Deconstructing the ‘Poor Fisherman’ — Part 1

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My grandfather always used to say “it is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

That’s not true, actually. My grandfather didn’t ever say that. I just wanted to make it seem like my crowd are all folksy and wise. But hey — somebody’s grandfather said it, right?

Anyway, when it comes to the fishery, I wonder if maybe a great many self-proclaimed experts out there might not benefit from such grandfatherly advice — because I am sure there is nothing that fuels as much angry, uninformed opinion as the fish business.

I recently read with interest a story done by Telegram scribe Josh Pennell stemming from a press release that had been issued by the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters (CCPFH) regarding a new video they had produced. The video focused on the Chafe family in Petty Harbour, NL, and how they — like many fishermen in the province — found their way in the shellfish game after the collapse of the groundfishery in the early 1990s.

Listen folks, if what happened in the fishery in the past 20 years had happened anywhere else, it would be hailed as one of the greatest success stories of all time. The moratorium was the biggest layoff in Canadian history, and it seemed written in stone that the industry was absolutely done. Over. Kaput.

But it didn’t happen that way at all. Instead, the industry picked itself up, dusted itself off, diversified its products, adapted its businesses and operations, refitted its vessels and processing operations, and changed its focus completely. Not only did it survive, but it DOUBLED THE OVERALL INDUSTRY VALUE in less than a generation.

That’s unheard of, and anywhere else but Newfoundland and Labrador it would be held up as a model of how to persevere in challenging times.

Anyways, the CCPFH video about how a fisherman adapted is just one tiny story in a literal ocean of them. But not everyone gets it; in fact, I’d say most people don’t, and a couple of comments at the end of the online version of Josh’s story reminded me of how far we still have to go to change the incorrect perceptions out there.

The comments I mention concluded that the fishing industry was dead, Chafe and fishermen were lazy EI-chomping truffle pigs, and that the CCPFH is a gang of idiots luring poor unsuspecting folks to their doom.

One fellow wondered why anyone would “produce a propaganda (sic) video to entice new workers into an industry that remains as economically and emotionally ruinous as being a fisherman in Newfoundland” and mused that the CCPFH must be “manipulative, devious and cruel.”

Another laddy-o concluded that fishermen love their industry because they “LOVE living off TOP EI for the majority of the year.”

And all that nonsensical vitriol was in two little comments. Imagine if we polled the entirety of the general populace? Yikes.

See, opinions are like arses — everybody has one.

Sadly, in the case of many armchair fishery commentators, they both produce the same smelly, useless results.

But here’s the truth of it: most people outside the fishery think it’s an old, tired, dead industry plied by ignorant fools who work just enough so they can go on the beer all winter and ride around on snowmobiles and ATVs while they collect Employment Insurance. Ah yes, the mockingly labelled “Poor Fisherman.”

How did such a slanderous label gets plastered on fishermen? How did the industry get such a negative “dead” persona?  How did all this befall a challenging industry that is worth a $1 billion like clockwork in Newfoundland and Labrador every single year, and one that fuels the economy in rural communities unlike any other?

The truth is, we’ve all screwed this one up.

In the next post, I’ll try to tell you how and why.

And whether or not it can be fixed.


Jamie Baker is the managing editor for The Navigator magazine,

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