Salvage — it’s just business
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.