• Cod Collapse Jenn Thornhill Verma

    Writer Jenn Thornhill Verma revisits the collapse of Newfoundland and Labrador's cod fishery a quarter century later in her new book. (Photos courtesy Nimbus Publishing)

Meet Eugene (Gene) Maloney, an 86-year-old retired fisher, boat-builder and father of five living in Bay Bulls, on the Avalon Peninsula about a 25-minute drive from St. John’s in eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. Gene’s a stocky man, as sturdy as the wooden boats he builds.

He builds them in his woodsheds. Like many Newfoundlanders, especially the self-respecting outport kind, Maloney has multiple sheds — three, in fact, but based on the materials stacked outside, he could do with another.

“Anyone who go to sea for fun would go to hell for pastime.” That’s the warning Maloney has scrawled in black marker on a piece of scrap wood nailed to the wall of one of his sheds. Over in the far side of the same shed, on the wall adjacent to the warning, behind the woodstove, Maloney has written what looks to be hundreds of dates, weather and otherwise noteworthy special events. Some of the entries read: “STORM BIG SEA DEC 21 RAIN WIND 100K,” “XMAS DAY 2010 RAIN 10CM,” “FIRST BOAT IN 2012 JAN 29,” “FIRST SNOW OCT 23,” and “DEC 30 2010 FINE DAY.” There’s a collection of news clippings too, some assembled as collages or glued to a piece of board. One features stages and fishing boats of fishers in the area before wind lifted the structures into the harbour and ice crushed the rest in a particularly bad storm on February 3, 1987. Another has an excerpt from Michael Harris’s 1998 Lament for an Ocean featuring a photo of Maloney unloading his catch of cod. Other clippings show lobster pots, the frame of a boat, and an ice crew preparing a strap of sealskins. As much as the sheds are Maloney’s workspaces, it’s also where his memorabilia live now. Reminders of the way things were.

I ask Maloney where he was that day when Fisheries Minister John Crosbie walked along the wharf in Bay Bulls — it was the day before Crosbie would announce the collapse of the cod stocks and the closure of its fishery. Although more than 25 years ago, that July 1, 1992 day always feels more proximal here because it happened down over the road, no more than a couple of minutes’ drive from Maloney’s shed (and his old fishing stage, too). Maloney’s response is immediate. He mutters a curse word (the only one I’d hear him say) in reference to Crosbie. He tells me he’d been out that Wednesday morning setting cod traps. It was Canada Day, so while most Canadians were enjoying summer barbecues and other festivities with family and friends, here in Bay Bulls, throngs of disgruntled fishers, plant workers and community members (men, women, children) gathered down on the wharf. Meanwhile, Maloney and his three-man crew returned home about 11 a.m. for lunch (what people here call dinner). When Maloney walked in his front door, his wife looked at him, puzzlingly.

"What are you at?" she asked.

"We’re going back out to heave out a trap," Maloney replied.

"Don’t you know the fishery is closed?" she asked.

“I didn’t know,” Maloney says, looking at me now. As he says those three words, his voice rises an octave, as though the surprise is hitting him anew. It would take Maloney and his crew the better part of the next four days to haul all of their cod fishing gear ashore. And then, “just like that,” he tells me, “that was the end of it.”

But it certainly wasn’t the end of the cod, he says. “There was lots of fish, but [the moratorium] was all politics,” Maloney says. “I spent 50 years going in and out of [this harbour]. I got out of bed every morning between half-past-three and quarter-to-four. Rain, fog, no odds, I had to go; that was my living. And when they closed it down, it’s hard to describe, you know?” Maloney doesn’t go on explaining. Instead he pauses, holds his breath, and presses his eyelids for a slow blink, as if to let his heart break another time.

Imagine having your livelihood yanked out from under you. All your pride, all your life, everything you’ve ever known. You can’t recall spending days and weeks, certainly not this time of year, on land. But there you are, with all your gear ready but no place to go and no use for it. Leave it to Maloney, a true Newfoundlander, to make light of even the grimmest situations. “I never knew we had a lawn until 1993,” he says, raising his eyebrows to see if his punchline has landed. That was the first summer everyone stayed home, so everything on land got a lot more attention. The houses and properties looked immaculate, with all the lawns mowed and fences painted. The excitement of the fishery was gone, and boredom was setting in better than any grass fertilizer.

***

I’ve spent the last couple of days driving up and down the north and south shore of Bay Bulls, as well as down the Avalon Peninsula, driving in and out of similar fishing communities… trying to picture the fishing scenes Maloney had described. In the days before the cod fishery collapse, people gathered at their fishing spots and community wharfs, local fish plants buzzed with activity and fishing vessels, seagulls and children circled the harbours. “On this road now, from here up to
the other end of the road down there to the church, if there are a half-a-dozen kids now, that's it,” Maloney says. “But there's a house down there used to be a busload of kids come out of it, 14 or 15, or something.”

I can’t tell if he’s exaggerating, the way Newfoundlanders tend to do, but I don’t doubt him. The demographic has changed here and it’s still changing; the population is aging and outmigration is happening faster than most parts of Canada, and shows no signs of slowing. The demise of the fishery is certainly a contributing factor, having exacerbated the exodus that started long before. It’s not that people don’t want to stay; it’s that many can’t, mainly due to a lack of steady employment. It’s also part of the rhetoric we all hear, as Newfoundlanders, that to make something of yourself means moving away while I’d like to say that’s changing, sociologist Nicole Power’s work shows that sentiment is still alive.

According to Power, one of the markers of success for a young person from rural Newfoundland and Labrador is moving away. She also found, from speaking to young people in rural areas of the province, that many want to stay or return home, especially once they settle down — because they want the lifestyle they had growing up for their own children. 

Meanwhile, up and down this peninsula, I see tangible evidence of a lasting fishery. There are vessels, dories, fish plants and wharfs. But those structures pale in comparison to what might have been, had approaches to rework the wild fisheries model followed what’s happened elsewhere.