement age of Canadian men is 65.

Further, the DFO has imposed an accreditation system that requires young fishermen to gain five-years of experience, go through a certification program, and earn a certain number of credits in order to legally operate. But with “no new entries,” and no children of his own, Ernest doesn’t seem optimistic that his life’s work will be carried on.

Ernest Decker, Bakers Brook

Paul Foley, researcher and professor at the Environmental Policy Institute, Grenfell campus of Memorial University in Cornerbrook, argues that the perception that no young people want to work the fisheries is inaccurate. There are market forces at play. Often times young people interested in pursuing the trade do not have the credit histories needed to obtain bank loans to cover overhead costs. These can log in at $300,000 CAD or more, including purchasing a vessel and necessary permits. Money that could just as easily be spent on an education that assures financial security.

Adam Crocker, a 33-year old fisherman from Trout River, says his boat cost $150,000 CAD, and the permits nearly the same amount. If a license is not handed down within a family, it has to be sold or it dies in the original holder’s possession. While there are some younger fishermen like Adam making it work, most are dissuaded by the overhead costs and the professionalization of the trade. Many fishermen agree that professionalization was necessary in many ways, not only to fortify the regulations and quotas, but also for the safety and wellbeing of fishermen. The problem is the rigidity of its imposition and some tenets that disregard the fact that, for hundreds of years, fishing in Newfoundland has been a family business passed down through generations, not acquired through costly formal training.

Adam Crocker, Trout River

Fishing in unpredictable and oftentimes unfriendly waters takes a heavy physical toll both on the fishermen and on their boats. Repairs and maintenance are a consistent source of difficulty for fisherman. Without a supportive community of fishermen, the responsibility and financial burden sits squarely on each individual fisherman, making for an isolating experience.

“Oh this is the place where the fishermen gather
Oil-skins and boots and the Cape hands batten down.”

Blaine Crocker, a 53-year-old fisherman from Trout River—a generation ahead of Adam (and of no relation)—points to a breakdown of the camaraderie that once characterized the fishing community as an additional deterrent to “new entries.” He recalls “times where we’ve just offered our boat to one of our friends whose boat was broke down. But that’s changing, I do see that. That the friendliness and the togetherness is not the same in the younger generation.”

Blaine also speaks to a cultural abscess resulting from new technologies replacing traditional methods. “The boats are getting bigger and the equipment is getting more advanced and makes it easier to catch the fish. Still in the smaller communities…a lot of fishing is done in the old ways…you fish in a small wooden dory and…you haul it up and down, pretty much with your body… That hasn’t changed from a hundred years ago. That’s how older guys did it and that’s how we do it.”

It is clear that the older generations of fishermen take great pride in their tradecraft, the simple ingenuity of their dories, rigs and traps, and the ability to earn a livelihood entirely by hand. Added to that is a fisherman’s pride in being self-sufficient, able from an early age to put food on the table and support a family.

Stephen Barnes, a 27-year-old electrician from Trout River, has been fishing since he was a child. Financial necessity required Stephen to train in another trade, but he maintains that he will carry on this family tradition once he is able to take over the license in a few years.

Stephen anchors his dory some 2000 meters off the coast, near a fishing camp called Shoal Point. This is where he thinks the cod are. Jigging is a type of fishing where a long line is attached to a handle and spool, with a lead sinker and hook disguised with a colorful lure at the end. Once the hook and sinker drop you begin a vertical jerking motion with the handle until you feel resistance. Then you reel in the catch by pulling the line up over the handle. Jigging is a common practice for local fishermen in the area and unlike nets and traps does not affect other species that co-exist with the target. Within 30 minutes, we have caught our food fishing quota of 15 large fresh cod.

Compared to Woody Point and other towns around Bonne Bay, Trout River is an anomaly in terms of its fishing culture. Only one road leads in and out of Trout River. The town has no communications tower and no cell phone service. The colloquialism “TR Vegas” is accompanied by the slogan “what happens in Trout River stays in Trout River”—a likely result of this geographic and communicative isolation, alongside insinuations that shady dealings are commonplace here, particularly when the ships come in.

Walking around Trout River, it’s difficult to see any indicators of the shady side of the town. The people of Trout River are as friendly and open as any other community on the coast, with its almost ubiquitous culture of hospitality. But it is clear Trout River falls on the wrong side of some tracks, stigmatized by neighbouring townsfolk, who occupy higher class strata.

But in this insularity, an indignation to being thought of as lesser than seems to fortify the bonds of an extremely proud and tight-knit community. Perhaps as a result, more young people return to Trout River than most other towns. And, increasingly, many of them see fishing as a viable independent business. Yet it seems unlikely that this return migration and renewed interest in fishing is enough to balance out a rapidly aging population of fishermen.

The decline of the small fisheries has disrupted local economies. When business is good for fishermen, more money is spent at local businesses. But the combination of regional politics and government mismanagement has made it increasingly more difficult for small fishermen to survive, thereby draining income from other businesses. Quotas for fisheries are said to stabilize the stock value, but according to Ernest Decker, even when the stock prices are on the rise, and species populations abundant, the quotas they are allowed remain the same.

For example, fishermen trawling halibut, a staple groundfish in the region, are required by the DFO and trade unions to sign up for fishing licenses that cover one week at a time. They are allotted a catch of 1200 lbs per license. And if by accident or good fortune they exceed their quota, “dead or alive they have to go back.” This neglects the fact that within a week’s period, weather conditions in Western Newfoundland are not entirely predictable. It is not uncommon to sign up for a week’s license, only to be met with six days of bad weather, and a single day to break even on your overhead expenses, which is often an impossible goal to begin with.

DFO mismanagement is not just affecting the sustenance of local fisheries, it compromises the safety of fishermen and their families. With small windows of opportunity, fishermen often take great risks to make their quotas. Accidents are not uncommon. Miscalculations in the ocean are more easily made when fishermen hurry to make an entire quota in an inadequate amount of time. Fatigue also contributes to deadly accidents. Because the fisheries are a male-dominated industry, and fishermen often the primary or sole earners in their households, their death has rippling effects on their family’s wellbeing.

And all this despite what is an abundance of halibut.

It seems a common sentiment amongst Newfoundland fishermen that they have been sacrificed for larger, market driven priorities that preference foreign fisheries and mainland Canadian fisheries. Many people attribute this to political favoritism and concentration of lobbying power in Ottawa. “The squeaky wheels get the grease,” says Ernest Decker, referring to the loud political voice of Quebecois fisheries that has afforded them more generous quotas, seemingly hand-delivered by representative politicians to their constituents.

This imbalanced management system has pitted the mainland against the island, and created unnecessary competition and tensions between different types of fishermen. According to Blaine Crocker, political allies of the Quebecois fisheries have “a lot of seats in government and they all have a lot of power. But they draw lines over there, where we can’t fish… but they can come over here and fish. To me it’s a big issue with a lot of fishermen, along the West coast and Northern Peninsula, right? So, it’s been worked on, but it’s hard, making changes.”

Further, in the past few years the application process has been commuted online which brings a new set of problems. “Now there’s a lot of little communities don’t have internet access or they have very poor internet access. And, you have to remember that a lot of the fishermen are 60 years old. They don’t know how to use the internet. They’re not computer savvy, they’re not tech savvy,” says Colleen Howell.

This adds further confusion to the already confusing system in place. And while this might make it easier for younger fishermen to enter the digital age of fisheries seamlessly, it is not incentive enough to entice them away from higher paying jobs elsewhere.

When the cod moratorium was enacted in the early 1990s, it was the first such imposition on the Newfoundland fisheries in 500 years, and understandably had a shocking impact. The intention behind this precautionary measure continues to resonate some 30 years later. Notwithstanding the mismanagement of the industry by the underfunded DFO, the regulations that were imposed following the cod crisis did not take into account other interconnected reasons for depleted species’ populations, including: ocean cooling, predation and migration. Many refer to this incomplete analysis and reactive policies as “bad science,” or “DFO science.”

While well-founded concerns about overfishing are the root of this current confusion, there is a consensus that Newfoundland fishermen were never the real culprits. But rather mainland Canadian and foreign fleets trawling over 200 miles off-shore. “The federal government quite often gives quotas to foreign countries in return for benefits to cities across Canada. And they talk about the overfishing, that people [local fisherman] are taking too much fish and they’re drying out the fishery. But my husband wouldn’t catch 1% of the fish that a factory-freezer trawler would. He wouldn’t catch 1% of what they take, in his lifetime,” says Colleen Howell.

“Newfies”—a term of familiarity among residents of “the Rock,” or, at times one of derogation used by mainlanders—speak proudly of their long history of storytelling. Many of these fishermen’s tales are deeply rooted in their relationship with the sea, and their dependency on it for survival. And while it seems that this tradition of storytelling is still strong, the fisheries—the backbone of these communities both in terms of financial sustenance and cultural tradition—are in an ecologically and socio-economically vulnerable and transformative period. Amidst the bickering, factionalized “unions’” ineffectual attempts to represent the fishermen, it seems that coordinated civil society efforts to address the cultural implications of their dwindling population are required to make real progress in untangling the mess of quotas and regulations.

Tablelands, on the road from Bonne Bay to Trout River

As you make your way north from Bonne Bay along the Western coast of Newfoundland, the landscape of cliffs, tablelands, and fjords, flattens out. You pass by ports with larger fishing vessels at dock. A painted sign where the road splits from the main highway invites passersby to visit “Ben’s Studio.” In Port au Choix, artist Ben Ploughman has dedicated his life’s work to capturing the histories and day-to-day stories of Newfoundland’s fishing communities.

Ben’s Studio is one of the first properties in town off the main road and consists of three buildings, including a whale museum and Ben’s studio and gallery. The preserved skeleton of a sperm whale hangs inside the museum, taking up almost the entire length of the long wood cabin. Ploughman is a folk artist who uses wood, fabric and paint to create colourful works of art that capture the visual culture of fishing communities. Most of his wooden cut out characters are faceless, idly staring out to sea.

There are reports that when British explorer John Cabot landed on Newfoundland in 1497, he noted the abundance of cod, so plentiful you could walk across the water on their backs.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers to Newfoundland in the 1500s, the island had already been inhabited by the Paleo-Eskimo, Norse, Beothuk and the First Nation Mi’kmaq people. Mi’kmaq community elder, Calvin White, says that before the white man arrived, Mi’kmaq only fished and hunted what was needed to serve the community, never more. Boats and equipment were shared and when one person or family had a big catch it was also shared. Everything that was caught, from fish to caribou was used, never discarded.

Eventually these colonizers would begin to impose earlier iterations of the regulations and quotas system that restructured the parameters within which communities were able to sustain themselves. And it became means for the colonizers to criminalize subsistence fishermen and landsmen, from which they profited through fines and seizure of property. The current manifestations of these early attempts to control the fishing industry continue to have the same type of impact on communities that fish for their livelihoods with relatively slim profit margins.

Ploughman agrees the problem of dwindling local fisheries long pre-dates the cod moratorium. During the 1940s, 50s and 60s, seeing the opportunity to expand their export market, the Canadian government allowed large foreign fleets quotas for off shore fishing. Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Russian and other foreign corporations introduced automated systems that netted exponentially larger yields, quickly replacing traditional methods. These large fishing vessels known as factory freezer trawlers, auto-trawlers, or draggers, pull massive nets through mid-water or across the ocean floor sweeping up every living thing in their path. Aside from overfishing, the issue here is what happens to the bycatch, or other types of fish that are caught along with the target species.

For instance, halibut is a bycatch of turbot fishing. If a fisherman is assigned a quota for turbot and catches halibut by accident, they must be thrown back into the ocean, dead or alive. Ploughman estimates that in the past year some thousands of pounds of dead halibut have been thrown back as a result of these regulations. In most cases, there is simply no incentive to repurpose bycatch, and so a species that has no immediate value is discarded like trash. When you account for the size of the nets being used by off shore industrial fisheries, it is easy to understand how such wasteful practices could cause irreparable damage to certain species, and ocean habitats while upending local fishing communities. In Port au Choix, capelin, a bait fish used for catching cod, are no longer spawning as a result of excessive shrimp dragging. Ploughman points out the contradiction of “talking about the cod stock recovering, while discarding thousands of fish.”

Large trucks transport fish up and down the coast of Western Newfoundland. In Woody Point, fish plant workers wait for a truck headed south from Port au Choix, so they can process and transport the catch to markets for sale. Often times, delays based on the weather conditions and understaffing can make for an exhausting waiting game. One that can result in significant loss of income for fishermen when portions of the catch are no longer sellable. Uncertain hours, last minute changes to regulations and quotas, unforeseen predicaments and an unpredictable yield puts enormous pressure on the fishermen, as well as residually on plant workers and others that rely on the chain of production.

Emler Young, owner of 3T’s processing plant in Woody Point, has waited two days to process a catch being brought in by his son Todd. Todd acts as fisherman, truck driver, salesman and business manager. Emler says this is due to a shortage of workers on the island. And while advances in technology have allowed for higher yields in the face of adverse conditions, when asked what time he thinks the catch might arrive, Emler chuckles, shakes his head in kind annoyance, and says “can’t do anything but wait… that’s why they call it fishing.”

“Holy Smoke! What a scuffle! All hands are excited,
It’s a wonder to me that there’s nobody drowned;
There’s a bustle, confusion, the wonderful hustle.”

Inside Ploughman’s inoperative whale museum, several placards are placed against one wall. They are signs from protests against the DFO, demanding better roads (Port au Choix boasts the worst road in Newfoundland) and supporting Richard Gillett.

In April 2017, Richard Gillett, a fisherman from Twillingate, across the rock southwest from Port Au Choix, went on an 11-day hunger strike outside the DFO building in St. John’s. As vice-president of the Federation of Independent Seafood Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL), Gillett has been an outspoken critic of “DFO science” and stock management.

Aside from a few splashes in the news media spotlighting the issue, the protests of local fishermen have not succeeded in forcing the DFO to adapt the regulations and quotas system.

For the past several years, Ploughman has been rigorously documenting every species caught off the coast of Newfoundland, and how the DFO’s mismanagement of the fisheries is affecting individual local fisherman. His process is painstaking, ethnographic and interview-based. He shows us a binder overflowing with his hand-written notes, news articles, and diagrams. He muses on possible titles for its eventual publication, offering “DFO Sucks: Gross Mismanagement of the Newfoundland Fisheries,” or “Dear Ottawa, Give Us Back Our Fishing Rights.”

“My calling in life is to tell the story of the fisher folk,” says Ploughman, “we’ve always looked to the sea for a living.”

Filed Under: Photo & Video

Written by

Sidd Joag is a visual artist, journalist, producer, and the managing editor at ArtsEverywhere.

Video by

Rebecca Peeler is a New York City based freelance journalist who has reported on issues addressing health, environmental, and social concerns. She is currently pursuing a degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which has allowed her to explore the idea of holistic remedies and how they serve and function in our society.

Illustrations by

German Andino is an award-winning Honduran animator and journalist. He is co-producer of the Bidi Bidi Media Lab.

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