No cod, no chil­dren

There won’t be an­other gen­er­a­tion, says St. Bren­dan’s fish­er­man

The Compass - - Sports - BY JOSH HEALEY THE BEA­CON

St. BREN­DAN’S, NL — Be­fore the cod mora­to­rium in 1992, chil­dren could be seen wait­ing along the wharfs across St. Bren­dan’s Is­land, ea­ger to cut out the cod tongues as the boats came in.

Gerry Walsh, 57, is one of the last fish­er­men in St. Bren­dan’s and re­mem­bers the sense of pros­per­ity on the is­land.

“It seemed like ev­ery­one was work­ing. I’d say there was 100 per cent em­ploy­ment,” said Walsh. “Those that weren’t fish­ing were work­ing in the fish plant.”

There are nei­ther cod nor chil­dren in St. Bren­dan’s now.

St. Bren­dan’s, a com­mu­nity on Cot­tel Is­land, is a mi­cro­cosm of the plight of out­port com­mu­ni­ties. The is­land is only ac­ces­si­ble by ferry and al­though the fish­er­men re­main, the is­land is lit­tered with the wooden corpses of old boats and aban­doned homes.

Since the mora­to­rium, the is­land’s pop­u­la­tion has dried up with the fish. Barely 120 peo­ple call St. Bren­dan’s home. The me­dian age of res­i­dents there is 51.6 years old ac­cord­ing to the 2016 cen­sus.

Len Casey, a re­tired cod fish­er­man, said the com­mu­nity— and the fish­ery to which he’s ded­i­cated his life— is at an end.

“There’s not go­ing to be (an­other gen­er­a­tion). The com­mu­nity is dy­ing,” said Casey.

Dur­ing the ‘80s, the is­land boasted dozens of fish­ing ves­sels, but today only 11 boats work the wa­ters around St. Bren­dan’s. They are al­most en­tirely crewed by old men and their wives.

“There’s no gen­er­a­tion be­hind us,” said Walsh. “The old­est fish­er­man now on St. Bren­dan’s is 62. I’d say youngest is prob­a­bly 50.”

Rem­nants of cul­ture


Al­though the cod dis­ap­peared, the peo­ple of St. Bren­dan’s con­tin­ued to look to the ocean for em­ploy­ment af­ter the mora­to­rium.

For a time, the state of the fish­ery pushed the is­land’s res­i­dents to the brink.

“Ba­si­cally, ev­ery­thing came to a stand­still. The peo­ple who went fish­ing fished for noth­ing,” said Walsh.

In 1995 the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced an ex­per­i­men­tal crab li­cense and that is what fish­er­men turned to, al­though Walsh cur­rently fishes lob­ster.

Today, St. Bren­dan’s is still a fish­ing com­mu­nity, al­beit di­min­ished.

Natasha Ayl­ward, a teacher­ad­min­is­tra­tor at the is­land’s school, said she rel­ishes the sound of work­ing boats.

“We can hear them up in the morn­ing be­fore we get up our­selves to go to work. Ev­ery­thing is alive. You mea­sure your day to that sound,” she said.

Sadly, Ayl­ward knows that the time is com­ing when no boats will be heard in the early morn­ing.

“Af­ter this gen­er­a­tion of fish­er­men, I don’t think it’ll be here any­more,” said Ayl­ward.


The young peo­ple don’t stay in St. Bren­dan’s.

The school on the is­land, St. Gabriel’s, has only 10 stu­dents and once they grad­u­ate, they al­most as­suredly leave for uni­ver­sity or other work.

“The young­sters go and they come back for the long week­ends and Christ­mas and that’s it,” said Casey.

Pa­trick Kelly, aged 50, is the youngest boat owner-op­er­a­tor on the is­land. He said even if young peo­ple wanted to get into the fish­ery, start­ing up is too ex­pen­sive given the cost of li­censes and gear.

When he was young, Kelly him­self had to de­cide whether to stay or go, hav­ing been ac­cepted to uni­ver­sity.

Kelly chose a life at sea, like his fa­ther be­fore him, but af­ter years of fish­ing, it wasn’t some­thing he wished for his own son.

“He didn’t re­ally have an in­ter­est in the boat and I didn’t en­cour­age him,” said Kelly, also cit­ing that it was the wishes of his de­ceased wife that their son go to uni­ver­sity.

Kelly said al­though out­port cul­ture is still alive, it will only con­tinue if tra­di­tions are passed on.

“It’s like when I pull fire­wood dur­ing the win­ter,” he said. “I feel like I’m go­ing to be the last fella to do that. My son is in St. John’s. He’s not go­ing to be cut­ting fire­wood to heat his home, or fish­ing, or what­ever else is as­so­ci­ated with out­port New­found­land.”

Jack White is an­other fish­er­man from St. Bren­dan’s. He too chose the fish­ery over uni­ver­sity.

White said he sim­ply couldn’t sit in a class­room all day, pre­fer­ring to spend his time on the ocean or in the woods.

“Kids don’t grow up that way any­more. The cul­ture’s changed,” said White. “They don’t fish or hunt.”

Al­though White’s two sons helped him fish when they were younger, he wasn’t sur­prised when they left for uni­ver­sity.

“They had no in­ten­tions of stay­ing around here,” he said.

White said al­though the cod have re­bounded in the 25 years since the mora­to­rium, things aren’t the way they used to be.

“You can’t even cut cod tongues out any­more,” said White. “If the plant buys the fish and the cod tongues are miss­ing, they’ll dock you five cents a pound.”

A his­tory for­got­ten

Old House Cove. Hol­loway’s Point. Bur­ton’s Head.

These place names mean lit­tle to any one out­side of St. Bren­dan’s, but for White and Kelly, these names are a part of their his­tory and tra­di­tion.

With the is­land’s dwin­dling pop­u­la­tion, it is a his­tory in dan­ger of be­ing for­got­ten.

“All these is­lands, and all the beaches, and all the coves, have names,” said Kelly. “And slowly, surely, they’re go­ing to be lost.”

Re­cently, Kelly’s son called him from St. John’s to in­quire about the name of an is­land.

“When he called me, it made me re­al­ize, ‘My God, you don’t know that is­land?’” he said.

Af­ter years of fish­ing around St. Bren­dan’s, White knows the area in­ti­mately. How­ever, his knowl­edge is one earned by ex­plor­ing the coves, some­thing White tried to share with his sons.

“All these place names are passed from fa­ther to son, from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion,” said White. “I passed it on to my sons but I don’t know how much they’d re­mem­ber.”

For nearly 200 years fish­er­men have worked the wa­ters around St. Bren­dan’s and passed on the is­land’s his­tory.

How­ever, as the last of the fish­er­men re­tire, there is no new gen­er­a­tion to take their place in the boats; the places that they knew so in­ti­mately will only be half-re­mem­bered by their chil­dren who chose to live dif­fer­ent lives than their fa­thers.


One of a half-dozen boats de­cay­ing on the is­land.


Leonard Mul­rooney Jr. of Jersey­side, Pla­cen­tia fol­lowed in his par­ents’ foot­steps to make a liv­ing in the fish­ery.


Pa­trick Kelly, of St. Bren­dan’s, de­cided to work in the boats in­stead of go­ing off to uni­ver­sity.

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