When the future died

JOHN DeMONT July 13 1992

When the future died

JOHN DeMONT July 13 1992

When the future died

Letter From Chance Cove,Ntld.

Achill wind ruffled Roy Anderson’s grey hair as he stood beside his bungalow and scanned the choppy waters of Trinity Bay. His family has fished off eastern Newfoundland since 1840, when Anderson’s ancestors first arrived in Chance Cove, a tiny village nestled in a curved inlet 120 km northwest of St. John’s.

Usually, the cold waters have provided a comfortable living, a fact underlined by the gleaming green 1976 Mercedes-Benz in Anderson’s nearby garage. Yet even as he surveyed the dramatic bay, the 49-year-old fisherman stared into an uncertain future: the schools of cod that have filled his nets reliably since 1959 have almost disappeared. Indeed, the twoyear ban on cod fishing announced by Fisheries Minister John Crosbie last week was largely academic for Anderson. Even before the announcement, he had ï not taken his boat out reguQ larly for months. “I never § thought I would see the day ° when the cod stopped coming,” the laconic Anderson lamented. “Now, we are all wondering whether they will ever come back.”

In Chance Cove, as in hundreds of other outports along Newfoundland’s east coast, cod is king. Signs of its significance are almost everywhere. Down the hill from Anderson’s house, the village’s 13 small boats bob in the slate-grey harbor. Next to the battered wharf stands the hamlet’s main employer: the Smith’s Seafoods Ltd. processing plant, owned by a family from a nearby cove and now running at only partial capacity. And inside the multicolored houses that run along the bay, the people of the once-comfortable village echoed Anderson’s concern as they wait for the cod, and prosperity, to return.

Indeed, many of the fishermen and plant workers who live there say that the $500 million in emergency aid that the federal government announced for the fishery last week

may not be enough to see them through the winter—let alone into 1994. The federal aid translates into about $225 each week for every fisherman over the next 10 weeks. Beyond that, they wonder what the future holds now that their main source of livelihood has disappeared. Said Roy Clarke, 36, a second-generation fisherman and father of three young daughters: “I guess welfare is all that will be left.”

In the past, fishing has been good to Chance Cove. Most of the village’s 600 residents live in neat, cozy houses. And the shiny cars in their driveways attest to the large catches of cod, capelin, squid and mackerel that they regularly hauled in for processing at the local plant. Anderson estimates that his income from 1985 through 1990 averaged about $40,000 a year. Yet those heady days now seem gone forever. So far in 1992, he has landed just 500 lb. of cod, compared with the

150,000-180,000 he would have expected during a normal year. “I haven’t made a cent,” he declared.

Others are in even more desperate shape: unemployment cheques for most fishermen ran out in mid-May, just before the fishing season was to begin. Partly as a result, Chance Cove fishermen were forced to borrow as much as $10,000 each from banks and local businesses to prepare their boats for the spring fishing season. Levi Rowe, 47, who owns and operates a 35-foot boat with his brother, Norman, 63, says that the federal aid announced last week is woefully inadequate. Added Rowe: “It’s an insult, that’s what it is.” Government handouts, however, will not bring the cod back. And in Chance Cove, as in the other small fishing villages that dot the Trinity, Bona vista and Conception bay areas, theories abound to explain what has happened to the fish that have brought fishermen to the

waters off Newfoundland for nearly 500 years.

Some fishermen blame abnormally cold weather and persistent ice, which may have affected fish migratory habits. Others say that the cod stocks have been depleted by the population explosion of seals in Newfoundland since the 1987 abolition of the annual seal hunt. Many blame domestic trawlers and draggers and foreign boats that have operated just beyond the 200-mile limit of Canada’s offshore jurisdiction. But Anderson said that small-scale inshore fishermen like himself must also shoulder some of the blame because of excessive fishing. “This did not happen overnight,” he added. “We are as guilty as anyone.”

Whatever the cause, the decline has been dramatic.

Two years ago, a panel appointed by the federal government reported that northern cod stocks were in serious danger and recommended that catches be reduced. As a result, the fisheries department set the 1992 quota at 120,000 tons, onethird of the catch allowed in 1988. Marine biologists, however, continued to warn that the cutbacks were not sufficient. And last month, fisheries scientists announced that mature cod, which must be seven years old to reproduce, are at nearrecord lows.

The quota cutback had already cost Newfoundland an estimated 8,000 jobs, and the complete moratorium announced last week gutted what little life was left in the cod fishery, removing the economic mainstay from hundreds of Newfoundland communities. One immediate result is certain to be a further leap in Newfoundland’s unemployment rate, the highest in the country in May at 22.3 per cent—almost twice the national average. Indeed, the fishery has accounted for almost 10 per cent of Newfoundland’s total employment, as well as 5.5 per cent of its gross domestic product. But beyond its significance to economic statistics, the fishery holds a central place in Newfoundlanders’ sense of themselves. It was for cod that Europeans began coming regularly to the rocky shores of this North Atlantic island, and it is cod, in large measure, that has sustained the island’s population ever since.

Successive governments have tried to reduce that dependency on fish. Most recently, the province’s Liberal government in 1989 established an economic recovery commission

with the goal of diversifying the island’s economy. That initiative was bolstered last month when the same government unveiled a sweeping strategic plan for revitalizing the Newfoundland and Labrador economy. It identified homegrown entrepreneurs as potential saviors of the province’s economy and pointed to opportunities for profit from manufacturing, tourism, culture and technology.

At the same time, the document acknowledged that the now-idle fishermen will need educating and retraining to become tomorrow’s successful entrepreneurs. Indeed, with an illiteracy rate estimated by some educators to be

as high as 40 per cent in rural Newfoundland, it is hardly surprising that many fishermen find it difficult to re-establish themselves in other occupations. Said Desmond McGrath, a representative with the Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers Union: “If people are better educated, they will become more independent.”

But many fishermen and plant workers remain skeptical about retraining programs. “Let’s face it—I am 49 years old and all I have ever done is fish,” said Anderson. “What else am I going to do?” Others say that it is futile to retrain when there is little work to be found in the severely depressed province—or even

elsewhere in Canada. Declared Clarke, who has been fishing out of Chance Cove for a decade: “It doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll still be on welfare.”

That bleak assessment reflects the deeply gloomy outlook that most participants in Newfoundland’s fishery share. Plagued by huge losses, the region’s large fishing and processing companies are facing struggles of their own to adapt to the new era. Newfoundland’s biggest fishing company, Fishery Products International Ltd. of St. John’s, has already cut 3,000 jobs and closed six fish plants due to declining catches. Meanwhile, Halifax-based National Sea Products Ltd., the other giant of the East Coast fishery, had closed its operations in Newfoundland even before last week’s announcement. The changes in the small fishing communities will be even more wrenching. Even if the cod do come back, the fishery’s centuries-old role as the occupation of last resort in Newfoundland seems certain to change. Few analysts question the need for an end to the so-called 10-and-42 syndrome, the practice of working for as few as 10 weeks to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits during the rest of the year. In the past, some analysts have called on Ottawa to offer incentives to encourage people to move from the outports to urban centres elsewhere in Newfoundland and on the mainland, where jobs are more plentiful. Now, the loss of the cod fishery may provide a less charitable incentive for just such a large-scale exodus from the outports.

In Chance Cove, the departures have already started. Rowe, who has three sons g studying at Memorial Univer“ sity in St. John’s, said that g most of the village’s children see little in their future if they stay at home. Many young people have left in search of better opportunities. For most of their parents, however, leaving the place where they have lived since they were bom is out of the question. “No one ever promised me that fishing owed me a good living,” declared Anderson, adding: “You just have to take what you catch and accept it.” It is a philosophy that has sustained Newfoundland through centuries of frequent hardship. And it reflects a strong faith that eventually the cod, and the prosperity that they bring, will indeed return to Chance Cove.