Rural Living and the Fine Art of Fishing

This year, I'm celebrating the 30th anniversary of my 16th birthday! At (almost ) midlife, 30 years feels both expansive and momentary all at once. I can almost reach back through those three decades and effortlessly grab any one moment and relive it with ease.

I was in grade 10 in 1992 at what was was then Fatima Central high. Tammy and I were rocking the St. Bride's fashion scene with our long, flowery skirts and chunky combat boots, effortlessly accentuated by our loosely permed hair and overstated Exclamation perfume. Clyde Wells was our esteemed premier. Billy Ray Cyrus was on the verge of stardom. Mr. Hubert McGrath was guiding us through the finer nuances of math while throwing in bits of sage advice on how to navigate the changing world. That was 1992.

While we can't deny the importance of pre-grunge fashion and pop country billboard stars, it all pales remarkably in comparison to what was to come.

On July 2nd, 1992, the cod moratorium arrived in our lives much like the way a tsunami swiftly moves onto land, proclaiming a cool irreverence for everything in it's wide path. While tsunamis tend to withdraw quickly, this moratorium showed no signs of retreat. In one fell swoop, the federal government banned the cod fishery on the East Coast of Canada, throwing our little island and it's communities into an economic and social tailspin.

While I was only 16, I remember that day vividly. I remember the feeling of unease. It was everywhere, that feeling of restless uncertainty. In the news. On the radio. On the wharf. It permeated every conversation, every home, everywhere. Amidst this chaos, people tried to determine how to possibly navigate a new way of living, this economic uncertainty. It was as if the anchor had been pulled up unexpectedly and we were afloat, drifting into a very uncertain future where boats and fish plants and cod had completely lost their value.

Women and men connected to the fishery and the communities they desperately loved faced monumental decisions. These weren't the decisions of 21 year olds trying to figure out a course plan. These were decisions faced by people at midlife and beyond who had to determine what the rest of their lives would look like. Some had to leave their communities, heartbroken as they boarded planes westward bound for Alberta and other provinces. Some stayed, trying each year to simply survive without the backbone of the fishery, adjusting career and life paths while staying in their beloved province. There are as many life stories as there are fish harvesters and plant workers, each unique, each speaking of courage and resilience and love for the communities where people had to continue to build lives.

These were the days of enormous uncertainty. Cod was out, crab had not yet made its way to centre stage as a species of prosperity and the only thing the government was offering was NCARP- the Northern Cod Adjustment and Recovery Program.

Even as I write this I'm mystified by the word "adjustment". I remember one fine Summer day when Tammy and I rode our bikes out to Cape St. Mary's. On the way back, we took a spell by sitting on an old chesterfield that someone had thrown out on the side of the road. A couple of uninformed visitors from another province stopped, possibly curious as to why we were sitting there. We thought they might ask for directions to the Cape but instead, they they asked if our parents were on the package and of course, requested a photo. Even in the lightness of our teenage years, we know that they didn't understand the story that was unfolding.

I could spend this entire blog and quite likely ten more along with a multi-volume reference guide describing that particular day in 1992, thirty years ago today, when Mr. John Crosbie, God rest his soul, introduced the heaviness of the word "moratorium" to Newfoundland and Labrador vernacular.

Instead, I'm going to catapult us forward to the present day, the now, the fishery that exists thirty years later in 2022. I do this not to forget or gloss over those dark days but to ensure that we remember how they have informed and strengthened the present day fishery.

The fishery of 2022 is the result of an evolution. I remember my own father coming in from fishing, his hands tired and sore, rubbing on Alcogel for relief. I remember Mr. Dennis Nash telling me of waiting anxiously for the merchants all-important grade on your cod, Madeira or West Indies, determining your Winter supplies. We all hopefully remember Mr. Mick Nash proudly asserting himself as the fish killer, the highliner.

Times have changed.

Fish harvesters are now are recognized as the business people and industry leaders that they are, absolutely aware of their own remarkable expertise and skills and knowledge. They receive a living wage for their catches. They have space for negotiation and input into how the fishery is organized and conducted.

So where does the fishery fit now? What influence and currency does it and should it hold as we plan for a Newfoundland and Labrador that recognizes rural communities for our strength and vibrancy, for our cultural, social and economic contributions? The recent report on regionalization promises that resettlement not the end game here.

I hope with all my heart that they are telling the truth.

I hope that in each of those board rooms where rural communities are the hot topic, that the fishery and it's vital place is recognized key in any formula around rural renewal and vitality.

I hope that in the months and years to come, government and community and union leaders acknowledge that without recognition of and planning for a sustainable and prosperous fishery, they are missing the mark. Sustainability is key. You only have to spend five minutes on any wharf in this province to know that the age of fish harvesters, plant workers and the hugely important crews that keep the wharves running represent an ageing population.

I hope that fish harvesters and plant workers are truly seen as the leaders that they are in an industry that contributes significantly to the economy of this province. On day one of the 2022 fishery in Branch, one community on this island, $506 000 worth of crab was landed.

I hope that our rural communities are viewed not as places to be fixed but as the cornerstone on which this place is built. Look at those tourism commercials, celebrating clothes lines and colourful saltbox houses, our wild coastlines and beautiful accents. We are more than that, though. So much more than that.

These communities are not Summer getaway spots. These are not places where we build our starter homes. And the fishery, our anchor , isn't a sideline industry only to be mentioned on the news during crab price negotiations or milestone anniversaries of the cod moratorium.

As I write this, three boats are heading out the cove here in Branch. It's a flat calm evening. The high cliffs of the Wester' Cove are reflected in the cool evening light of the bay. There's not a wave or ripple in sight. Not a breath of wind. It's almost dark and their lights are reflected on the water. Two young skippers are talking on the VHF radio, throwing around tips about good places to set pots. Their words are light as balloons, full of confidence and knowledge and excitement about a fishery that is being passed on to them.

Towards the end of the iconic "Pad's Song" by Pat and Joe Byrne, they lament "You died never knowing of the wealth that you passed on. For it’s only now it’s starting to be seen. " Yes, the fishery is now only starting to be seen.

As their boats and voices fade, as they turn the corner to sail just passed the Hayjer's Rock, I am filled not with a sense of nostalgia or sentimentality. Instead, I am filled with hope and excitement and pride for a fishery that is changing and growing and contributing and living, just like our rural communities.


Post Script:

We've come full circle here, in this my last blog, dear readers. My first offering, 70 blogs and six years ago, focused on Saturday mornings spent here on the red point and the beauty of rural living. My friend, Lee always gives the good advice, "Start as you wish to continue" and I hope that I have been able to do that in these essays, to share some of my genuine delight and slight obsession with living in Branch. There's lots more to write about like Branch Bingo, the sheep in Len's meadow, and alas, we never did finish the debate on buns vs. cakes.

What's next? I will keep writing. I hope that the pen stays in my hand and that words keep following me, as they did the poet Ruth Stone, asking to be written into some form. I want to read more and learn and hopefully offer a little retreat here and there.

A special thank you to Chris for his encouragement and scattered push to write and for always listening to me read each blog aloud before publishing so that I could detect the many typos!

Thank you so much, everyone for reading my blogs and for your encouragement over the years. You have been so kind and thoughtful and patient. God Bless.

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