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Servants of the FishA Portrait of Newfoundland after the Great Cod Collapse
By Myron Arms
Upper Access, Inc., Book PublishersCopyright © 2004 Myron Arms
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePort Aux Basques
THE WIND GROANED in the rigging. Gray-green seas grew steep and oblong. The tops of Table Mountain and the Blue Hills of Garia emerged in a dark line along the northern horizon. Even at forty miles away the land felt dense and solid, announcing its presence like a giant rising out of the sea.
The sailboat shuddered and plunged, scooped green water over the foredeck, lifted, shuddered, plunged again. Amanda looked at me, recognizing the signs. Time to tie in a reef, her eyes announced.
We moved forward along opposite sides of the deck, each clutching a wire lifeline with one hand, the tether of a safety harness with the other. We met at the mast and worked without talking.
Once the boat was properly canvassed and under control, Amanda settled behind the helm again. Nat, her watch mate, moved to the windward rail. I climbed below, stripped off wet foul weather gear, glanced at the radar. No traffic.
What was it, I wondered, that felt so strange this morning? I poured myself a cup of coffee and glanced at an odd-looking map lying open on the navigation table. It was a government fishing map of the banks surrounding Newfoundland, publishedby the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and showing the treaty boundaries that Newfoundlanders use to define the five major fishing areas around their island. According to this map, our sailboat had just crossed into fishing area 3Pn, a trapezoidal section of sea that jutted southwestward from the Newfoundland coast into the Cabot Strait. In previous years, the transit across 3Pn had been a busy one, with auto-ferries plying the route between Nova Scotia and western Newfoundland, ocean freighters following the shipping lanes into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, fishing boats steaming north or west or south, on their way to their summer grounds to drag for haddock or redfish or cod. On this particular morning, however, as Brendan's Isle made her way toward the harbor at Port aux Basques and her first Newfoundland landfall of the summer, the horizon was empty and the radar screen showed no targets anywhere. Fishing area 3Pn felt like a dead zone.
Moving at a speed of seven knots, the sailboat required five hours to close with the coast. With each passing hour, the scale of the land grew larger, until it became an overwhelming presence that obliterated half the sky. In spite of the weather forecast, the wind continued to build. The seas stacked up in unruly shapes, tumbling pell mell against invisible currents, echoing against the land. I asked Amanda and Nat to tie in the second reef and called for Liz and Richard to join them on deck.
Two miles from the harbor jetties, the VHF radio erupted with a voice that identified itself as Port aux Basques Traffic Control. Because of the large ferry terminal here and the dangerous harbor approach, all passing vessels were required to participate in a radar-controlled system of ingress and egress. The voice requested the sailboat's position. Moments later it indicated that she was on a converging course with the 580-foot auto-ferry Joseph and Clara Smallwood, also approaching Port aux Basques from the south.
Dammit, I thought: an empty sea for a hundred miles, and now, just as we'd committed to running down this narrow channel ... a traffic jam.
In the dropping visibility, the rumble of the ship's engine was the first indicator that she was somewhere close behind. The noise, like kettledrums, traveled through the water and beat out a sympathetic rhythm in the sailboat's hull. Moments later the white curl of a bow wave materialized out of the gloom, followed by a loom of blue steel, a smokestack, a row of human figures crowded along a railing at the bow.
I glanced over my shoulder, trying to gauge the distance between the ship and the little sailboat. The interval was closing fast. Would there be enough time, I wondered, for Brendan's Isle to negotiate the entrance channel and pass between a pair of stone breakwaters and into the harbor?
I glanced astern once more and realized that I no longer had any choice. The channel had narrowed and was bound on either side by rock ledges. The ship had now entered the channel as well, blocking any possibility of retreat. I asked Amanda to check the jibs, and I stared intently at the luff of the mainsail, praying that the wind would not fail us. For the next several minutes the sailboat and the ship both catapulted toward the harbor mouth, the distance between them closing ominously. Finally, with only a few hundred yards to go, a long following sea sent the sailboat plunging headlong past a pair of buoys and into the relative safety of the inner basin.
* * *
Port aux Basques: a thousand miles east of New York City, three hundred miles east of Halifax, a hundred miles east of Sydney, Nova Scotia, this tiny natural harbor lies tucked behind a series of ledges and rocky islands on the southwest corner of Newfoundland. A century ago Port aux Basques was an isolated outport-little different than La Poile or Rose Blanche or Burgeo or a dozen other remote settlements that lay scattered along the coast to the east and south. But in the 1930s several accidents of geography conspired to transform this place into the western terminus of a new railroad, the infamous "Newfie Bullet." The railroad was the only overland transportation link between western Newfoundland and the more populous eastern sections of the island, and Port aux Basques, as the harbor closest to the Canadian mainland, became an active ferry terminal and freight depot.
Twenty-five years later a road was built along the railroad right-of-way and the ferry service was expanded. Almost overnight, Port aux Basques became an important commercial seaport. Today, ninety Canadian dollars will purchase a one-way ferry ticket across the Cabot Strait for one standard-sized automobile and one human passenger. Every day in summer, four large passenger ferries arrive and leave from the terminal here, making this harbor the place that most people who travel to this island first see and the busiest port of entry in Newfoundland.
Long before Port aux Basques became a highway terminus and ferry terminal, however, it was a fishing village. The lighthouse that crowns the ledges at Channel Head has guided thousands of vessels large and small past the dangers at Fail Rock, Black Shoal, Pot Rock, Southeast Sunker, Yankee Shoal. The red beacons on Valdy's Island and the range lights on Flagstaff Hill have marked the narrow thoroughfare between Shoal Point and the village of Channel. A pair of wooden church spires and clusters of square, unadorned fishermen's houses have lined the hills above the harbor mouth. Over the decades, these familiar landmarks have loomed up out of the mist and gloom to deliver their message to generations of fishermen-a welcome message of safe harbor and home.
* * *
The hour was late with the light almost gone from the sky as Brendan's Isle traversed the last few hundred yards of this approach and passed beyond the double tier of entrance markers and rock jetties. On the right loomed the shadowy silhouette of Valdy's Island. On the left arose a series of buildings: the fish processing plant, a chandlery and engine repair shop, a line of small boat floats and fishing storehouses, and finally a squat, two-story brick building, the Fishermen's Cooperative, fronted by a trio of government piers.
With the Smallwood bearing down only a few hundred yards astern, I wheeled the sailboat out of the ship channel and into the turning basin in front of the piers. The sails rattled and snapped in the wind. Moments later, the dark blue hull of the ferry obliterated the lights on Valdy's Island and the ferry terminal beyond. In the brief lull in the wind created by the ship's passing, I started the sailboat's diesel engine. Then, while Amanda and the others dropped the sails, I turned to scan the area behind us for a berth where we could moor for the night.
Shadows dressed the waterfront. A solitary automobile rolled slowly onto one of the piers, extinguishing its headlights. Nothing else moved. Along the three government piers, in a basin that could easily berth thirty or forty coastal draggers, there was not a single fishing vessel. One small sailboat lay dark and unattended, tucked in a far corner near the Fishermen's Cooperative building. A few open dories were tethered to the floats next door. Beyond these, at the far end of the fish plant pier, lay the abandoned hull of a single fishing boat, its paint peeling, its hatches covered with canvas tarps, its superstructure stripped of nets and booms.
I guided the sailboat in a circle in the turning basin, waiting for my crew to finish stowing sails, listening to the clatter of the ferry as it began to disgorge its cargo half a mile down the harbor. I watched as a line of camper trucks and automobiles and RVs rumbled down the ferry's gangway under a bank of floodlights, and I found myself thinking about the hundreds of people back there who might be visiting this island for the first time. As they pulled out of the parking area and headed off toward the motels and campgrounds of Newfoundland's nascent tourist industry, many would never notice what had been taking place at this darkened end of the harbor. The empty piers, the uninhabited buildings, the skeletons of fishing boats would pass in a blur and dissolve into the night. The worry and dislocation of the people living here would go unrecognized; their loss would remain a secret.
Not so, however, for the five who were just arriving in the sailboat. For the next seven weeks as we circumnavigated this island, we would be confronted every day, in every harbor and village we visited, with the harsh realities of this place. As travelers who came from the sea, we would share a world with the people we met-and with this sharing would come an easy camaraderie that seamen everywhere confer upon one another. These five sailors, at least, would not be able to ignore the terrible events that had transpired here, for we would be living in their midst.
Once Amanda and the others had stowed and bagged the sails and set up the mooring gear, I guided the sailboat toward the longest of the government piers. The boat bucked and pitched in the choppy sea, so that Nat had to time his leap to the deck of the pier with care. Richard followed, carrying a second line, and in a few more seconds they had the sailboat safely secured.
The lone automobile parked on the pier a few dozen yards away snapped on its headlights again. With its engine rumbling softly, the vehicle backed, turned, and retreated into the night. I glanced around at the empty berths and deserted roadways of one of the largest government fishing cooperatives in Newfoundland, and I realized that Brendan and her crew were now utterly alone.
* * *
Sunrise. The wind had dropped. The halyards and rigging had ceased their clatter. In the quiet that followed came the sounds of a village waking up: a factory whistle, the rattle of a machine, the muffled cadences of human voices.
I was seated at the navigation table, taking a few minutes before my crew awakened to assess our situation here and to think about the rest of the day. Several practical matters needed attention-a sail repair, an hour of maintenance work on the diesel engine, a visit to the local shops to purchase fresh stores. Beyond these, I had only one important task: to somehow try to comprehend the changes that had happened in this place and the forces that had caused them.
This was not the first time Brendan's Isle and I had called at Port aux Basques and moored at the Fishermen's Cooperative piers. We had come here first in the summer of 1987-the same year that I had sailed into La Poile Bay, fifty miles to the west, and had encountered the old fisherman, Henry Coyne. The harbor here looked about the same as it had that year, with rows of boxy, flat-roofed houses surrounded by the silhouettes of granite hills. The air still carried the sharp, heady aroma of salt brine and seaweed. The waterfront still echoed with the cries of gulls, the grinding of surf against rockbound cliffs, the shrill horns of the ferryboats as they entered and left.
Yet here the similarities ended. For in 1987 this village, along with hundreds of others like it all around the twelve hundred mile perimeter of this island, was still a working fishing community. The fish processing plant swarmed with activity from before sunrise until after sunset, with local dories lining the piers, rafted in tiers two or three deep, off-loading baskets of beautiful fat fish. A hundred yards away at the Cooperative piers, the larger boats congregated, the ones Newfoundlanders always referred to as "draggers," with their booms hoisted skyward and their nets spread out along the roadways for drying and mending. During summer these draggers did not work the local banks, for the large concentrations of fish that came here to spawn in winter and spring had now retreated to their summer grounds, several hundred miles north or south. Yet the talk among the skippers and crews was all the same: of fish for the catching and money to be made.
Brendan next visited Port aux Basques in the summer of 1991-a year in which I was headed north toward the Labrador coast. I was preoccupied that year by reports of heavy pack ice in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Strait of Belle Isle, so that I wasn't paying adequate attention to the events taking place in the fishery. Yet the changes in Port aux Basques were impossible to ignore. Reports of dangerously low fish stocks the previous winter had forced a closure of fishing zones 3Pn and 3Ps, idling the dragger fleet and putting hundreds of fishermen at least temporarily out of work. The fish plant had closed. The Cooperative piers had been almost as empty as they were now.
Many of the local fishermen were expressing shock and surprise over the disappearance of the fish. One who was not surprised, however, was a man who'd been born and raised about a mile from here in the village of Channel: a writer, lawyer, political organizer, and grassroots philosopher named Cabot Martin. Born in 1944 and raised as the son of the local Anglican minister, Martin may have been this area's most famous native son. During the decades of the 1980s and early 1990s, Cabot Martin had become an influential voice in the controversies surrounding the disappearance of the cod. Once described as "the poet laureate of the inshore fisherman," he had earned a reputation all over Newfoundland as the champion of the little guy, a populist crusader who had never forgotten his roots in rural Newfoundland or the fishermen with whom he'd grown up.
I first came to know about Cabot Martin by means of a little book of his entitled No Fish and Our Lives, a collection of opinions and editorials that had originally appeared in the St. John's Sunday Express during the crucial years leading up to the cod fishing moratorium. At that time Martin was serving as president of the Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association, a grassroots coalition of fishermen and concerned citizens working in the forefront of the fight to save the northern cod. His voice in these editorials was strident and impatient. His message rang clear: for fish and fisherman alike, time was running out. If fisheries managers couldn't find ways to implement severe conservation measures-and find them soon-the entire fishery was going to collapse. Along with it, he feared, might go the traditional way of life for thousands of rural Newfoundlanders.
Cabot Martin's analysis of the forces that led to the fishery's collapse emerged from two sources: first, the unique style of fishing he grew up with, and second, the geographical setting in which it was done. When Martin was a boy, in the years just after the Second World War, the village of Channel was still a small and relatively isolated outport, without roads or automobiles, looking to the sea for its survival. The traditional fishery here, as elsewhere along this southwest coast, had always been the type that Newfoundlanders describe as "inshore." Pursued in small open dories, this was a family enterprise practiced by fathers and sons (and, very rarely, daughters) using either single hand lines ("jigs") or long coils of baited hooks ("trawls"), both methods having been handed down virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. Slow, selective, and labor-intensive, this kind of fishing proved to be almost infinitely sustainable. It provided the basis for a subsistence economy upon which communities in this area had depended for nearly 400 years.
Excerpted from Servants of the Fish by Myron Arms Copyright © 2004 by Myron Arms. Excerpted by permission.
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