The ‘full circle’ fishery
When I came to the island of Newfoundland in the mid-50s, the cod fishery consisted of fishing families with their own hands carrying out every step of the procedure. It had been much the same since Europeans first came here 400 years earlier. It was like this. Bringing the fish out of the sea and into a boat, built with your own hands, landing them at your own wharf, built with your own hands, splitting and salting the fish, sundrying them on flakes built with your own hands, turning them over, by hand, many times daily against sunburn, and covering them against the rain.
Hands- on control was the method at every step of the procedure, always striving for the top quality category of salt fish when they were carried to St. John’s in the fall, aboard schooners made with your own hands. There, after offloading by hand at the merchant’s wharf your fish were examined by inspectors paid by the merchant. Then the price was pronounced. If you didn’t like it you could re-load your catch by hand and try elsewhere, although there was the matter of the outstanding debt with the merchant for the supplies bought on credit in the previous spring to be considered.
Though utterly unfair, this final step was the only one in the year which fisherfolk did not control with their own hands. It was the way of life for outport people, who knew each morning when they awoke that they had work, more than enough work, to fill the coming day.
It was a harsh and bone-wearying year of endless toil, but you lived in your own house, built with your own hands, ate food from the sea and your garden, caught, dug and planted with your own hands. At Christmas you danced with friends to music made with your own hands and indulged in a wee swally of burning hot liquid made with your own hands.
The salt fishery died when refrigeration came. Then fishermen landed their catch at a community stage. Making salt fish was no longer necessary. It had been taken out of their own hands. The end of that arduous chore was universally applauded.
Who knew then where this single change was leading?
It was the beginning of the process which steadily took everlarger chunks of work out of more and more hands until the plant closed, as it did recently in our village, and the workers were left to find employment elsewhere in one of the ever-decreasing number of fish plants.
Boats must still land fish, but at the Salvage wharf will there be any staff to help unload and transfer the catch to the tractor trailer which will carry it to the central plant? If your inshore boat hasn’t got enough capacity to merit sending a tractor trailer to pick up your catch, will there be one waiting when you come into port?
The small boats are being pushed out and the longliners have all but taken over.
Increasingly, the debt fishermen have incurred to buy these costly vessels is held by the merchant. When the pace of a slowly rebounding fishery is too slow, the day will come when the merchants have taken back all the vessels for nonpayment and the fishermen who man those vessels will be wageearners.
Even that will not be enough for the f i sh merchants. Fur ther economies will be made. It is already happening. Large trawlers who freeze catches at sea and carry them direct to China for processing are already permitted to do so by a recent decision of the government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The wage demands of the Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will soon seem too high. These vessels will then be manned by low wage people from away and the process will be complete.
Then the people of Salvage, all half dozen of them remaining, will be able to sit on the headland at Net Point and watch through binoculars as a single freezer trawler, having in the space of a morning and afternoon scoured out what fish remain in Bonavista Bay, turns its bow toward China and carries away its catch, never having once touched the shoreline of this island.
A supreme irony brings this story full circle. This past year the most expensive form of codfish available in European fishmarkets was salted and sun-dried. Peter Pickersgill is an artist and writer living in Salvage, Bonavista Bay. His column returns in two weeks. He can be reached by email at the following:
MONEY BALL – The St. Francis Crusaders girls’ basketball team defeated the Persalvic Panthers in the final of the Conception Bay North regional competition hosted by Persalvic Elementary in Victoria on March 21. The Crusaders went undefeated in the tournament and are in the midst of gearing up to host the provincial championships at St. Francis in Harbour Grace on April 1214. Members of the team are: front (l-r) – Jenelle Gillis, manager Morgan Clarke, Emily Kennedy, Mallory Gillespie and Meghan Lehr; back – coach Ed Jarvis, Stephanie Slade, Cailey Snow, Rebecca Jackman, Najaula Sparkes, Michaela Case, Devon Nicholson, Shelby Oates, Brianna Roberts, and coach Kerrilynn Maloney.