The seaside village of Port de Grave (population 937) lies at midpoint along a narrow, treeless peninsula jutting into Conception Bay, 96 km west of St. John’s. One of Newfoundland’s oldest recorded settlements, Port de Grave’s name appears on maps dating from 1669. The name derives from the French grève (shore), a reference to the area’s long pebble beaches on which French fishermen used to dry their catch. Like most outports in Newfoundland, Port de Grave has known its share of economic turmoil. But the village has always been the centre of an important fishing district. Boasting three processing plants and a sizable longline fleet, the community was one of the first to enter the lucrative crab fishery.
Until last year 15 crab boats were operating, each representing at least a $500,000 investment.
Grim: There are other signs of prosperity as well: modern plants for freezing and drying fish and 65-foot crab boats, which range as far as 110 miles offshore.
Large, well-maintained ranch-style bungalows are now as common as the “saltbox” houses traditionally associated with Newfoundland’s outports.
But the signs of prosperity are misleading. The fishermen readying their boats for the spring crab fishery are grim-faced. Last year’s catch was down by almost 90 per cent from 1984. Only five of Port de Grave’s 15 boats went out. Six others were seized by the bank for nonpayment of interest charges after the 1984 season. In 1985 Port de Grave’s second major income earner—the caplin fishery—suffered a $720,000 drop in revenue as Japanese
buyers turned instead to Europe.
In the fall of 1985, members of the once proud and fully employed commu-
nity resorted to a two-day hunger strike to obtain make-work grants. The grants allowed 200 workers to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. John Efford, the MHA for Port de Grave, estimates that almost half of the 1,100 constituents directly employed by Port de Grave’s fish plants received no form of employment assistance over the winter. “The crab fishery failing took the heart
out of a lot of people,” says Efford. “It was unbelievable how fast it happened.” But the community’s most devastating blow came last December, when the community’s largest fish plant, which processed crab, closed.
Poor: The village’s pursuit of crab had been based on high prices and plentiful stocks. And during the early 1980s Port de Grave’s economy flourished. But that very success made it more—not less—susceptible to sudden economic reversal. New, high-profit catches like crab and caplin are the most vulnerable to overfishing and sudden market reversals. In that sense, the current poor
state of Port de Grave’s crab fishery illustrates the weakness of seeking a single solution to Newfoundland’s complex economic problems.
More than a decade ago the Conservative government of Premier Frank Moores, joined by the province’s banks, fish plant operators and fishermen, decided that harvesting crab was one way out of the failing cod fishery— which was hit by intense foreign competition. The government subsidized the purchase of expensive boats with direct cash grants and low interest rates (3 ¥2 per cent at one point). By the late 1970s some Port de Grave crab boat crewmen were earning as much as $40,000 a year and investing it in new houses and equipment. Commerce boomed: two new area malls were constructed to meet heavy consumer demand.
Faded: But the euphoria faded fast—due to overfishing. In 1980 the provincial government ended direct loans to fishermen for amounts over $50,000. Now that the crab fishery has faltered, owners have little hope of recouping capital costs on their boats, or even paying interest on the debt.
Still, fishermen in
Port de Grave say they are optimistic that the outport will recover. Cod prices are rising and the Japanese are once again buying caplin. But industry experts warn against investing too much hope in caplin or other potential solutions, such as a fleet of factoryfreezer trawlers. Says Alex Moores, president of Moorfish Ltd., the new owner of the Ocean Harvester plant in Port de Grave: “We’re back to the real world now. And the real world is that fishermen cannot earn a livelihood on just one species.”
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