“When the little boats go out to sea,
From the shores of Newfoundland,
God, do me a favour, you guide them with your hand;
Protect them from the dangers and the fury of the sea,
For those little boats of Newfoundland, Lord, mean the world to me.”
— The Little Boats of Newfoundland by Roy Payne of Trout River.
The little boats of Newfoundland may be wonderful to look at — grazing on the water or beached on their bellies — but they don’t work as viable businesses.
Most inshore fishermen are poor, and it’s always been that way.
For all their riches, the outport crowd generally doesn’t have much money.
Especially these days.
According to last week’s MOU report on rationalizing and restructuring the NL fishery, the union representing inshore fishermen themselves proposed that more than half their number be eliminated.
Under the terms of the FFAW proposal, 1,620 or 54 per cent of the fishing enterprises in the NL inshore fleet (under 40-foot boats) would be removed, so that the remaining1,352 inshore boats left on the water would be able to make a go of it.
Keeping in mind there would be no guarantees.
In 2006 the average NL fisherman made $9,247 from fishing.
The way the FFAW apparently sees it, cutting the number of inshore fishing enterprises would reduce peak landings, allow for better distribution of fish, and lead to a modest growth in the operating season.
In other words, rationalization would leave remaining fishermen better off.
But would the enterprise owners be so better off that they could keep the workers they have and attract new ones?
The MOU report raises that very question, but doesn’t answer it.
The MOU also spells out how consideration must be given to which party — industry or government — would bear the financial risk of rationalization, and to what degree.
Such rationalization programs have apparently been tried with the U.S. textile industry, the electronics industry in Germany, and the United Kingdom’s auto industry.
They found, “to their dismay, that such activities have only served to prolong the inevitable decline in the industry in question.”
In January 1951, two years after Confederation, the governments of Canada and Newfoundland established the Newfoundland Fisheries Development Committee to examine the “problems of the fisheries of Newfoundland.”
Members of the committee represented the fishermen of Newfoundland, the fish processors and exporters, the Department of Fisheries of Canada, and Department of Fisheries and Co-operatives of Newfoundland.
Sir Albert Walsh — who earned his knighthood as chair of the delegation for the Terms of Union with Canada, and went on to become the province’s first lieutenant governor after Confederation — chaired the committee.
In 1951, the number of Newfoundland fishermen totaled 19,500, which represented about 25 per cent of the adult male population.
The so-called Walsh report, a copy of which I obtained from Gus Etchegary, found that fishermen involved in the traditional inshore enterprise were “poor,” because of their extremely low productivity, “and for no other reason.”
Here’s a paragraph from the Walsh report, which was delivered in 1953:
“For a good many families, income from fishing in insufficient to sustain even the low standard of living to which they are accustomed, that only a few of them are able to obtain supplementary income to any considerable extent from farming or from regular seasonal work in the woods and that a large number have to rely to a considerable extent on government payments, home-produced food, and a variety of occasional occupations to make up the deficiency.”
“To enable fishermen to pursue their calling successfully,” the committee recommended that fishermen be equipped with larger and more powerful boats — able to be comparatively independent of weather and sea conditions, and capable of engaging in a variety of fisheries.”
The committee also noted that it was “especially important that the fishing fleets be owned by the fishermen-operators, and that these men should be as independent economically as it is possible to be in modern society.”
More than 60 years later, and the provincial government’s MOU report seems to say the same thing regarding the viability of the inshore fleet.
The sight of a lone fisherman toiling on the deck of an open boat bobbing off the headlands may be iconic Newfoundland, but his productivity may be too low for him to make a go of it, and to attract new entrants to the fishery.
Indeed, as part of the MOU process the accounting firm Deloitte carried out a financial review of the fishery, finding that fishing vessels greater than 40 feet in length are more viable than smaller vessels.
A.k.a. the little boats of Newfoundland.
In the early 1950s the Newfoundland fishery underwent a sea change from salt fish to fresh fish.
In 2011, the fishery appears to coming to another “turning point,” as last week’s MOU concluded.
“So too, it seems, the age of self-reliance that was once a mainstay of outport life in rural areas, when a person could combine fishing, farming, wood cutting and other forms of seasonal work to build a balanced life, appears to be numbered.”
Some fishery experts say the future may be in independent co-operatives, whereby traditional inshore fishermen pool their licenses and finances to operate larger, community vessels.
Raising the question, are the little boats of Newfoundland doomed?
If so, is that a bad thing?