CANADA

THE END OF A BOUNTIFUL HARVEST

FOR ATLANTIC CANADA, THE COLLAPSE OF THE FISHERY IS LIKE THE FREAKING OF AN ANCIENT, SACRED TRUST

December 20 1993
CANADA

THE END OF A BOUNTIFUL HARVEST

FOR ATLANTIC CANADA, THE COLLAPSE OF THE FISHERY IS LIKE THE FREAKING OF AN ANCIENT, SACRED TRUST

December 20 1993

THE END OF A BOUNTIFUL HARVEST

CANADA

FOR ATLANTIC CANADA, THE COLLAPSE OF THE FISHERY IS LIKE THE FREAKING OF AN ANCIENT, SACRED TRUST

His face is the battered map of a lifetime spent on the waters of the North Atlantic. For 40 years, 56year-old Ivan Baker has steered fishing boats through numbing winter storms and across thundering seas. The fourth-generation Nova Scotian fisherman knows what it feels like to haul in nets that are empty while a wife and family wait at home. But as he stood at the end of a wooden dock in East Jeddore, N.S., last week, Baker expressed no regrets about the life he chose. “I’ve tried other jobs but once fishing gets in your blood you always come back to it,” he explained, taking a long look at the harbor spread before him. Only when he shifted his gaze to the string of colorful boats bobbing idly in the water did the stoic mask drop. His voice hardening, he spoke in bitter tones about Ottawa’s decision to close the fishing grounds that have been his family’s lifeblood for nearly a century. “It’s a God damn shame,” he said. “Who’d have ever thought we’d see this day?”

Who, indeed? For Atlantic Canada’s 100,000 fishermen and fish-plant workers, the collapse of the fishery is like the breaking of an ancient, sacred trust. The bountiful harvest from eastern waters has been the mainstay of their ancestors—and the entire region—since the days of Italian explorer John Cabot 400 years ago.

No longer. Even before the industry’s real troubles started in 1989, the value of shipments from Atlantic fish plants had slumped to $1.6 billion from $2 billion only four years earlier. Just last month a council made up of scientists and industry officials confirmed that it would be at least the end of the decade before Ottawa will be able to lift the northern cod fishing ban that has crippled the Atlantic region. Last week, there was more reason for despair: the militant former head of the region’s biggest fisheries union called for a sweeping transformation of the industry that could eliminate as many as 50,000 jobs. That sobering recommendation confirmed what thousands of fishery workers already feared: their traditional way of life is gone, almost certainly forever.

For many, it will probably be just as well. Richard Cashin, the former union leader who headed up the federal task force, called the economic and social devastation wrought by the collapse of the fishery nothing less than “a catastrophe of biblical scale, a great destruction.” In truth, most fishing villages in the region display no signs of plague or pestilence—only a deep and abiding absence of hope for the future.

The story is the same in outport after outport, where main streets full of empty store-

fronts are a sad testament

to what happens when a region loses its economic underpinnings. Their boats grounded by government bans, their plants closed due to inactivity, almost all fishery workers live off the federal government’s compensation package, a two-year program costing $1 billion, which pays them a maximum of about $340 per week but runs out on May 15. Some households, with a number of recipients, haven’t been as prosperous in years. Others— particularly those headed by fishermen with huge amounts of money tied up in boats and equipment— have rarely been so hard

hit. “I could lose a legacy I’ve spent 34 years building,” says Baker’s brother-in-law, Leonard Karsten, who has two boats worth $500,000 sitting idle in East Jeddore, a sleepy village of 400 people about 80 km northeast of Halifax. But everywhere the sense of gloom that comes from being without work or purpose deepens daily. “Some days, it’s hard to get out of bed,” declared Roy Clarke, 37, a second-generation fisher-

man and father of three who lives in Chance Cove, 120 km northwest of St. John’s. “If I can’t fish, what do I do?”

Even four years ago, that question would have sounded absurd. In 1989, when fishermen landed 800,000 tonnes of groundfish, which makes up about two-thirds of the total Atlantic catch, the industry looked as healthy as ever. Yet that seemed like a distant memory just 18 months ago when federal officials were forced to close the northern cod fishery for two years in an attempt to save the fabled Grand Banks fishing grounds from extinction. And without the northern cod, this year’s Atlantic groundfish catch is expected to be a paltry 200,000 tonnes.

What happened? Overfishing by Canadian and foreign boats, an explosion in the seal population, environmental changes—scientists and industry officials say that all of those factors played a role in ravaging the cod stocks. Last month, the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, which advises the federal department of fisheries and oceans on where to set catch quotas, admitted that it is still groping to explain the calamity—just as it cannot pinpoint why the number of northern cod continues to decline despite the fishing ban. Whatever the reason, the result is that the scientists badly miscalculated fish stocks for most of the past decade.

About the only thing the council will say definitively is that the outlook is bleak: its best scenario sees the northern cod stock recovering enough by the end of the decade

for fishing to resume. “In the worst-case scenario,” declared council head Herbert Clarke, “we just don’t know.” Moreover, without further shutdowns the council maintains that other fish species are in danger of extinction. And it wants Ottawa to close all but one of the major cod and haddock fisheries in Atlantic Can-

ada next year. B`efore long, what , happens in the fishery 0 will be of only passing 1 interest to thousands of § people who always made a living from the sea. Many, such as Allen Debaie, 35, who owns the “Dawn and Corry II,” a $125,000 long-liner tied

up at East Jeddore, have already concluded that there is no future in fishing. “I’d get out of it right now if I could find somebody to buy my boat,” he declares.

Soon, Debaie, like others, may have no choice. Ottawa’s special compensation program expires in May. If the federal government follows the recommendations of Cashin’s task force, it will implement a system designed to create a smaller, more effident industry that is less dependent upon the Unemployment Insurance payments that now make up a third of total income for fishermen and plant workers. At the centre of proposals now being studied by Ottawa is the creation of a new UI scheme tailored to the true professionals in the industry. Such a scheme would cut off an estimated 50,000 workers (about half the total) who, Cashin said, are “nipping in and nipping out” of the industry, working the minimum 10 weeks necessary to qualify for unemployment benefits. The task force recommended that the federal and provincial governments make plans for other compensation programs. It also recommended that independent organizations, to be called fishery industry renewal boards, be set up to decide which fish plants should be closed.

Grim as the task force’s conclusion might be, it is a clear sign for thousands to forget about desperately holding on until, or if, the fishery recovers. They are unlikely to bè left without aid: the task force called for fishing licence buy-outs, early retirement programs for those over 50, and retraining schemes. But it, like economic and government bodies throughout the downtrodden Maritimes, ventured no predictions about where any new jobs would be found.

In truth, jobs may be the easiest thing to replace—particularly for those descended from fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers who went to sea. Fishing pervades every aspect of their lives. Without it, contends Barbara Neis, a sociology professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, they lose their sense of identity and pride as well as a connection to their community. “I would use this parallel cautiously,” she explains, “but their situation is much like the aboriginal communities who lose their traditional rights to hunt and fish and are left wondering who they are.”

Not surprising, then, that despite these grim prospects many fishery workers cling to their old way of life as best they can. On a quiet dock in East Jeddore, where a group of men gathered last week, the same determination that has sustained fishermen through centuries of frequent hardship was apparent. Some, like Baker’s 30-year-old son Ron, contend that they simply have no other option but to stick with fishing. “My boat cost $180,000—what am I supposed to do?” he lamented. For the others, though, the determination seems to spring from something deeper—a firm belief that the cod, and the prosperity that they once brought, will eventually return. “This has happened before,” Ron’s 29-year-old cousin, Bill Karsten, explained hopefully.

Yet behind that brave front, Karsten, like many others, fears that this time may be different. Asked what he would tell a son or daughter who was considering entering the fishery, Karsten paused for a moment. Then with a note of regret he said, “I’d probably tell him to go to university.”

JOHN DeMONT in East Jeddore