By John Canuck,
Newfoundland has a long history of different peoples and cultures but one constant has always been the fish. From the very first peoples to those who live there today, all those who have inhabited the island have had their lives tied in one way or another to the fish that swim the waters surrounding it. This history can be traced back from Indian and Viking stories, to the fights of the European powers over the fisheries, to the songs of the late 1900’s, all the way to the tragedy of 1992. The fact that fish will always be a part of the Newfoundland way of life makes the end of its fishery industry that much more tragic.
The Beothuk, the Indians native to Newfoundland, hunted seals and fished for cod and salmon on the shores of Newfoundland ever since their arrival on the island in 1 AD. Being a relatively small population with low level technologies, the fish stocks thrived alongside the Beothuk. With the appearance of Europeans the Beothuk moved more inward on the island forcing them to switch their diet to include more caribou and the few freshwater fish that were available. This transition would mark the beginning of Newfoundland fishing as a majority European endeavour. Italian navigator John Cabot was the first European to set foot on Newfoundland since the Viking left centuries previous. He had stumbled upon the cod-infested shores of Newfoundland while trying to find a new route to the orient for King Henry VII. There was so much fish that it was said that English fish imports could end almost entirely. Following Cabot’s discovery, the waters off of Newfoundland were fished by the English, French, Portuguese, Basque, and Spanish. The diversity in fishermen eventually leading to conflict between a few groups over control of the fisheries in the area, the English even going so far as to destroy a Spanish fishing fleet. In 1610 the first English settlement in Canada was established at Cupers Cove (today Cupids, Newfoundland) by merchant adventurer John Guy. This settlement would spend the following century repelling England-based fishermen and trader’s attempts to control the cod fishery. By the 1700s the resident fishers of Cupers Cove controlled most of the fisheries. The Crown then deemed Newfoundland a crown colony, rather than a British fishing station, in 1824 and by the end of the 1800s, Newfoundland’s population had grown to ten times what it was at the beginning of the century (from approximately 20,000 to 200,000), inhabiting a multitude of settlements, including the now-capital city of St. John’s (founded in 1815).
Shortly after Newfoundland’s 1949 addition to Canada, the type of fishing that was happening off her shores took a drastic turn. A ship unlike any other arrived on the shores of Newfoundland in 1954, that ship was the Fairtry and she would change the global fisheries industry forever. The Fairtry was 280 feet long and weighed 2,600 tons, a behemoth compared to even the largest fishing vessels seen previously. The ship came equipped with not only the 7 ton electric trawl winch that was needed to be able to pull in the massive net and sonar technology for tracking schools of fish in order to sweep them up in their entirety, but also with a complete onboard processing plant that could transform the fish that was caught into a frozen fillet without even having to make a stop. The ability to freeze the fish aboard the ship itself removed the need for frequent docking and her size helped her endure the harsh weather. There was virtually nothing to keep the Fairtry from fishing.
Of course, the Fairtry was only the beginning. The trawlers grew in size and, in number. By the 1970s there were more than 750 factory trawlers in the world strip mining the ocean floor. And in 1968 the cod catch for the year would reach 810,000 tons. This landmark catch, equal to a tenth of the catches from 1647 to1750 , would mark the peak of cod fishing in Newfoundland, followed by steady decline as. As a result the Canadian government would spend the next 25 years trying to protect the cod populations. In 1977 Canada extended its territorial waters to 200 miles offshore, from the previous 12. This barred foreign trawlers from fishing Canadian cod. However, the exclusion of foreign trawlers did not solve the problem of the declining fish stocks. When the foreign trawlers left, the Canadians were able to pick up the slack at almost the same rate. Despite warnings from fisheries scientists, the total allowable catch was maintained at unsustainable rates throughout the 1980s, such that the cod population continued to fall. In 1992, when it became clear that there was no way to stop this decline as long as fishing continued, John Crosbie, the Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, declared a moratorium on the Northern Cod Fishery.
The moratorium caused the largest industrial closure in Canadian history; 37,000 fishermen and plant workers, 12% of Newfoundland’s labour force, lost their jobs. The federal government implemented two financial aid programs following the ban. The first was the Northern Cod Adjustment and Rehabilitation Program (NCARP). NCARP consisted of weekly payments for workers who were put out of work by the moratorium; it required its recipients to either retire early or enroll in training programs for new jobs. Between 1992 and 1994, NCARP would support anywhere between 18,000 and 30,000 workers each year until it was replaced by The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy (TAGS) in 1994. TAGS worked similarly to NCARP, the main difference being that the working population receiving benefits through TAGS would be retrained for non-fishing related industries due to fears that the province’s other fisheries had too many fishermen and too few fish.
These programs were moderately successful in giving laid-off workers financial security for a short period of time but were not successful in removing the dependence of Newfoundland communities on the fisheries industry. The number of full time fishermen before and after the moratorium had remained essentially unchanged. The moratorium, originally meant to last only a few years, remains to this day as fish stocks have still not returned to pre-1950s levels. The loss of the cod fishery was a significant blow to Newfoundland’s economy and even though today it benefits from a more diverse set of industries (tourism, oil, and mining) it is still one of the most impoverished provinces in terms of unemployment. Second only to Nunavut year after year.
The loss of the fisheries in Newfoundland was more than just a financial crisis: it was a crisis of identity. The history of fishing in Newfoundland is the history of Newfoundland and its decline means that aspects of the island’s culture can no longer persist. Newfoundland’s population peaked in 1992 before declining steadily until 2006, a statistical reflection of its decimation. This institution, responsible for the very founding of Newfoundland now a shadow of its former self. With government of Newfoundland citing only some five thousand jobs remaining in the Newfoundland fishing industry in 2017. What was once a cultural mainstay and way of life for the island has now almost disappeared entirely.