Sal­vage — it’s just busi­ness

The Compass - - OPINION - Peter Pick­ers­gill is an artist and writer in Sal­vage, Bon­av­ista Bay. His col­umn will re­turn in two weeks. He can be reached by email at pick­ers­

The pic­ture is a lit­tle blurry around the edges, but my first me­mory of Sal­vage is in 1953, when I ar­rived out­side the har­bour aboard the coastal steamer Glen­coe and came ashore from the an­chored ves­sel in a small boat filled with freight, mail and pas­sen­gers.

Lit­tle did I know then, that 51 years later this shel­tered har­bour would be­come my home. In 2004, when Lisa and I came here to stay year-round, our eyes opened wider, tak­ing in more de­tail than was pos­si­ble through the rose-coloured sun­glasses of sum­mer peo­ple.

As sum­mer peo­ple, start­ing in 1972, we watched the boat traf­fic pass­ing along the beach and through the nar­rows from the front bridge of our two-storey house on Bur­den’s Point.

Boats were dif­fer­ent then. Most of the skiffs were pow­ered by Aca­dia make-and-break mo­tors, the more pros­per­ous fish­er­men just started to use diesels.

Then the 28- and 30-foot trap skiffs, still built by fish­er­men of tim­bers from the sur­round­ing for­est be­gan to sprout small houses for shel­ter. Th­ese grad­u­ally mor­phed into long­lin­ers. Then came the first of the man­u­fac­tured fi­bre­glass long­lin­ers. Their slim pro­file and low over­all height still re­tained the prin­ci­ples of sea­wor­thi­ness and ma­neu­ver­abil­ity that had been learned by gen­er­a­tions of New­found­land and Labrador fish­er­men.

It was only when Fish­eries and Oceans reg­u­la­tions be­gan to re­quire spe­cific max­i­mum ves­sel lengths that the com­mon sense rules of thumb un­der­stood by all mariners were thrown over­board. Long­lin­ers re­stricted to an over­all length be­came snub-nosed and broader in the beam, thus squarer — all the bet­ter to max­i­mize the vol­ume to ac­com­mo­date the largest catches pos­si­ble.

The shape of this ves­sel is the op­po­site of hy­dro­dy­namic. They shovel through the waves like a snow plow rather than slic­ing through the water with a sharp slim nose whose del­i­cate shape made Labrador schooners such a thing of beauty. Worse still, to fur­ther in­crease cargo space for catch ca­pac­ity, there was no place to go but up, so the ves­sels got taller.

So now the boats were too wide for their length, so blunt they had to bat­ter their way through the water, and too tall not to tip over with­out ar­ti­fi­cial sta­bi­liza­tion. The mis­un­der­stand­ing of sta­bi­liza­tion tech­nol­ogy is now a threat to lives as wit­nessed by the men lost aboard the Ryan’s Com­man­der.

With the closer view of a livyer, I un­der­stand that the trans­for­ma­tion of boats is an in­di­ca­tor for how the fish­ery it­self has changed.

As the boats be­came less ag­ile and quick in the water, as their drag slowed progress, the prob­lem was solved by giv­ing the mo­tor more throt­tle. Fuel was cheap and pow­er­ing past the in­her­ent in­ef­fi­ciency of the ves­sel was not, at first, an ex­pen­sive so­lu­tion.

Just as boats were dif­fer­ent then, so were fish­ing tech­niques and ways of pro­cess­ing the catch.

When cod­fish were brought ashore from traps still alive, and split to be salted and air-dried, at­ten­tion to de­tail was para­mount to pro­duce a top-qual­ity prod­uct. When re­frig­er­a­tion re­placed fish flakes it was pos­si­ble to be less care­ful with the state of the fish be­cause the ocean was full of them. The gill net, though it might dam­age the fish, was guar­an­teed to yield more.

When drag­ging be­gan, in con­junc­tion with fac­tory freezer trawlers, more and more fish could be brought ashore, and even if the over­all qual­ity was dras­ti­cally re­duced, the net in­come con­tin­ued to grow.

Then came the col­lapse of the north­ern cod stocks and the mora­to­rium. This piv­otal moment called for changes in man­ag­ing a re­duced fish­ery.

The in­abil­ity of man­age­ment to change their en­ter­prises to adapt to a new re­al­ity, has been paid for by those wear­ing the rub­ber boots.

And who are they? The fish­ers and plant work­ers who are at the mercy of those who own the means of pro­duc­tion.

Last week, an un­ex­pected an­nounce­ment sur­prised the work­ers at all three P. Janes fish plants in New­found­land, who learned they were out of work, ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately.

I can’t speak for Hant’s Har­bour and Jack­son’s Arm, but here, where I live in Sal­vage, find­ing a re­place­ment job, as of­fered by the new own­ers, the Barry Group, will not be easy.

The sad truth to­day is that, just as with the boats and the fish­ing tech­niques that have evolved over time, from great fi­nesse and an em­pha­sis on qual­ity to a rough and ready ap­proach in­volv­ing un­think­ing power and a dis­re­gard for qual­ity, so it is with treat­ment of em­ploy­ees by fish pro­ces­sors.

By and large, the adage “go big or go home” rules. In the big­ger and big­ger plants, qual­ity of prod­uct is of sec­ondary im­por­tance. Quan­tity is ev­ery­thing.

I can­not see this as any­thing but back­wards. In a time when raw ma­te­rial is short, most eco­nomic models sug­gest the best route to success is care­ful pro­duc­tion, turn­ing out the high­est qual­ity, value-added prod­uct that yields, in a time of short­age, the best re­turn per unit. Who to do that bet­ter than ex­pe­ri­enced work­ers, con­tent in a fish plant walking dis­tance from home.

This is not what has hap­pened in our vil­lage. Sal­vage has been here for 400 years as a home for Euro­peans and long be­fore that as a camp­ing place for first na­tions. It has seen good and bad times.

In this lat­est chap­ter, my neigh­bours — skilled, veteran work­ers — with many gen­er­a­tions of at­tach­ment to this place have been cast aside as en­tirely ex­pend­able, some kind of fuel burnt up and blown away, like ex­haust fumes.

It is wrong, and in the long run it won’t work.

Just like build­ing short, blunt, wide, tall boats won’t work.

The self-cen­tred peo­ple who are fol­low­ing this path, all the while mut­ter­ing “it’s just busi­ness,” should be ashamed of them­selves.

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