Waiting, and praying, for cod

A year-old ban on fishing threatens a traditional way of life

June 28 1993

Waiting, and praying, for cod

A year-old ban on fishing threatens a traditional way of life

June 28 1993

Waiting, and praying, for cod

A year-old ban on fishing threatens a traditional way of life

For four centuries, fishermen in Bonavista, 300 km north of St. John’s on Newfoundland’s rugged eastern coast, followed the same springtime ritual. Readying traps and nets in the slate-grey waters, they prepared to harvest fish from the rich schools of cod off the Grand Banks. But this spring is different. In order to save the Atlantic fishery, last July 2 Ottawa outlawed fishing northern cod for a period of two years. Now, as the first anniversary of the moratorium approaches, many experts and fishermen are convinced that it will be several years—if ever—before the depleted cod stocks recover in numbers great enough to allow Ottawa to lift the fishing ban. As a re suit, the culture and livelihood of Newfoundland’s 25,000 fishermen and fish plant workers—representing an industry that was once the province’s economic mainstay—are threatened with extinction. Says fisherman Gary Abbott, a 35-year-old father of six from Bonavista, a town of 5,000 people: “If the cod go, this town goes.”

Like thousands of other unemployed Newfoundland fishermen and fish plant workers, Abbott is now enrolled in a massive retraining program funded by Ottawa in conjunction with of the cod moratorium. Although he hopes to upgrade his Grade 8 education, Abbott makes no secret of his ultimate goal. “I plan to keep fishing,” he says softly. “It’s all I’ve ever done, all I ever want to do.” In fact, some experts warn that Ottawa’s retraining efforts are doomed to failure because most Newfoundland fishery workers are still determined to remain in the industry—despite repeated warnings that even if the cod return, most of their jobs will not. “We will keep hoping the fishery comes back until Ottawa tells us different,” says Marvin Cullimore, 37, a plant worker from Bonavista. “What other choice do we have?”

Federal officials were asking the same question a year ago when they closed the northern cod fishery in an attempt to save the fabled Grand Banks fishing grounds from extinction. The cod stocks had been ravaged by decades of overfishing—by Canadian as well as foreign trawlers. Added to that problem was an explosion in the cod-eating seal population and abnormally cold water temperatures, which drove the fish into warmer waters. Long before federal Fisheries Minister John Crosbie announced the two-year ban, fishermen were complaining of

dwindling catches and smaller fish. Insists Bonavista resident Reg Butler, 29, who has been fishing since he was 10: “We’ve been telling them for years to close her.”

Ottawa’s compensation package, which averages $344 per week for fishermen and $273 per week for plant workers, is helping to keep most outport families in groceries. In-

deed, some households—those in which several family members are covered by the program—have never been more prosperous. Yet in dozens of outports along Newfoundland’s east coast the pain inflicted by the moratorium is palpable.

Nowhere is that more true than in Bonavista, which has been a focal point of New-

foundland’s fishing trade since Italian navigator John Cabot, operating under England’s flag, sailed into the area in 1497. In the ice-filled harbor, the town’s once-proud fishing fleet bobs idly in the choppy water. “Normally, this time of year we’d all be getting ready for the cod,” says Larry Tremblett, 36, a part-owner of a 35-foot fishing boat called, ironically, High Hopes. “Now, we just sit and wait.”

Although the crab fishery provides some work, those catches—along with the federal compensation—will hardly be enough to compensate for the huge amounts of money that many fishermen have tied up in boats and equipment. Ivan Russell, who purchased a $1.3 million, 64-foot long-liner six months before the cod-fishing ban took effect, has more at stake than most. “I’m in limbo,” says

Russell, who is currently crab fishing for a living. “At the end of the year, I have to come up with $100,000 for the bank and another $24,000 in insurance. I just don’t know where I will get it.”

The sense of alarm is spreading. Without cod fishing, Bonavista and dozens of other outport communities have lost their economic underpinnings. The empty commercial buildings on the town’s narrow streets and lanes bear witness to the ban’s earliest victims: supply companies and other local businesses whose fortunes were tied to the fishery. But the human toll goes much deeper. Many of those people now receiving government payouts are the descendants of fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers and beyond who went to sea and worked in the fish plants. For them, the fishing industry is more than a job—it is a way of defining themselves. “Without fishing, these people lose their sense of pride and the thing which gives them a true sense of identity,” observes Barbara Neis, a sociology professor at Memorial University in Stjohn’s.

Some of them can already feel the change. “If I’m not a fishermen, what am I?” asks Hayward Toope, 32, who starts each day with a walk along the oncebusy wharf in Old Bonaventure, a tiny rock-strewn fishing port near Bonavista. A few dozen yards from the wharf, Richard Verge, 28, sounds equally discouraged. “Every year we would be out there, fish or no fish,” he says. “I’m just scared that by the time the moratorium ends I’ll be too lazy to do anything.” Toope and Verge, both born and raised in Old Bonaventure, are now unemployed.

Many younger Newfoundlanders are already convinced that there is little future in cod fishing. Among them is Daren Tremblett, 21, who cut fish at a plant in Catalina, near Bonavista, from 1988 until it closed last year. Since the cod moratori^ urn began, he has reo turned to the classroom to completed his highschool diploma. Now,

he and his girlfriend have applied for the North West Co. Inc.’s management trainee program, which could lead to a posting in a store in the Far North. “The only way the fishing industry will survive,” says Tremblett, “is if young people get the training to find jobs elsewhere, and the older guys get out of it altogether.”

Tremblett is in good company. Under the terms of Ottawa’s Northern Cod Adjustment and Recovery Program, fishermen and plant workers can claim early retirement or pursue retraining in virtually any vocational school, community college or university in the province. The overwhelming majority are choosing the latter option. As of last month, only 1,800 fishermen and plant workers had indicated that they will take early retirement, for which they are eligible for up to $50,000 in compensation. By contrast, more than 17,000 of the 25,000 people eligible under the federal program have opted for some type of retraining. The remainder have found new work or are collecting unemployment insurance benefits.

Ottawa’s retraining efforts face some clear obstacles, however. Many fishermen and plant workers have not been inside a classroom in decades—and fewer still finished high school. Thousands of them are simply trying to upgrade their educations to ensure their eligibility for federal assistance. And while many are experiencing the sense of accomplishment and confidence that comes with education, few are better prepared to find work outside the fishery.

Even more disturbing is that 14,000 of the nearly 17,000 enrolled in educational programs are simply aiming for more specialized jobs within the fishery. Those jobs clearly will not be there when the cod traps finally go back into the water. Ottawa has repeatedly warned that far fewer groundfish licences will be granted when a scaled-down Newfoundland fishery returns. Moreover, the big fishing companies, including St.John’s-based Fishery Products, concede that many of the shut-down plants will never reopen. Says Wade Locke, a Memorial economics professor: “A lot of these people [in the fishing industry] haven’t come to grips with reality.”

At the same time, many fishermen and plant workers remain skeptical of Ottawa’s retraining efforts. “I’ve been fishing for 20 years,” says Catalina fisherman Albert Johnson, 55. “I am not going to learn how to operate a computer for a living at this stage.” Others question the value of retraining when there is little work elsewhere in Newfoundland—and widespread unemployment in the rest of Canada. Says Bonavista plant worker Cullimore: “What’s the sense of moving if things are no better than they are here?” And even if he wanted to move, adds Cullimore, he would face the quandary of trying to sell a home in an outport for which there would be few buyers—and moving to a larger centre where housing prices and other costs would be dramatically higher.

The cod moratorium has only added to

Newfoundland’s already bleak economic prospects.

The province’s May unemployment rate of 19.7 per cent towered above the national average of 11.4 per cent. The Atlantic Provinces Economic Council predicts that the Newfoundland economy will grow by a mere 1.3 per cent this year, compared to the three-percent growth projection for the Canadian economy as a whole.

In response to those grim numbers, Premier Clyde Wells’s Liberal government continues to look for ways to wean the provincial economy from its dependence on the fisheries and such energy megaprojects as the Churchill Falls hydroelectric development and the long-promised exploitation of the offshore Hibernia oilfield. In a sweeping strategic plan unveiled last year, the Wells government identified homegrown entrepreneurs as among the province’s potential economic saviors. The plan also detailed opportunities for profit from the manufacturing, tourism, culture and high-technology

sectors. Still, many experts question just how far the province will be able to stray from its roots in the fishery. Concludes economist Locke: “Making Newfoundland some sort of high-tech centre is just wishful thinking.”

Meantime, the fishermen of Bonavista and other outports wait for the cod, and a measure of prosperity, to return. But halfway through the two-year suspension of cod fishing the prognosis is discouraging. “All the information I have shows that the fish stock is still being further and further depleted rather than growing,” says Leslie Harris, chairman of an independent panel that reported to the federal government in 1990 on the state of the northern cod. Last week, Crosbie himself cautioned that the cod fishery might not be reopened until the late 1990s. The fisheries minister would not commit Ottawa to future assistance programs if the moratorium continues, but urged those displaced by the crisis to take advantage of training and educational programs now.

If the pessimists are correct, fewer Newfoundlanders will be singing one of the province’s traditional folksongs, which includes the line, “There’s lots of fish in Bonavist’ Harbor.” Meanwhile, on the wharfs and in the fishing sheds, the anger and betrayal that Newfoundland fishermen felt when the moratorium was announced last July has largely subsided. In its place there is a sense of resignation, tempered with a hint of the undying optimism that has sustained Newfoundlanders through centuries of hardship. “I know there’s fish out there somewhere,” declares Archibald Butler, 76, who has been fishing for 60 years from Bonavista. For Butler, and countless like him, the real question is whether the cod will ever return in great enough numbers to allow his sons and grandsons to pursue the only way of life that he has ever known.

JOHN DeMONT in Bonavista