I often wonder, not with a sense of longing, but more out of curiosity, what my life would look like had the northern cod fishery not collapsed and subsequently been closed back in 1992.
I was enjoying a pretty good life, I thought, fishing on 55- and 65-footers for cod and turbot off the northeast coast and Labrador. I wasn’t making any fortune, needless to say, but I had built my first house in Gunner’s Cove, my first son was born and I had visions of one day owning my own longliner. All in all, things were pretty good.
Then the hammer fell and the reality of years of overfishing, declining recruitment, cooling water temperatures and an industry that was simply not sustainable hit us all squarely between the eyes. I think it’s fair to say we were living in a fool’s paradise: fishing too much, denying what was plainly an untenable situation, prosecuting a fishery whose main underpinning was landing as many pounds as possible for a dollar rather than getting as many dollars as possible for a pound. Like so many others, I upped and moved.
I remember the big strike of 1981. I was 14, fishing with my father and Max Anderson and his sons out of L’Anse aux Meadows. I remember my mother working at the Fishery Products plant in St. Anthony, driving back and forth with others who paid five dollars per week for a ride. I remember my nine-year-old sister’s first attempt at cooking dinner for Dad and me, while Mom was at work. It didn’t turn out that well.
I remember reading about the co-adventure system on the trawlers, a relic of the old mercantile system, where trawlermen often came ashore from a trip with little in the way of a paycheque, sometimes owing the company money. I also remember passing through Ottawa airport on the way back from Nicaragua and meeting Richard Cashin with a delegation of union and industry people who had just received some of the first bad news on the government’s possible actions in the face of declining stock projections.
I remember throughout that time many of the arguments about how quotas could not be cut due to the hardship it would cause, that the fish had simply changed its pattern, that there were indeed still lots of fish out there. I remember the actions, widely reported, of the offshore fleet, the stories of dumping, discarding, misreporting, undersize mesh, false log books and the list goes on. And I remember who the key players were at the time.
There was an extremely humorous piece of satire done back then, as only he could do it, by Ray Guy. It was on the reminted Murray Premises. He spoke of its fisheries history and how now it was all “boutiqued off” as he put it. But boutiqued off as it may be, he said, every time he went near, it still “stinks of the sweat of a thousand baymen,” alluding to the hard labour of the fisherpeople who were in many respects exploited to make its existence possible.
Last week, there was a pretty big announcement, to the tune of $400 million of funding for modernization of our fishery. While there is much to be worked out in the way of details on how the money will be spent, it was greeted with optimism by the union and industry alike.
It came about as a result of negotiations around the European free trade talks, the results of which have also been greeted enthusiastically by the fish union and industry. As both have rightly pointed out, Europeans cannot compete with our industry, so the decision to forego mandatory processing requirements is a moot point. Furthermore, there is no requirement in Canada, nor has there ever been, for Canadian vessels to land their product in a Canadian port. So any vessel can, and many have, landed fish outside the country over the years. The combination of the tariff elimination under the free trade talks and the $400-million fishery funding represents the best opportunity in decades for our fishery.
Yet, in the middle of it, on the front page of The Telegram last week, was the old patriarch of the industry, the keeper of the secrets, the purveyor of myths, in his day the last defender of the old mercantile system — “fisheries advocate” Gus Etchegary — as usual condemning all comers.
One commentator said I wasn’t worthy of washing his boots. Be that as it may, but Pontius Pilate could not wash his hands. I am sorry, I don’t get like this often, but every time I hear Mr. Etchegary speak, all I see is the destruction of the fishery and, with apologies to the late Ray Guy, all I smell is the sweat of ten thousand exploited trawlermen and plant workers.
Mr. Etchegary, ssshh. Maybe we will forget!
Trevor Taylor is a former cabinet minister under the Danny Williams administration. Email: email@example.com.