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Rising from the Ashes: The Collapse of Northern Cod and the Transformation of a Province

December 28, 2021

The northern cod moratorium is one of the darkest chapters of Newfoundland and Labrador’s storied history. To this day, it remains Canada’s single largest layoff with over 30,000 people losing their livelihood in the blink of an eye.

At the time, most would never have expected the moratorium to still be in effect today, over 29 years since that fateful day in July 1992 when John Crosbie, then minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, announced a two-year closure on northern cod. The catastrophe of the moratorium forever changed the status quo for fish harvesters, plant workers and commercial fisheries. From science to management to marketing to professionalization, the old way of the fishery was soon long gone and what was left would evolve in ways we never thought possible.

“The fishery was already dead. John Crosbie just confirmed it.”

Inshore harvesters, after all, had been signaling the cod crisis long before fisheries science. With this disconnect, it was clear a new, more inclusive approach was needed to fisheries science and management. But first, tens of thousands of families were faced with the task of just surviving day to day

John Boland started working for the Union as a staff rep in 1978 and had already been through many ups and downs in the industry, but nothing paled in comparison to the collapse of cod. At the time, Boland was based out of Grand Falls and was responsible for the area from Jackson’s Arm to Valleyfield. He also serviced many of the plants in the region. According to Boland, when Crosbie announced the moratorium, it was no surprise to the inshore harvesters who had already been dealing with extremely low catch rates. Fish harvesters were struggling to make ends meet as it was, and many were unable to qualify for Unemployment Insurance (UI) at the time.

“The fishery was already dead. John Crosbie just confirmed it,” explains Boland. “We knew the fishery was over and the black cloud of uncertainty hung over us like a dead weight. There was little room for optimism in those early days when we were so unsure about what the future would bring. The fishermen knew two years wasn’t going to fix the problem.”

Will Reid tells the story from the plant side of things. Reid was Vice-President of the IRO Council at the time, having worked in the Fisheries Products International (FPI) plant in Catalina for many years until a rotator cuff injury led him into staff rep work with the Union.

As Will tells it, the Bonavista Peninsula in the early 90’s was a bustling hub of economic activity. With two massive plants employing over 2000 people year-round, the processing plants were the primary employment generator for the vast majority of people in the region.

“Relatively speaking, people were making good money in the plants at the time. They had good, stable jobs they could raise a family on,” says Reid.

Luckily, the Bonavista plant processed crab and remained opened through those trying years, but the loss of the plant in Catalina struck a shattering blow.

“Catalina was a year-round plant with over a thousand people employed, so it was by far the most devastating thing this area has ever experienced. Every community was affected because there were so many people working there. Back then, we thought we just had to get through the two years, and we’d be back to work,” Reid recalls.

Of course, the first order of business for the FFAW at the time was ensuring the people who were now without jobs had the means to maintain a basic standard of living. When Crosbie announced the moratorium on cod, he also announced a meager compensation plan that would have paid $225 a week – potentially half of what people would have gotten on UI.

As Earle McCurdy tells in his book, “A Match to a Blasty Bough,” the announcement was held at a hotel in St. John’s that allowed fish harvesters and other spectators to view in an adjacent ballroom. When Crosbie announced the meagre compensation plan, according to McCurdy, “all hell broke loose. I’ve been through some wild situations over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as dramatic as the scene at the hotel. Or as effective.”

Within two weeks, the NCARP program was announced followed by the TAGS program – providing significant relief to those who so desperately needed it. The Union had significant involvement with the development and administration of both programs – ensuring the benefits would go to those who needed it and in a way that made the most sense. The Union also fought hard, and succeeded, in maintaining those benefits when government try to claw it back.

But as the benefits began to run out and it became clear that the cod fishery was not coming back anytime soon, people had to look for other options.

“That’s when outmigration really started to pick up,” says Reid. “There was no more hope on the plant side of things.”

Will recalls lots of houses for sale and even more just boarded up and abandoned, because who was going to buy a house somewhere there was no work to be found? Property values – and people’s investments – essentially worthless overnight.

Through seniority, the more senior workers got first access to the new jobs that came from shrimp permits years down the road. But young families couldn’t – and didn’t –stick around that long, and the 150 or so jobs provided through shrimp were no comparison to the thousand the cod fishery once provided.

“In 1992 we had 1500 paychecks going out of the Catalina plant between the full-timers, casuals, trawlermen and management. While the shrimp helped, it was no replacement for what had been,” Reid says.

On the harvesting side, a large part of government funding provided for retraining which led to many moving into the oil and gas industry. But for those who stuck it out – whose hearts could not stray far from the ocean or from their communities – they professionalized the industry, modernized the fishery, and played a pivotal role in turning the inshore fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador into the upper-middle class industry it is today.

“Sometimes one door has to close for another one to open,” says Boland. “Not that any of us would have thought it at the time,” he adds.

At the time of the moratorium there were fewer than 40 snow crab licenses and no access to northern shrimp. The fishery in those areas was mainly cod and small amounts of other groundfish. Following the moratorium, the FFAW fought for access to snow crab, northern shrimp and other species. Diversification would be essential for any fishery of the future and the Union would lead the charge in ensuring fish harvesters and plant workers got access to the adjacent resources off our shore.

“The transition to shellfish led to big capital investments. It was a tremendous amount of infrastructure to retool for shrimp and crab, so it was almost a mini-boom that helped the province in other areas like ship building,” recalls Boland.

But like the story Will Reid tells of plant workers in the Bonavista region, most young people left the industry rather than stick it out for that eventual transition period.

“The people in their 40’s at the time, they already had their families established and had so much into this industry, so what were they going to do? They toughed it out. A few young people hung around, but most relocated and retrained in other industries,” Boland says.

Boland is also quick to point out that we don’t want to go back to the pre-moratorium times.

“People seem to have this romantic idea of what the fishery was before the moratorium. But when I look back on the old archives, all I see is a lot of poor, hungry people who had to put in a lot of work for very little money,” he says. “The real wealth started when we got access to snow crab. So out of the wake of the moratorium, there was that silver lining.”

As many of you might know, John Boland finally retired last year after over 40 years with the Union. He leaves us with this parting piece of wisdom about what has happened in the years since the moratorium, “I think as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, internally we see ourselves as people who are set in our ways and our traditions, and we don’t want to change. But very few industries have had to change as much as the fishing industry has in such a relatively short period of time.

It speaks to the people who stayed in the industry, to their resourcefulness and to their dedication to their communities. They fought for a new way of life. They transformed the industry into one of the most highly trained professions in the world. In the face of adversity, they are the ones who made that change happen. So no, we can’t ever go back to the pre-moratorium days. We can’t forget how bad things were. People were in the fog for a long time, but we came out the other end.”

[This article was originally published in the Winter 2021/2022 Edition of the Union Forum Magazine, written by Courtney Glode, FFAW-Unifor Communications.]