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GUEST COLUMN: The rise and fall of Little Bay Islands

A file photo of Little Bay Islands. — Contributed
A file photo of Little Bay Islands. — Contributed

By Wilfred Bartlett

Little Bay Islands is situated in the mouth of Little Bay in the part of Notre Dame Bay known as Green Bay, named for the hills that are green with trees to the water’s edge.

Little Bay Islands is made up of two islands with a beautiful harbour with two narrow entrances, sheltered from wind and sea. In 1891 its population was 316 and by 1935 it had grown to 560 and stayed around that until 1960; a decent population for that time. It was 100 per cent dependent on the fishery and was populated because of its proximity to the fishing grounds. 
There were two main fishing businesses.

Strongs was reported at one time to own 40 schooners which plied the fishing grounds up around the Northern Peninsula, Belle Isle in the straits, and all the way up the Labrador Coast. They were called floaters; people lived on them all summer and the cod catch was salted in the hold.

They were necessary, because as the population grew, especially in Notre Dame Bay, there wasn’t enough cod for everyone to make a living close to home. 
The Strongs provided employment to the people of Little Bay Islands and surrounding communities. They also supplied salt and other supplies and bought dried cod from people in many communities.

This salt cod would be packaged and shipped all over the world in their schooners.
The second business in Little Bay Islands was S.T. Jones & Sons, which was on a smaller scale.

I was born in Lushes Bight, three nautical miles from Little Bay Islands, and raised by a widowed mother and my grandparents. My grandfather, Edgar Rice, spent many years fishing on a room (a summer fishing community) called Lance au Pigeon on Quarpoon Island.

This community was well portrayed by Earl Pilgrim in his book “The Curse of the Red Cross Ring.”

In 1952, Grandfather stayed in Lushes Bight and we fished from home. I remember my trip to S.T. Jones to pick up supplies for the summer — salt, oilskins and a drum of gas for the 4 horsepower Atlantic motor.  

In the fall, when the fish was caught and dried, we took it to S.T. Jones to sell and pay our accounts. 

No. 1 hard dried cod was $12 per quintal (112 lbs,), but some fetched as low as $2.50 a quintal. 

It was a good summer.

In the late ’40s and ’50s, salt cod markets started to decline, and that was the beginning of the end for the Strongs’ family business.

One year, when I was still in school, I was invited to spend the summer working for my Uncle Wilfred, who had an electrical business in Deer Lake. 

I tell everyone I went to Deer Lake to get enough money to buy a boat, but I was there for 23 years. 

In 1976 I finally had enough money and moved to Brighton that fall with a used 60-foot longliner I named “Nancy Bartlett” after my first grandchild. That fall, I made a trip to Little Bay Islands for supplies. By then the population had dropped to 422. 

The salt fish trade had changed to fresh fish, which was sold to plants that processed and froze it for market. 

There was still a good market for salt fish in places where there were no fresh fish plants, mostly up the Labrador Coast. With fresh fish, fishermen were paid on a weekly basis.

The Strongs had moved away but the Jones business had expanded to include a crab canning plant. They also purchased cod livers and seal meat for canning. This plant gave fishermen a place to sell their products and it provided a lot of work, not only for the people of Little Bay Islands but for people from other communities.

In 1952, cod had been caught by hand lines, trawls, jiggers and traps. When I returned 23 years later, there were speed boats with outboard motors for shoal water and a large longliner fleet for deep water cod-fishing by gillnet. New fisheries had emerged for turbot and flounder.

Tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were earning a living from the ocean — that was, until foreigners discovered huge bodies of cod concentrated on the Hamilton Banks off Labrador, where the fish went to spawn each year, protected by ice. 

Ice-strengthened foreign vessels decimated this stock.

After the cod got scarce, the Canadian and Newfoundland governments finally woke up and created the 200-mile limit. They drove the foreigners out and ice strengthened our offshore fleet to go out and do the same thing.

We didn’t learn a thing. While cod stocks improved somewhat with the 200-mile limit, we still kept hammering away at it.

Most of the cod caught by offshore trawlers was harvested on the Hamilton Banks and Grand Banks, and never got a chance to reproduce.

Politicians ignored the fishermen’s cries of alarm. When offshore draggers went out in the winter of 1992 and came back empty, the politicians finally woke up, but by then it was too late.
Now, 28 years after the moratorium, the last ferry has left Little Bay Islands. 

What was once a vibrant community is reduced to two residents, Mike and Georgina Parsons, who decided to stay and survive on their own, much as their parents and grandparents did. 
After the cod moratorium in 1992, Harbour Deep was the first to go. Little Bay Islands is the latest. Who will be next? 

here will be many more, because what was once our biggest employer — the fishery — has been ignored by politicians both provincial and federal.

Today, a lot of fish caught off our shores isn’t even going to people who live here.

Wilfred Bartlett is a retired sea captain living in Green Bay.



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