Servants of the Fish
A Portrait of Newfoundland after the Great Cod Collapse
By Myron Arms
As the last of the northern cod disappeared from the fishing banks of eastern North America during the waning years of the 20th century, more than just fish faced the threat of extinction. In communities all around the island of Newfoundland, thousands of fishermen and their families suddenly found themselves confronted by a similar threat.
Servants of the Fish is the story of these people, who are at once the perpetrators and the victims of this event. As he did in his best-selling Riddle of the Ice, Arms employs the drama of the voyage to bring readers face to face with the people and the geography of the tale he tells. It is the tale of a particular time and place. Yet it is also an allegory of sorts—about predators and prey, about greed and denial, and about our collective ability as human beings to destroy natural systems once thought to be infinite. $24.95 Reduced Scuffed Cover $16.95
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About the Author
Educated with graduate degrees at both Yale and Harvard, Myron arms is a writer, lecturer, and professional small-boat sailor. He is author of several books, including Boston Globe best-seller Riddle of the Ice, and has published more than fifty feature articles in Cruising World, Sail, Blue Water Sailing, and many other sailing and adventure magazines.
A U.S. Coast Guard-licensed Ocean Master since 1977, he and his wife, Kay, have now voyaged over 130,000 sea miles, including two high-latitude crossings of the North Atlantic, a voyage to western Greenland, and eight summer sail-training voyages to the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador.
As this book went to press, he began his ninth journey to northern Newfoundland with a group of new sail trainees. Readers may sample his other writing and may follow this and other sailing adventures on the Web at www.myronarms.com.
What People are Saying
“A simple, straightforward cautionary tale that foresees the distinct possibility of another fall from environmental grace.”—Kirkus
“In this book, author Myron Arms offers compelling insights into why the fisheries collapsed and, above all, presents a sympathetic chronicle of what it did to outport people. He warns that Newfoundland is an example of impending environmental and ecological disasters, like the depletion of the tropical rain forests, dying coral reefs, falling water tables, and shrinking ice caps, all of which ultimately threaten humanity and the world itself . . . . Arms has presented a provocative insight into the fisheries collapse and its effect on the province. Sometimes it takes an outsider to put it into perspective and this author has done that very well.”—The Sunday Telegram (St. John’s, Newfoundland)
“[T]he tales Arms tells are straightforward and accessible. Servants is a combination of reportage, history, memoir and philosophical musing.”—The Working Waterfront (Publication of the Island Institute)
“. . . Arms circumnavigated Newfoundland aboard his 50-foot cutter, Brendan’s Isle, and from that voyage he’s crafted a wide-ranging story about what can rightfully be called one of the great ecological disasters of our time. What makes this book so accessible and readable, however, is the human touch Arms brings to his solid reporting on the science and history of the Newfoundland fishing industry. Servants of the Fish, ultimately, is a cautionary tale, one in which every sailor has a vested stake.”—Cruising World
“The book . . . is well-researched and outlines the environmental science, politics, economics, and sociology of the cod fishery—and what happens when humans upset the balance of nature. . . . As sailors, we can’t help but be aware of our ocean environment. [The author] asks us to think about and consider this finely-tuned balance, and how we might act as a result.”—CCA News (Publication of the Coastal Conservation Association)
“The characters in Arms’ tale are convincing, the prose is powerful, the science is accurate and timely, and the message is one that no concerned citizen of our planet can ignore.”—Christopher Flaven, president, Worldwatch Institute
“In this compelling portrait of the fishermen of Newfoundland, sailor and environmentalist Myron Arms documents the human side of an ecological catastrophe. On one level it is the tale of a gritty and resilient people, the hauntingly beautiful place they live, and the fishery they helped to destroy. On a more universal level, it becomes a kind of environmental morality play—a voyage to Everyland, an encounter with Everyman, and an urgent call for what the author terms ‘a different kind of caring’ for the Earth.”—Lester Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, author of Eco-Economy and Plan B
“Servants Of The Fish: A Portrait of Newfoundland after the Great Cod Collapse is an engrossing social history of the individual people and of society as a whole in the wake of the threat of northern cod extinction along the fishing banks of eastern North America. Narrated in brisk, straightforward prose, it tells of those who dedicated their lives to fishing, and who were both precipitators and victims of the ecological catastrophe. A plain-terms narration, equally accessible to the lay reader and the concerned ecologist or environmentalist alike.”—Midwest Book Review
“Lucid, stimulating, and deeply moving—an important achievement.”—Silver Donald Cameron, author of The Living Beach
“Servants of the Fish accomplishes what non-fiction writing seldom does: It conveys an important story with all the intensity and immediacy of a good novel.”—Carl Safina, author of Eye of the Albatross and Song for a Blue Ocean
Table of Contents
Prologue: La Poile, Newfoundland, July 2, 1992
Servants of the Fish
- Port aux Basques
- Cabot Strait
- Cow Head
- Port au Choix
- St. John Bay
- Flowers Cove
- Battle Harbor
- St. Anthony
- La Scie
- Fortune Harbor
- Seldom Come By
- St. John’s
- La Poile
Notes and Sources
July 2, 1992
The man waited, as I did, for an event that everyone in Newfoundland had been talking about: a news conference due to be televised at seven o’clock that evening by the Canadian Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. Rumor had it that the minister was about to make an announcement about the future of a fishery that had once been the largest in Newfoundland—possibly the largest in the world—the northern cod.
The fish had been growing scarce in recent years; fishermen all over the island were worried. The old man had been saying for days that the news would not be good. “Get it in your minds,” he’d said to several neighbors gathered on the government wharf earlier that morning, “there’s going to be another round of cuts.” One of the men rolled his eyes and cursed under his breath. Another coughed up a great dollop of phlegm and spat it against the side of the government storehouse.
Later, after the others had left, the old man admitted to me that he didn’t have the slightest idea what new austerities the fisheries minister might be planning to announce. “We needs to prepare for the worst,” he’d said. “For ’tis like heading out onto the banks in your dory fishing. Count on fine weather and you’re sure to wander into a gale. Prepare for the worst and maybe you’ll find your way back home.”
The old man’s name was Henry Coyne. I’d met him five years earlier in this same village of La Poile, an isolated community of about two hundred people nestled into a narrow rockbound finger of the sea on the mountainous southwest coast of Newfoundland. The village was little changed from the way it had been for four centuries: a small cluster of buildings perched tenaciously on the rock, connected by a network of footpaths. Nobody owned an automobile in La Poile, for the only access was by boat. The nearest paved road lay fifty miles inland across caribou trails and abandoned logging tracks.
Henry Coyne, like many of his countrymen, was a natural born talker, gregarious, generous almost to a fault. Perhaps he’d become this way because of the intimacy of the village setting and the close family ties that bound virtually everyone in his community. Or perhaps he’d just grown tired of the long months of isolation and the scarcity of visitors “from away.” But whatever the reason, he had adopted me and my crew of young American sailors from the first moment he’d spotted us five years earlier in the summer of 1987. “You like fish?” he’d hollered that first summer, pulling his dory alongside our sailboat as she entered La Poile Bay. When the answer came back in the affirmative, he’d grabbed a fat, thirty-inch cod from the heap that lay at his feet, held it up by the tail, and tossed it onto the sailboat’s deck. The fish was so fresh its gills were still quivering. We met again two years later. I was traveling that year with a different group of sailors—but the boat was the same: my 50-foot fiberglass cutter, Brendan’s Isle. Once again the old fisherman spotted our dark green hull sailing up the bay, and once again he graced our arrival with a fresh fish. That evening I found myself sitting at a table in the kitchen of his little house, talking until late into the night about the growing problems in the fishery. I met his wife Ruth— since passed away—and his two daughters. One was living at home taking care of her ailing mother. The other was recently married, working as a clerk in a small dry goods store in the village. Thus it was that on my third visit to La Poile I felt I was coming back to visit old friends. My crew and I had set out that summer on yet another lengthy sailing voyage around Newfoundland, traveling along the coasts of an island that had become, for me, a kind of obsessive destination. I just couldn’t seem to get enough of this place, partly because of the grand scale and stark beauty of its landscapes and partly because of people like Henry Coyne—honest, good-hearted people who would befriend you in a heartbeat and for whom generosity was a way of life.
The first sign that something was wrong came moments after our sailboat had passed the lighthouse at Ireland’s Island and cleared the ledges at the Naked Man. No sooner had we turned up into La Poile Bay proper than the familiar shape of Henry’s open dory appeared out of the mist. The fisherman hollered out a hello. I eased the boat into the wind to slow her progress. Henry pulled his dory alongside and grabbed onto the sailboat’s gunwale.
We stood face to face exchanging greetings for nearly a minute before I glanced down into the belly of the dory. Under the foredeck lay half a dozen ocean perch—“redfish” as Newfoundlanders call them—their bulging eyes glazed over with a thin gray film. Beneath the center thwart lay a trio of scrawny cod, each one no more than a few pounds in weight. The rest of the boat’s floorboards were clean—and utterly empty of fish.
The old man looked sheepish, almost embarrassed, as he followed my gaze. Then, as if he’d just remembered something, he reached down and grabbed one of the cod by its tail. Before I could stop him, he’d flipped the fish over the gunwale and onto the sailboat’s deck. “She’s small,” he said. “But she’ll make a meal.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him to take it back.
That afternoon in the village the talk was all about the news conference that the fisheries minister was scheduled to deliver in a few more hours. Henry asked me if I had a TV aboard my sailboat. When I indicated that I did not, he invited me to come to his cottage after supper for a coffee. If I had the stomach for it, he said, I could witness an announcement that might change the lives of every man, woman, and child in Newfoundland.
At seven o’clock sharp, the TV in Henry’s kitchen went silent. Several seconds later, the screen switched to the figure of the Canadian Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, John Crosbie, appearing live from a conference room in the Radisson Hotel in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
“My fellow Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans,” the jowly, white-haired minister began, “it is about the northern cod that I wish to speak to you this evening . . . .”
Henry turned from the window where he had been standing and stared at the screen. The minister continued speaking in a flat brogue, explaining the historic importance of the cod fishery to the people of Newfoundland, describing its central place in the island’s economy. Finally, he arrived at the subject everyone had been waiting for.
The cod, he intoned, was in trouble. Population numbers for all major breeding stocks around the island had been shrinking. The “total allowable catch,” as defined by his own department, had been falling for a number of years. Suddenly, however, population numbers for the largest and most important of the breeding stocks, the northern cod, had collapsed catastrophically across huge areas of the Grand Banks and Labrador Sea.
In response to this crisis and after long and careful deliberation, the minister said, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans had decided to impose a two-year moratorium on all fishing for this species in the waters of eastern Labrador and Newfoundland— effective immediately. This moratorium period, he said, would give the fish a chance to replenish their numbers. Fishermen, meanwhile, would have one week to remove all traps, nets, and other fixed gear from the water, after which they would be compensated on an emergency basis for income they would lose after the closure. During a brief pause in the minister’s words, I looked across the kitchen at the old fisherman. He was standing next to a chair, gripping it with white-knuckled fingers. “God help us,” he whispered, staring at the TV screen. “God help us all.”
Crosbie’s voice droned on, enumerating the details of the government’s plan, even as the image on the screen switched to a hallway outside the conference room. The doors to this room had been barred, forcing the general public to assemble outside and listen to the minister’s remarks over closed-circuit TV. Several hundred people—many of them fishermen—were milling around this area when a small group began calling Crosbie’s name, insisting on admission to the conference room, demanding that the minister hear their grievances.
When the square-faced Crosbie continued to speak, seemingly unmoved by the events taking place outside, the men charged the conference room doors, ramming into them repeatedly with their arms and shoulders.
“Poor bastards,” said Henry, gazing glassy-eyed at the melee on the screen. “Poor simple bastards, for what are they going to do now?”
He walked slowly up to the TV set, stared at it for several seconds longer, and switched it off. Then he turned and looked at me. “Prepare for the worst, is what I said. But how does a man prepare for the end of everything he’s ever known, everything he’s ever depended on? How does a man prepare for the end of the world?”
For Henry Coyne, the impacts of the cod-fishing moratorium were not as immediate as they were for many of his countrymen, for the areas affected by the original ban did not include the southwest coast of Newfoundland and the fishing banks surrounding La Poile. But, here as elsewhere, the fish had disappeared, and ten months later, in response to mounting evidence of dangerously low cod stocks, the terms of the moratorium were extended to include all fishing areas around the island and to carry forward into the indefinite future.
I did not return to La Poile for six years after the summer of 1992—did not return to coastal Newfoundland at all except for a few brief stops two years later during a voyage to Labrador and western Greenland. Yet the impressions of that evening with the old fisherman have remained burned into my memory. I’ve not been able to forget his face or his words, have not been able to forget the helplessness and devastation he felt at the collapse of what was, for him, the foundation of his way of life.
The original cod-fishing moratorium was set for two years. Despite official assurances to the contrary, however, the fish did not rebound. Instead, estimates of the “total biomass” of northern cod actually decreased to the point of commercial extinction during that period, while other major breeding populations were added to the list of those that were in trouble. The no-fishing ban was expanded to include several additional species of ground fish (turbot, white hake, American plaice, witch flounder, redfish) whose numbers had also fallen dramatically. By the summer of 1994, the closures had idled some seven thousand fishing boats and thirty-eight thousand fishermen and plant workers. It was the largest layoff in a single industry in Canadian history.
As I traveled along the coast of western Newfoundland during that summer of 1994, I was preoccupied with another matter— headed north to investigate some of the relationships scientists have discovered between Arctic ice production and changing global climate. Yet everywhere I looked I saw signs of the failed fishery. Fishermen whose families had settled this land and who had lived here for generations were pulling up stakes and leaving; communities that had once been active fishing centers were turning into ghost towns. The fabric of an entire society was coming apart. I began talking with a few people that summer—people like Henry Coyne, whose fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers had fished here and who couldn’t conceive of any other way of life. When I returned home to the United States in the fall, I began talking with others—ecologists, fisheries biologists, fishing company executives, university professors, politicians, and sociologists. I began reading everything I could about the crisis in the world fishery, about ocean ecosystems, about the Grand Banks, about the life-cycle of the northern cod.
Perhaps, I thought, if the situation in Newfoundland were a unique and isolated event—affecting only a handful of people in a remote and seldom visited corner of North America—perhaps then the rest of the world could afford to ignore it. But I knew this was not an isolated event. As scientists had been observing for more than a decade, traditional fisheries were in trouble everywhere. Some had already collapsed; others were poised to do so. The same devastation that was now taking place on the Grand Banks and in the fishing communities of Newfoundland had been occurring in similar settings all over the planet.
And indeed, the ocean fisheries were not the only natural systems being threatened by the impacts of human exploitation. Observers had been expressing increasing concern in recent years about retreating rain forests in Brazil, dying coral reefs in Hawaii, shrinking glaciers in Antarctica, drying rivers in China, falling water tables in California. In this context, at least, Newfoundland was Everyland and we were all Newfoundlanders—for what was happening on this island was but a single instance of what was happening on the island we call Earth.
When I returned to the United States and began thinking about the events that had been taking place in Newfoundland, I found myself grappling with a number of questions. First came a series of environmental and scientific questions centered around the collapse itself: Why had a species of fish once as abundant as the ripples on the waves suddenly disappeared? Why had the crash happened so abruptly? And why, after nearly six years of moratorium, were the fish still not coming back?
The second set of questions was even more complex, for these had to do with the Newfoundlanders themselves and their inevitable involvement with the cod collapse. No matter who or what was finally blamed for the catastrophe—foreign factory ships, destructive fishing technologies, poor government management, bad “in house” science—there was a sense in which almost everyone had played a part. “There are no clean hands in this,” one fisherman exhorted to me during my last voyage north. “Everybody was catching fish.” Everybody was catching fish—yet clearly, nobody had intended to destroy a natural resource that formed the social, economic, and, some would say, spiritual backbone of an entire society. Everybody was catching fish because, from the time the first Europeans had sailed to this place more than five hundred years earlier, everybody had always been catching fish. Catching fish in Newfoundland was as natural as breathing.
Were the people of Newfoundland the victims of a huge natural disaster, or the architects? If the victims, how did such an event occur? If the architects, how did their design get so far out of control? How did an entire society, intelligent and wise in so many ways, fail to perceive what was happening? Fail to respond to the warning signs? Fail to modify its behavior in time to avert catastrophe? These are large questions—many of them still unanswered. The scientific literature that has emerged since the cod fishing moratorium suggests a few answers. The small but thoughtful body of social analysis suggests a few others. But the more I thought about these questions, the more I realized that the most important answers still lay hidden out there in the remote fishing villages of Newfoundland. If I ever hoped to learn them, I would need to sail once more to these places, pay attention to the changes that had taken place, and listen to people talk.
The book that follows is the story of this quest. The journey itself began in early June 1998, as a crew of young sailors and I set out from the northeast coast of the United States aboard Brendan’s Isle, bound once again for the island of Newfoundland. During the next three months we traveled almost four thousand miles, exploring bays and sounds, visiting towns and villages all around the twelvehundred mile perimeter of this island, talking with the people who lived there.
Some of those we met were old friends—people like Henry Coyne whom former crews and I had encountered during the seven previous voyages that Brendan’s Isle had made to these coasts. Others were new. But every person we met—dory fishermen, government employees, trawler captains, scientists, fish brokers, schoolteachers, politicians, artisans, university students, shop-keepers, pensioners— all shared a common bond with the sea that surrounds this place and with the incomprehensible numbers of fish that once had flourished here.
I understood from the beginning that the story I would learn from these people would not be simple. I knew there would be no villains or heroes in this story, no criminals or saints. There would only be human beings—kind, generous people, for the most part, trying to get along in a difficult situation, doing the best they could. I also knew that the story was going to change me—although in the beginning I wasn’t certain how. I knew only that what had happened in Newfoundland was an event that had to do with all of us— a result, some would say, of the way we think about ourselves and the way we understand our relationship with nature.
Newfoundland is a victim, both of her own and of the world’s excesses. Newfoundland is a warning signal, a microcosm of the planet itself. For three months my crew and I sailed there, trying to learn what had happened, trying to understand why. Our task, however, was not easy—for like fishermen lowering their nets to scour unseen depths, we soon found ourselves searching across a vast expanse of human hopes and ambitions, aspirations and fears, exploring a complex terrain that would surrender its secrets only to those who were patient and willing to listen.