The day the fishery died
On July 2, 1992, Newfoundland and Labrador changed forever
A dory drifts down the calm harbour towards Bay Bulls. It’s a sunkissed June morning and the man gripping the tiller is silhouetted against the blinding brightness of the water.
The striking sight now.
July 2 marked 20 years since the moratorium on the northern cod fishery was implemented, an announcement that ended a 495year-old way of life and forever
nostalgic changed places like Bay Bulls and Twillingate, where Lloyd Watkins was fishing with his son.
“It was heart-wrenching. There’s no question about that,” he says. “I said, ‘My son, it’s all over. You’ve got to move on.’”
Moving on was something the moratorium forced tens of thousands to do. But how did we get to that point? Here’s a brief refresher. In the final years of the 15th century, Italian explorer John Cabot reported that the codfish in the Grand Banks were so thick a person could walk across the water on their backs.
And so began Newfoundland and Labrador’s storied fishery, a harvest so valuable, it spurred countries to war.
By 1992, five centuries of fishing — and particularly technologically enhanced harvesting and overfishing in the latter 20th century — had destroyed the cod stocks.
With the spawning biomass a fraction of what it had been 30 years earlier, Ottawa closed the northern cod fishery.
Then federal fisheries minister John Crosbie announced the moratorium and put 30,000 people out of work on July 2, 1992.
“This is one of the most difficult political decisions that a government ever had to announce in Canada and, unfortunately, I was in the middle of it,” says Crosbie, now Newfoundland and Labrador’s lieutenant-governor.
He considers the two years leading up to the moratorium as the most difficult of his lengthy political career.
The day of the announcement was traumatic.
The pressure was heavy, and Crosbie says, “nothing can be tougher than having to tell people they are going to lose their livelihoods, or that they may be out of work for years.”
Then there was the reaction from harvesters and plant workers who had gathered at the Radisson for the announcement.
Crosbie says his PR staff had decided, without consulting him, that spectators wouldn’t be allowed at the news conference.
Instead, they had to listen to their fate from a neighbouring room.
“Naturally they were mad as hell and they started assaulting the doors,” Crosbie said.
“Luckily for me ... the doors of the hotel down there were magnificently tough, and they couldn’t break in. You could hear tremendous crashing and banging.”
Once the announcement was made, police decided Crosbie was in danger and escorted him out of the hotel.
Ryan Cleary, now MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, was The Telegram’s fisheries reporter at the time.
He sat in the front row as Crosbie closed the fishery and the angry crowd tried to beat the doors down. He’ll never forget it.
“On top of the tension from the Crosbie announcement, or the biggest layoff in Canadian history, on top of the magnitude of that, then you had the added tension of people trying to get into the room.”
Cleary’s story the next day was headlined, “No fishing.”
But it was not the article on the moratorium that has stuck with him the most.
Instead, it was one he wrote a few days later when he tagged along with a man from Lower Lance Cove, on Random Island, who was hauling in his cod traps. (Crosbie had given seven days to do so).
Cleary remembers that story’s opening sentence: “Wispy fog teased the glass calm waters of Resolution Bite the morning a part of inshore fisherman Jack Marsh died.”
Crosbie’s original announcement was a two-year moratorium on the northern cod fishery. It included an emergency assistance package of $225 a week for those affected.
The compensation is what set the fisherman off, and Crosbie knew it was inadequate.
He says he had tried to convince the federal cabinet to approve a better package, but it was difficult because the Mulroney government was trying to cut spending.
However, he found that attitudes in Ottawa changed after his colleagues saw the angry reaction to the moratorium on TV.
The fishermen and plant workers’ behaviour at the hotel that day helped.
“(Cabinet) realized if they wanted to assist me in surviving this fantastic crisis, they had to improve the compensation package, which
“We probably lost 80,000 or 90,000 people and we’re continuing to lose them. What still pisses me off to this day is the fact that, 20
“We probably lost 80,000 or 90,000 people and we’re continuing to lose them. What still pisses me off to this day is the fact that, 20 years later, there’s been no recovery, there’s been no recovery plan, there are no recovery targets.”
— Ryan Cleary, NDP MP and former fisheries reporter
they agreed to do.”
Two weeks later, the feds unveiled the Northern Cod Adjustment and Rehabilitation Program, or NCARP, which would come to be known as “the package.”
Another, The Atlantic Groundfish Adjustment Strategy (TAGS) followed in 1994.
The programs cost Ottawa over $3 billion, and their success was considered limited.
Some people retrained
and found new professions. Others started fishing species like shrimp and crab. Many left outport communities for the mainland or urban parts of Newfoundland.
Cleary says the depopulation of rural Newfoundland was predicted immediately following the moratorium. years later, there’s been no recovery, there’s been no recovery plan, there are no recovery targets.”
As for what happened to Lloyd Watkins’ son in Twillingate after the cod closure, “he went to Ontario and then he went to Grand Prairie and that’s where he’s still at now.”
Watkins, himself, went at the shrimp in Labrador, followed by various other jobs — an Esso garage, painting and plastering.
“I did that for a number of years ... until we got over the blow of what it was all about. And it was a tremendous blow for all of us,” he said.
“When that happened, our young people had to leave this town and go out West, go out to Toronto and them places, and it’d been really a hard, really a hard, hard situation at the time.” email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com