Fishing in the Global Village: Newfoundland and Labrador in the 21st Century
Dr. Melvin Baker (2001)
[originally published in Canadian Issues (August/September 2001), pp. 18-9. Used with permission of Canadian Issues.]

The social, cultural and economic history of Newfoundland and Labrador has been shaped and influenced by its fisheries, more specifically its salt cod fishery. Styling itself Britain's oldest colony, Newfoundland since the early 1600s had been settled upon the basis of residents being in close proximity to the sea and the fishing grounds with the ebb and flow of daily life in outport Newfoundland determined by the demands of the fishery. By the mid-20th century Newfoundland had over 1,000 small settlements scattered along 10,000 miles of coastline. In 1990, historian Leslie Harris wrote that the Newfoundlander "hardly even thought of the land except as a convenient platform to exploit those underwater banks and shoals to which he did lay claim and whose feature he knew and named as farmers did their field and pastures." (1) When Newfoundlanders speak of fish they historically mean cod, not any of the other species of fish to be found in local waters. The cod fishery was important to the diet of the aboriginal peoples who lived here prior to the arrival of settlers and fishers in the 16th century from Europe. For centuries, the cod was caught in the inshore waters by local fishers in small boats, dried onshore and exchanged to the local merchant in return for fishery supplies and household goods. This was essentially a cash-less rural economy and the resultant "credit system" left generations of fishers in debt to their merchants. The merchants found markets for the salt fish in Italy, Spain and Portugal, in the Caribbean and Brazil. (2)

The cod fishery remained critical to the economic and social lives of residents until 1992 when the Federal Government imposed a moratorium on the catching of cod off Newfoundland's east coast, disrupting the lives of 30,000 fishers and fish plant workers who had depended on the cod fishery for their livelihood. (3) Today, the moratorium now can be seen as representing an important watershed in the province's social and economic development for it removed the employment safety net which had kept rural communities alive for centuries. The movement of people to larger urban centers in the province and to the Canadian mainland, a rural-urban population shift so prevalent in the rest of North America during the past century, is now taking place in Newfoundland at an accelerated pace. In doing so, residents in the province have become resigned to the reality that their society has changed (and is still changing) and that the province's future economic prospects will depend more on the successful management of several major resource industries supplemented by employment in the service sector and the public service.

Since the late 19th century in particular, the Newfoundland fishery had been the employer of last resort. Successive governments attempted to find alternative sources of employment for a population whose demographic growth until the 1990s was greater than the ability of the economy to generate the required jobs. The historic problem faced by Newfoundland, economic historian David Alexander wrote in 1976 was "the burden" of having to "justify that it should have any people. From the Western Adventurers of the seventeenth century to Canadian economists in the twentieth, there has been a continuing debate as to how many, if any, people should live in Newfoundland. The consensus has normally been that there should be fewer Newfoundlanders - a conclusion reached in the seventeenth century when there were only some 2,000 inhabitants, and one which is drawn today when there are over 500,000." (4) Historically, government policy has been directed to ensuring the survival of a strong inshore fishery as a large employer of labor, even if the politicians and bureaucrats personally recognized that it should be otherwise. In 1936, Sir John Hope Simpson, Commissioner of Government for Natural Resources, observed that "the standard of the average fisherman's life is deplorable, and things will not be right till we get the numbers fishing down by 50% and the production up by another 50%. When I argue on these lines, people think that I am mad. Fishing is the local fetish. The island has always lived on the fish & therefore must always so live. The methods adopted in the fishery are sanctioned by 300 years of use, and so have proved that they are inevitable and right - and so on." (5) Following Newfoundland's confederation with Canada in 1949, the Federal Government in the 1950s realized the need to reduce the number of fishers involved in the fishery but the political will to do so was lacking and federal programs such as unemployment insurance eligibility for fishers only served to preserve the integrity of a substantial labor force in the inshore fishery. (6) Although the Federal and Provincial Governments by the 1960s did successfully change the fishery to one based on the catch and processing of fresh frozen cod for consumers in the North American market, it still contained more licensed fishers than the governments desired. The fishery of the 1960s also involved the construction of additional fish processing plants scattered all over the province employing thousands of seasonal workers whose livelihood depended on employment in the fish plants supplemented by their unemployment insurance benefits claims. The implementation of the 200-mile territorial limit in the 1970s further served to stimulate growth in the inshore fishery by giving fishers and fish-processing companies access to even larger stocks of fish and cod in particular.

Out-migration traditionally has served as an outlet for those who could not fine employment in the fishery. Before 1949, this generally meant immigration to the "Boston States" and to the coal mines of North Sydney. After 1949, the Canadian industrial heartland of Ontario was the preferred choice from the 1950s to the 1970s. With the development of the oil tar sands in northern Alberta, western Canada became the popular destination of choice. During the 1990s, the closure of the inshore fishery and the absence of alternative employment has denuded rural areas of much of its young people as high school graduates quickly follow the worn paths of their relatives and friends to the mainland in search of work. Rural Newfoundland is fast becoming the general reserve of those individuals who were born before confederation with Canada in 1949. Fewer residents has not meant, however, less demands on the delivery of public services; rather, an aging population has placed even greater demands on a limited public treasury for health and other social welfare services.

The fishery that survived the 1990s has developed into a more centralized and professional industry and dependent upon less traditional sources of species for production, namely crab and shrimp. Good market demands for both species ironically has proven more valuable to the local economy than the cod had ever been. The creation of a professional fishery and related labor force mirrors developments generally in the provincial economy which is becoming more diversified as industries based on information technology, tourism and an emerging offshore oil sector have taken hold. "How well Newfoundland and Labrador fares in the twentieth-first century, and what the social and cultural ramifications of major economic change will be," Memorial University sociologist Douglas House recently has observed, "depend crucially on how its leaders manage the new oil and natural gas industries and their impacts." (7)

The local folk song "Let me fish off Cape St. Mary's", (8) written in 1947 by Otto Kelland, still captures the feeling Newfoundlanders, both resident and expatriate, still have today for the place of the cod fishery in their heritage and the song evokes a strong emotional response whether the listener has ever fished or not. In 2001, when the only fish (or cod) Newfoundlanders can catch is through a limited recreational fishery held briefly each year, the emotional hold of fishing remains strong as people risk their lives to catch the small number of fish allowed under the federal government's quota. In doing so, a new seafaring tradition has been born in both song and lifestyle, even if the once abundant cod fishery is no more.

1. Leslie Harris, chair, Independent Review of the State of the Northern Cod Stock (Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services 1990), p. 19.

2. See Shannon Ryan, Fish Out of Water: The Newfoundland Saltfish Trade, 1814-1914 (St. John's: Breakwater 1986).

3. James E. Candow, "'Recurring Visitations of Pauperism': Change and Continuity in the Newfoundland Fishery," in James E. Candow and Carol Corbin, eds., How Deep is the Ocean? Historical Essays on Canada's Atlantic Fishery (Sydney: University College of Cape Breton Press 1997), pp. 153-56.

4. David Alexander, "Newfoundland's Traditional Economy and Development to 1934," in James Hiller and Peter Neary, eds., Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Essays in Interpretation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1980), p. 17.

5. Peter Neary, ed., White Tie and Decorations: Sir John and Lady Hope Simpson in Newfoundland, 1934-1936 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1996), p. 276.

6. Raymond Blake, "The Problem of Newfoundland: the Fisheries and Newfoundland's Integration into Canada, 1948-57," in James Hiller and Peter Neary, eds., Twentieth-Century Newfoundland: Explorations (St. John's: Breakwater 1994), pp. 246-48.

7. J. Douglas House, "From Fish to Oil - The Economy in 2000," in Elke Dettmer, ed., Newfoundland and Labrador: Insiders' Perspectives (St. John's: Johnson Family Foundation 2001), p. 16.

8. The last stanza of the song is the following:

Take me back to that snug green cove
Where the seas roll up their thunder.
There let me rest in the earth's cool Breast
Where the stars shine out their wonder -
And the seas roll up their thunder.

See Gerald S. Doyle, comp., Old-Time Songs and Poetry of Newfoundland (St. John's: Gerald S. Doyle Limited 1955), p. 39.