Remembering the moratorium
It was 1000 workers, day and night, year round in Port Union
2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the cod moratorium, an event that created lots of turmoil for families all over Newfoundland and Labrador. To help commemorate this anniversary, SaltWire Network publications collaborated on a feature dedicated to this monumental moment in the province’s history.
TRINITY BAY NORTH, N.L. — If you took a drive through Port Union in the 1980s, you would have had to slow down driving past the fish plant.
In those days, over 1000 people worked at the plant — then owned by Fishery Products International (FPI) — and vehicles filled the plant parking lot and lined both sides of the road.
With three shifts, working day and night, the plant was operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, processing cod fish landed by the FPI offshore trawlers.
Back then the plant was operating almost 52 weeks of the year, with a 10-day shutdown during Christmas when the trawlers came in for the holidays.
An estimated 1,400 workers in that area alone were directly affected by the closure of the cod fishery in 1992.
Darryl Johnson was one of them.
Today he’s the town manager of Trinity Bay North, but 25 years ago he was one of many facing a very uncertain future with the announcement of the moratorium on northern cod.
He started working at the FPI plant in 1979.
“When I graduated school, I went to the plant for a couple of months before I went to trades college in St. John’s,” Johnson told The Packet in a recent interview.
“But when I got there, I got hooked. You got in with good money coming there, I liked the job … and before it was time to go to school, I got myself a car and said, ‘I’m comfortable here’ .”
He ditched the idea of getting a trade, in favour of full-time work close to home.
He fondly remembers the days of working at the plant.
Within a year or so, Johnson was elected to the executive for the local union. He went on to become the vice-president of the local union for the area.
As 1992 was approaching, Johnson says they could see something coming. Compared to the “boom” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the fishery was changing.
“Over a period of time, you saw that the fish wasn’t there, they used to schedule shutdowns for the summer, and things like that,” he said. “Probably a couple of weeks the first year, a month the next year, then a couple of months. Then you could see where it was coming to a point where there were going to have to be some drastic changes made.”
When the cod moratorium was announced by federal fisheries minister John Crosbie on July 2, 1992, at the Sheraton Hotel in St. John’s, members of the local union were watching from the Seaport Inn in Port Union.
While they watched as incensed fish harvesters tried to break down the door of the room where Crosbie was making the announcement, Johnson says the sentiment at the Seaport was less anger and more frustration and worry.
He says they thought about the 70 to 80 people who didn’t have enough hours to qualify for employment insurance and what they would do.
Johnson says, thankfully, the workers were able to get through that first year with an income, but the anger started to grow when what he called an “inadequate” compensation package was announced.
“There was a recalculation of how you got paid. They were just giving a flat rate to everyone,” says Johnson. “People were saying, ‘That’s alright for a young fellow that made $25,000, but we had cutters down there that made $35,000. Why shouldn’t it be based on some sort of calculation of what you made.’ “So that’s what they did.” This went on for the next two years.
Johnson says, at first, everyone figured that would be okay because the fishery would be open again in two years.
“When the time was going and showed that there was no recovering of the stock and then they reassessed it for another five years, people started to worry.”
Yet Johnson says the situation became a blessing for some.
He says for the people who retrained, got better jobs and got an education, they ended up better off.
Johnson was one of those people who decided to retrain.
“I got work at other places, and did a little bit of training, and then the last two years (of the federal assistance package) I decided I was going to take some training at school.”
In 1998-99 Johnson attended the local trade school.
“The big thing then was Y2K,” he recalls with a smile. “There was going to be 40,000 jobs on Jan. 1.”
And while the expectation of that type of employment never came to fruition, he completed his schooling.
Johnson says he managed to stay in the area by working several odd jobs.
“I was fortunate enough that I could.”
But many businesses shut down, families moved away, organizations and groups folded and the population took a hit. Johnson remembers his son having his friends move away because their family went away to work.
He says the hardest part of the moratorium wasn’t the financial loss, it was the emotional hardship. With all the people who had to be away from their families to work, that was the hard part.
“We’ve always had people that worked at the plant and said, ‘Ah, jeez, I’m going to Alberta … or the (Ontario) Lake boats.’ But it was always their choice to do it.
“(After the moratorium) there was no choice. You had to do it or you were on social services and do without.”
In 2005, Johnson became the town manager for Trinity Bay North, the municipality consisting of Port Union, Catalina, Melrose, and now, Little Catalina.
And as for the future for his region, and the possible return of the groundfish, Johnson says there’s no guarantees.
“Places like us, that did more northern cod than anywhere else in Canada, is not going to get a lick of it. That’s the fear I’ve got. “We were the king of cod, now that with the possibility of it coming back, and we’re not even being looked at. There’s no mention, when you talk of cod, about bringing it back to the places of historical attachment.
“This place was cod.”
Trinity Bay North town manager Darryl Johnson remembers the cod moratorium and how it affected the area.