SPECIAL REPORT

Conflicting Emotions

Amidst the rejoicing, Newfoundlanders express a deep sense of loss

JOHN DEMONT March 27 1995
SPECIAL REPORT

Conflicting Emotions

Amidst the rejoicing, Newfoundlanders express a deep sense of loss

JOHN DEMONT March 27 1995

Conflicting Emotions

SPECIAL REPORT

Amidst the rejoicing, Newfoundlanders express a deep sense of loss

JOHN DEMONT

The poor fish just did not stand a chance. No sooner had the stevedore working in the hull of the seized Spanish fishing trawler Estai tossed a lone, greyish turbot onto the frozen ground on the St. John’s, Nfld., waterfront than the media feeding frenzy began. A flock of television cameramen jostled for the best angles to shoot their forlornlooking subject, while newspaper and magazine photographers lit up the night sky with their rapidfire flashes. As a reporter struggled to measure the tiny fish—released to the media to illustrate that the Spanish fishing fleet has been filling its nets with immature catches from the Grand Banks—a crowd of locals watched the bizarre press scrum in increasing amusement. “No comment, boys,” one bystander in overalls deadpanned as his >_ friends hooted. But in a | week that began with a | show of bellicose strength 1/5 and ended with shaky compromise on the fish war front, it seemed like almost anything was possible.

Even for a city possessing a well-developed sense of the absurd—where streets feature names like Hill O’Chips and Quidi Yidi and the local newspaper, The Evening Telegram, is actually published in the morning—last week’s strange events seemed to stretch the limits of credulity. How else to describe the way in which the wrath of much of Europe focused on the Newfoundland capital as the Estai sat under arrest in its harbor for refusing to stop fishing turbot just outside Canada’s 200-mile coastal limit? It was, after all, a week in which strutting European diplomats and world-weary journalists from Spain, England and the United States descended upon the oldest city in North America and transformed a normally sedate hotel into a hotbed of rumor and intrigue. And it was a week that saw the unlikely spectacle of 6,000 Newfoundlanders crowded onto the waterfront to pledge their unequivocal support for the federal government—the same villain that most of them have blamed for years for fatally mismanaging their once-fabled fishery.

In the end, the great turbot tussle concluded with no clear winner. The Newfoundland Supreme Court freed the Estai’s captain on $8,000 bail and allowed the ship’s owner to put up a $500,000 bond in return for the vessel’s release. But Ottawa had, at least for the moment, forced Spanish vessels out of the disputed fishing grounds known as the nose and tail of the Grand Banks, where the government alleges they threaten the future of one of the last fisheries still open to Canadian fishermen. Moreover, following allegations that the Spanish vessel used illegal nets and hid fish in concealed compartments, the 15-country European Union (EU), of which Spain is a member, agreed to resume negotiations with Canada over the 27,000-ton turbot quota which the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization has set for 1995. “There comes a time,” gushed Canadian Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin, “when you’ve made your case in such a compelling fashion that you have to pause and give the other side a chance to catch its breath.”

Spoken like a true Newfoundlander. For them, the short-lived fish war released a flash flood of conflicting emotions: anger, frustration, fatalism and pride. Those feelings reached a crescendo as the

“People around here are really down about the way things have been going,” said Patrick Raymond, 47, a St. John’s construction worker. ‘Tobin’s the man— he’s given us something to cheer about.”

crowds lined the St. John’s waterfront waiting for the Estai—escorted by the same Canadian fisheries patrol boat, the Cape Roger, that sent four bursts of machine-gun fire across its bow after a high-speed chase on March 9—to slip homeward through the harbor narrows under a sunny winter sky.

The day of celebration did get a little nasty: the captain,

Enrique Davila González, and Spain’s flamboyant ambassador to Canada, José Luis Pardos, were jostled, jeered and pelted with several eggs while under escort to the courtroom where Davila was arraigned on charges of illegal fishing. All things considered, though, it could have been a lot worse: the crowd teemed with the once-proud fishermen and plant workers reduced to the indignities of federal handouts after Ottawa closed so many of the province’s fisheries in an attempt to avoid all-out extinction. Robert Adams, 51, now unemployed after working for 30 years in fish plants, was one of many protesters who sounded more resigned than angry. “Imagine watching foreigners given free reign when

■1 '■ we’re told we have to keep our

nets in,” he sighed. “It’s a hard thing to see.”

By now, Newfoundlanders are used to staring at stark reality. The island’s five-century history has been one long test of endurance, a numbing battle against defeat. Never more so than mm, now, when a mention of the devastated fishery—whether made in the warmth of a St. John’s restaurant or on a rickety wharf in the tiniest outport—produces a grimace along with a lengthy sermon on who is to blame: ravenous inshore fishermen; the huge factory trawler freezers that I vacuumed fish from the I ocean floors; the politicians à in Ottawa who refused to or! der quota cuts during the lt; 1980s when evidence indicatie ed that fish stocks were “ falling to dangerously low levels; and, of course, the foreign trawlers who raped and plundered Newfoundland’s once-teeming fishing banks.

Last week’s confrontation, if the rally, radio talk shows and newspaper letters-to-the-editor proved anything, left Newfoundlanders united against a common enemy. For a moment, at least, it seemed still possible to do something to take control over their own fate. Barbara Nees, a sociology professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, maintained that it also gave people a positive sense of community and a feeling that they are not suffering alone. “Newfoundlanders feel lost and forgotten,” she explained. “The way the rest of the country came on side with this action was heartening for lots of people.”

‘WE ARE I r WITHOUT SIN’

In the wake of the release of the Spanish trawler Estai in St. John’s last week, Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin spoke with Maclean’s Ottawa Correspondent Warren Caragata in his office near Parliament Hill. Excerpts:

Maclean’s: You’re being hailed as a hero in Newfoundland. How does that feel?

Tobin: The distance between a hero and a zero is about one inch and the time frame of about one second. I am not getting too excited about it

Maclean’s: What is the future now of the turbot fishery?

Tobin: If we’re already at the point where the only way turbot can be harvested is with illegal fishing gear, it really calls into question whether or not there ought to be a turbot fishery at all, even for Canadians.

Maclean’s: People in Newfoundland won’t be happy to hear that. Tobin: You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth. The priority at the end of the day has got to be the preservation of the stock. Maclean’s: Critics question Canada’s commitment to conservation and blame us for the disappearance of northern cod.

Tobin: We are not without sin in this regard. [But] we stopped fish-

ing in 1992. We basically retired our entire offshore fleet. One of the great mysteries has been, why has the stock continued to decline? Perhaps that mystery was in part uncovered [last week]. The Estai in 1993, according to its log, had a very substantial catch of northern cod. Even after these species were put on life-support systems, the Spanish fleet continued to bleed the spawning biomass to the point of no return. Maclean’s: Canada has put great effort into United Nations talks on a new treaty on high seas fishing. Will the fish be gone by the time the negotiations succeed?

Tobin: That’s the problem. That’s why Canada acted as we did. We were virtually certain that the way it was being fished, that this stock would not last. Generally speaking, around the world, fish stocks are in decline, notwithstanding the fact that the technology available to find fish, the technology available to kill fish, improves every year. We are putting more effort and more technology into catching less fish. That is frightening. Maclean’s: Your critics say the fight with the Estai was about politics, not about conservation.

Tobin: My contribution, for whatever time I am the minister of fisheries, is not going to be that I had a fisheries industry that boomed. But it might be that we developed a fishing industry that put the resource first, last and always.

From newspaper editorialists, politicians and ordinary Canadians, that outpouring of support was almost unanimous. John Wright, senior vice-president of the Angus Reid Group polling firm, even came up with a term to describe the national resolve: “Green Ramboism.” Said Wright: “Canadians are feeling feisty enough that they would want Brian Tobin to go over there and dump a bag of fish on the desks of the European Union diplomats.” Alberta Premier Ralph Klein felt sufficiently moved to write an effusive letter to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, telling him that Canada had done the right thing. Added Klein: ‘When you look at the devastation that has been caused over the years in the complete depletion of the cod stocks, and now having foreign fishing vessels go for what’s left of the groundfish is absolutely terrible.”

Yet in Newfoundland, beneath all the tough, angry talk, whispers of something else could be heard. It was evident at places like the weather-proof loft in a cove on the outskirts of St. John’s where Eli Tucker— age 76 and a fisherman since the age of 10—hammered nails into the spruce planks of a 25-foot fishing boat he has been building since Christmas. “It will take another century before the fishery comes back,” he said, bending to check his handiwork. Then, pausing to consider an unthinkable future without fish, his clear, ice-blue eyes noticeably sagged. “It has never been easy for us,” he intoned. ‘We always seem to get kicked down.”

Newfoundland’s history, of course, teaches another lesson: the resilience of a people who somehow always endure. And that spirit was still evident on the St. John’s waterfront one evening last week where a quiet knot of about 100 Newfoundlanders stood in the tangy salt air to watch the international drama draw to a close. After four days in a St. John’s hotel room, guzzling beer and watching movies few of them understood, the crew of the Estai seemed elated—and unrepentant—as they boarded their ship, flashing victory signs for the Spanish television cameras before beginning preparations to raise anchor and head for the open North Atiantic. “If our owner lets me, I will be back,” Fernando Saida, 26, told reporters.

For many of the Newfoundlanders back on shore, there was no room for illusion or empty bravado. “Seizing one frigging Spanish boat is not going to bring the cod back,” said Craig Molloy, 32, an unemployed fish plant worker from St. Shotts, an outport 100 km south of the provincial capital. But in its own subdued way, the crowd seemed more interested in the sweetness of the moment than fretting about the future. We’ve made our point,” declared Lew Sharpe, 77, a retired businessman. “It’s a start at least.” And for a province where loss has always been an abiding way of life, any victory—no matter how ephemeral—is worth savoring. □