Rocky times in Rocky Harbour

Michael
Michael Johansen
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Rocky Harbour fisherman Ernest Decker cleans his nets with the help of his wife (who declined to give her name). — Photo by Michael Johansen

Times are good for a lot of people who live and do business in the towns that have the fortune of being in the middle of one of the jewels of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Gros Morne National Park is one of the biggest draws this province has.

Naturally, those businesses involved in tourism are doing the best, and hotels, especially, seem to do better and better every year.

In Rocky Harbour, for instance, the town’s biggest hotel (one that overlooks the harbour) can cheerfully close down for the winter months, since it spends the summer months full to overflowing. Tourists come from anywhere imaginable to spend time in the fiords and on the mountains of the west coast World Heritage Site that is Gros Morne.

Tourism in this province is still largely a seasonal business, but around the beautiful park, one season is enough to turn a profit for the whole year. Tourism operators all have smiles on their faces these days.

But it’s a different story down on the docks within sight of the hotel.

There, inshore fisherman Ernest Decker empties his nets of his latest catch: countless clumps of slimy red weed. After venturing out to sea last week in his small open boat to set his nets, high winds tore in off the Gulf of St. Lawrence to stir up the bottom, filling and blocking the mesh with the mossy plant. Not one cod was there for him to sell.

For Decker, all the weed did was make a bad year a little worse. In fact, low prices and low catches for every species of fish and shellfish had already made 2010 the worst fishing year Decker has ever seen — and he’s seen almost 40 of them in the 52 years of his life. He says he expects next year to be even worse, and he figures if nothing changes in the industry, the year after that could see the Gulf cod fishery collapse altogether.

The change that could prevent that collapse, Decker says, is the restructuring of the inshore fishery he hopes may be implemented by an upcoming memorandum of understanding between the provincial and federal governments — but only if that restructuring results in Ottawa buying out the licences of half of the province’s remaining inshore fishers.

Too many people are still going after too few fish — not letting the stocks rebuild, he says, and not letting any single person catch enough to make a living. The hope is that if half the boats are taken off the water, the fish will have a chance to breed. As well, younger fishers (of whom there are few if any at all these days) will have opportunities to enter the industry when the fish increase in numbers.

Too many people are still going after too few fish — not letting the stocks rebuild, he says, and not letting any single person catch enough to make a living. The hope is that if half the boats are taken off the water, the fish will have a chance to breed.

As well, younger fishers (of whom there are few if any at all these days) will have opportunities to enter the industry when the fish increase in numbers.

Decker says he’d be happy to sell his licence to the federal government, since now it’s the only way he’ll be able to retire his business with some kind of recompense for all the years he’s put into it. It’s unlikely anyone else would want to buy him out, since he is no longer earning any profit.

However, Decker is pessimistic because, he says, the federal government is showing no sign of wanting to come up with any money for a buy-out. He doesn’t have much faith in the provincial government, either, and predicts Premier Danny Williams will soon replace his current fisheries minister in a cabinet shuffle to delay a resolution of the issue and to cover up his government’s inaction — and also, possibly, its indifference.

With luck, however, Decker will be wrong and the two levels of government will act together to restructure the inshore fishery and make sure fishermen like him can retire with something to show for their life’s work.

Otherwise, places like Rocky Harbour may still get thousands of tourists landing in their town every summer, but they won’t see any more fish landing at the local docks.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Geographic location: Rocky Harbour, Ottawa, Labrador

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