Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How to make a shrimp trawl: nets and networks in a global world of fishing

My first introduction to the Newfoundland fishing industry in this year’s journey was actually at the Hampiðjan workshop in Hirtshals, Denmark in December. David Kelly, a Newfoundland netmaker (as was his father, who still works making nets and is apparently so well-known for his nets that there’s a style still known as a “Bob Kelly” net), runs a netloft that is part of the worldwide group of Hampiðjan companies, and thus was one of the many netmakers and fishermen from around the world who came to the flume tank to see some of Hampiðjan’s trawl nets in action. After we met in Denmark, Dave offered that when I got to Newfoundland I could come see how the nets are made and try my hand at netmaking. And so, a couple weeks ago (I know, I’m constantly behind on this blog) I took a few days and went along on his daily trip from St. John’s to the netloft in Spaniard’s Bay.

As one of relatively few netmakers in the region, the netloft provides all sorts of products – from providing the netting for local soccer goals a few years back to making mesh covers to protect trash bags from gulls to selling rope to local women for a clothesline – but most of the netloft’s business is in making shrimp trawl nets. Since the closure of the cod fishery in 1992, crab (caught with traps, which the netloft also makes but, Dave says, not so much for profit as to help keep customers) and shrimp (caught with trawls) have become the most important species for the fishing industry. I’d been in a netloft before while I was in Scotland, but it was only after seeing firsthand how the trawl nets are made that I feel like I can actually appreciate how much work goes into each one. A trawl net of the type I’ve seen on the stern of many boats this year more than fills the entire floor of this room.

Although the mesh material for each piece of the net comes from a factory in Lithuania, all of the pieces that go together to make the net have to be measured, cut and then hand-sewn together. Each step in the process has its own particular methods for how to tie the knots, splice the ropes, and piece together all the mesh, twine, and rope to make a functional net.

Even just the most basic of tasks, lacing together two pieces of mesh, was slow going for me even after I got the hang of the method – although it was kind of exciting to see palpable progress as I worked my way down the room.

It takes this group of experienced netmakers about three days to put together a full trawl net – which seems fast to me given how slowly I work without any experience – but still uses about 120 hours worth of work. The labor-intensity of the process, combined with the huge amount of physical material that goes into making a full trawl net explains why one of these nets ends up costing about $20,000. That’s expensive for a net, but in the scheme of things for a large fishing enterprise, this is just one of many pieces of the extensive capital investment (buying and maintaining a boat, fuel, nets, etc.) that have to be put in before there’s any chance to catch something and hope to make a profit. The fisheries union, the Fish, Food, and Allied Workers (FFAW), writes that, “As the shellfish-driven fishery of the late 1990s and early 2000s drove existing fishing fleets farther from shore, there was a massive overall capital investment - to the tune of $100s of millions - in vessels more suited to the greater distances from shore and the changing nature of the fishery.” And in most of the world’s fishing industries these days, this has become commonplace.

Yet even as the nature of the fishery is changing to require this sort of capital investment, many Newfoundlanders seem hesitant to trade the small-scale inshore fishery for fewer, larger, more capital-intensive enterprises. One of the most interesting things about seeing how trawl nets are made here in Newfoundland is that, unlike other places I’ve been like Iceland and Scotland where nearly everyone is fishing with trawl nets, trawling is a relatively small part of the province’s fishing industry. Even though there are about 13,000 people in Newfoundland employed as fish harvesters, there are fewer than four hundred shrimp licenses in the province, meaning that it’s actually only a fairly small proportion of the industry – the largest, most capital-intensive enterprises – that fishes with this sort of trawl net.

Among the old-time, inshore fishermen, many are dubious of trawling, particularly after many felt that offshore trawling caused the decline of the cod stocks, and even among the families of fishermen who had invested in the larger boats and gone shrimp trawling who I met on Fogo Island, many wondered whether they actually made any more money at the end of the day because of the bigger boat. At the same time, though, this sort of modernization, using new technology to be able to target new species in new ways and increasing size to improve economic efficiency, seems to be the dominant trend in the world’s most profitable fishing industries, and a trend the province can’t afford to ignore since marine resources remain a central pillar of the economy. So for me, a trip to the Hampiðjan Canada netloft in Spaniard’s Bay was a prime illustration of Newfoundland’s balancing act in today’s fishing industry: we drove through small outports with fishermen who still know how to make their own wooden punts and maintain old put-put engines to get to a netloft that has evolved in the hands of a local family to partner with a worldwide company and uses materials from as far away as Lithuania and Iceland to build trawls for the largest, most capital-intensive fleet fishing out of Newfoundland’s outports. It’s an odd juxtaposition between the old traditional ways and modern innovation born of globalization. One that Newfoundlanders (and I) are still trying to work out.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Saving a few thousand words on St. John's

St. John's has been my home base since I got back to this side of the Atlantic, and so I thought I should share a bit of the area. I'll admit that my first impression of the town was not so favorable - after more than nine months away from the realm of big box stores and strip malls I was a bit in shock at how, well, American it seemed here. But St. John's is also a city with plenty of charm - the oldest and easternmost city in north America, capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, a city that manages to have both the most bars per capita of any city in North America but also a friendly atmosphere, low crime rate, and lots of walking trails and parks within the city limits. (Much of this, I should add, is helped by the fact that St. John's has a population only slightly over 100,000 and seems more like a small town at the center of a sprawling suburb than a bona fide city. But I digress.)

Downtown itself is rather quaint and cheerful. To me, the bright colors on the wooden houses says New England meets Iceland, which might not actually be so far off.
The town is situated at the site of an excellent natural harbor, which made it a great location for the early English fishermen who used the town as a base when they began crossing the Atlantic in search of cod in the 1500s. This view shows most of the downtown area and the entrance to the harbor, known as the "narrows" for rather obvious reasons.
When the town was initially founded, this geography was also a major benefit for defense - on the hill to the left of the picture above you'll find Signal Hill, and to the right, Fort Amherst (yes, the very same Lord Jeffrey Amherst of my fair alma mater). While Adam was here, we took a walk up to the top of Signal Hill to see the reception point of the first transatlantic wireless signal by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901, as well as the site of harbor defenses for St. John's from the 18th century to the Second World War.The town is obviously well-defended.Partly because it is such an excellent harbor and partly because Newfoundland's lifeblood is the sea, it is still very much an active harbor. There are many fishing boats tied up along the harbor downtown (also a number of other boats, including supply and service vessels for the growing oil industry and even an EU fisheries patrol vessel). As you can see from the crab pots, these boats are actually here to work, not just to look pretty.Also among the defining characteristics of St. John's is its weather - lots of wind and rain and fog that is only just starting to clear up enough to hint of summer. Here Adam demonstrates mid-April wind at the top of Signal Hill, so strong we actually had to be careful not to get blown over. Most people tell me that this year is worst than most, but I think I'd be missing something of the Newfoundland experience if I only saw clear, sunny days. To make up for it, though (and partially causing it), the spring brings visitors from the far north...icebergs!This one was right in the entrance to the harbor at Quidi Vidi, a small fishing harbor just at the edge of downtown St. John's. One of the other things I like about this city is that there can be a small village like this just a few kilometers from the central downtown.With this just next to the city, even for "townies," it would be hard to forget the central role of fishing in the economy and identity of Newfoundland.

It's a good place to be.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Of seals and sealers

Most people around the world who have heard of Newfoundland immediately associate this rock in the north Atlantic (as the locals fondly call it) with cod fishing on the Grand Banks, particularly since the collapse of the cod stocks in the early 1990s and the cod moratorium made international news and turned Newfoundland into the fishing world’s cautionary tale. But there are other species long-hunted by the local fishermen who make their living from the sea that makes international headlines every year – seals. Each year, Canada’s hunt for harp, hooded and gray seals draws the attention of animal rights protesters around the world, constantly raising questions about the future of the seal hunt as other nations around the world threaten to ban Canadian seal products and even boycott all Canadian fish.

Each year when the harbors of Newfoundland become iced-in, seals appear on the ice floes, sometimes practically walking distance from shore over the ice in addition to farther out on the “front.”

Inuit and other native peoples in Newfoundland have hunted seals for at least 4,000 years, and when Europeans first began traveling to Newfoundland for the seasonal cod fishery in the sixteenth century, the potential meat and saleable furs from seal hunting were both an incentive for permanent settlement and a means of making it through the long winters when the iced-in harbors made fishing impossible.

Increased demand for seal oil and furs in Europe led to the beginning of a “commercial” seal hunt beginning in the 1750s, and the seal hunt shifted from the former tradition of seal hunting in small open wooden boats called punts or even just walking out from land over the ice to an operation on large boats. The first wooden sailing boat headed for the seals of the distant ice floes left St. John’s in 1794 and by the mid-nineteenth-century, sealing on large boats with crews assembled from all around the island was a central part of life in Newfoundland. Even today, I met people who could tell stories of their fathers and grandfathers who were so desperate for a berth on one of these sealing ships that they would even walk to St. John’s from the outports; young boys attempted to stow away in the ships, and it was considered usual for a few to manage to avoid being caught despite the boats being scoured for stowaways before leaving port. With no fishing income in the winter, sealing became a central piece of the island’s economy – second only to cod fishing. It was hard, dirty, dangerous work – crewmen had little to eat, often not enough clothing to keep them warm on the ice, and men often got stranded out on the ice or drowned when their boat was crushed in ice or sank – but it was a necessity of life for many Newfoundlanders to get their families through the winters.

In the twentieth century, seal hunting modernized into a large-scale high-technology fishery along with the rest of the fishing industry. But in the 1960s, opposition to the Canadian seal hunt exploded among the public as a result of graphic footage of the hunt showing both the charismatic baby whitecoat seals that had long been the chief targets because of their highly-prized white fur and the startling image of red blood on white ice. Animal rights activists led protests around the world, particularly in the US and Europe, and in 1983, the European Commission banned imports of any products made from the whitecoats, cutting off 75% of the market and effectively stopping the seal hunt in its tracks. Since then, the Canadian seal hunt has changed considerably: killing whitecoats was made illegal; there are no longer any industrial-sized sealing boats, with all seal hunting now done from small inshore punts and midsize nearshore vessels; and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has put in place a host of regulations on how the seals may be killed, designed to ensure that the seals are treated humanely.

I’m no expert on seals or sealing, but it seems that the main reason people oppose the seal hunt is, well…seals are cute. The youngest baby harp seals, known as whitecoats before they shed their initial white fur, are the iconic cute baby animal with big black eyes, and somehow even though hunting for these youngest of baby seals stopped twenty years ago, the whitecoats still feature front and center in most anti-sealing media (examples of this include a popular post from this year on a vegan blog and this video from the Humane Society). I’ll admit – it’s not pleasant to see the seals being killed (in the video – I couldn’t go out and see it for myself because strict rules for the seal hunt require that anyone coming near the seals during the hunt, whether hunter, protester, or observer, have a license). But these reports are sensationalized: repeated studies by veterinarians and independent scientists have determined that the seal hunt is humane – not only has the commonly-criticized club, called a hakapik, been shown to cause seals no more suffering than certified methods for slaughterhouses, most sealers today use high-powered rifles that kill the seals cleanly and instantly.

Similarly, the rhetoric of questioning the future of the seal populations suggests the seals are endangered, despite the fact that the stocks are closely monitored by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and strict quotas are set to determine that the hunt is sustainable – in fact stocks have been slowly increasing. As the Director of Conservation and Fisheries Advisor for the Atlantic region of WWF-Canada pointed out to me last week, the seal hunt is not a conservation issue (and thus they focus their efforts elsewhere on species that may be less charismatic but more at risk). Most Newfoundlanders point out that if seal populations were allowed to grow unchecked, they would also put even more pressure on the population of cod, one of the seals’ favorite foods, also seen as an issue in the case of seal populations in Scotland and the whale population in Iceland.(I love the painting on the boats here.)

This is not to say that Newfoundlanders have had no faults in the history of the sealing industry. Overhunting has been a serious problem in the past when the hunt was unregulated: as early as 1800, the walrus population in the Gulf of St. Lawrence had been hunted to extinction and the harp and gray seal populations were diminished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most Newfoundlanders I’ve talked to have little sympathy for the anti-sealing protesters in any capacity, responses to any mention of Greenpeace and Paul Watson ranging from shaking heads to wishes of unpleasant fates, but the most nuanced view I’ve heard was in a short story written by a man I met along the harbor in Tilting in Fogo Island.

I met Roy Dwyer, a sealer himself, as he was cleaning out his own small boat (in the picture above) after going out sealing, and I went over to his house with him to buy a copy of the book he just recently published. In his story “The Cardigan,” two young people (the narrator and Barb), ask an old-time sealer, Uncle Pete, about the protesters.

“You must really hate Greenpeace,” Barb interjected.
“No, not at all, my dear.
They just sounded an alarm. The seals were getting scarce but nobody would face up to it.”
“But that doesn’t excuse them,” I said, “for portraying Newfoundlanders as barbarians.”

Uncle Pete later says,
“In a way it wouldn’t hurt to have a little bit of Greenpeace in all of us.”

But he also confronts a protester on the ice, saying,
“What do you know about our way of life? Here at the edge of the world, outside of your world, these hands, our hands, battle sea, ice and storm to make a living. You say our hands are soaked in blood but it’s the sea’s blood and at times our own blood and it’s been that way for generations.”

For me, this illustrates my major problem with the anti-sealing protesters, a sentiment I’ve also heard from many people I’ve met here: it’s not so much the opposition to the hunt that is so offensive, but the fact that they give the local people and their culture no credit either for the importance of their sealing traditions or for the genuine efforts they have made both towards conservation and making the hunt itself more humane. Most, in fact, know little about the hunt at all: this girl I met demonstrating against the Canadian seal hunt on the streets of Edinburgh admitted to me that she knew very little about the hunt beyond the information on the flyer she was distributing.

This girl, at least, was a steadfast vegan consistent in her opposition to all use of animal products as food or fur; many people here have pointed out the hypocrisy of decrying the death of seals to provide food and fur for humans when they wear leather, eat chicken and steak (or even lamb and veal – babies!). As a vegetarian myself, I’m not going to be eating any seal flipper pie (as intrigued as I am by the concept) and I don’t plan on buying a seal-fur coat…but I see far more reason to protest the average meat-producing factory farm than the seal hunt.

I went through some of the archived Canadian Broadcasting Company coverage of the seal hunt, and some of the comments from the 1970s and 1980s point out some of the same major flaws in the anti-sealing movement that I see today. In 1977, Richard Cashin of the Newfoundland Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers' Union told CBC that "this is a social, economic and political question about the sealing," saying that the protests were also pushing for Newfoundlanders to give up their rural lifestyle for an urban, modernized, high-technology world – the kind of society that doesn’t like to associate images of bloody animals with the food they buy from the supermarket (a trend I’m not a big a fan of, as I’ve written about before). He says, "I think...that the soul of this province would suffer, if you came down to me in your gross hypocricy, eating meat and wearing other furs, and said you were imposing your morality on me” and forcing me to give up sealing. "If today you take the seal away from me, tomorrow you'll take the cod, the next day the lobster, the next day my right to live in a small village, and you'll put me up in your crime-infested central Canadian cities in areas where you yourself have been unable to come to grips with the problems of your society and it is much easier to get concerned about the problems of distant provinces." Indeed, many of the online comments I’ve read opposing the seal hunt suggest (in often none-too-pleasant terms) that the sealers should go move to the cities “like everyone else” and should catch up with the rest of “civilized” society. Although I wouldn’t quite equate the situation of Newfoundlanders with Canada’s indigenous people, but comments like these illustrate where Cashin was coming from when he said, "if you want to do with us as you did with the Indians, then do it."

In addition to these defenses of Newfoundland traditional culture, generally belittled or completely overlooked in criticisms of the seal hunt, another important question is why the seals have drawn so much attention at all. In 1982 debates in Britain, Ken Collins, a Scottish MP and Chairman of Parliament’s Environment Committee, pointed out, "over 5 million people have submitted signatures on [seals]...when we've debated hunger, when we've debated the torture and the misery of many people across the world, the letters have not appeared, and I think that that is a reflection of the values sometimes that our society has I'm afraid...I think we have to express just a little degree of doubt about the values of those that will weep tears for seals in Canada...and yet will quite heartlessly condone the policies of those who will continue the policies of those that will continue the catalog of torture and misery and poverty and indeed death of people in just as distant and just as deprived parts of the world." Many people here are intensely cynical about the motives of the animal rights protesters, saying that they focus on the seal hunt because the tear-jerking images bring in the money to fund their organizations. I’m not one for cynicism, but I must admit that even within a legitimate animal rights agenda, I see little reason to focus on the hunt of a non-endangered wild species as part of a rural society’s long-held lifestyle when there are plenty of endangered species and farm animals who live and die in far worse conditions.

There's a lot of information out there, a lot more than I've included here, but if you want more information, I suggest as places to start:
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada
Canadian Geographic, Sealing Timeline
CBC Archives on Sealing

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Tale of Saltfish

It has been another long hiatus since my last update, mostly spent in enjoyable wanderings getting the feel of Newfoundland – from the rugged geology and rocky coastlines to the incredibly friendly people to the excellent traditional music on the radio (a blend of seafaring ballads and chanties, Irish tunes, and something uniquely Newfoundland). After two leisurely weeks with Adam exploring St. John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador and both the oldest and easternmost city in North America, and a week visiting beautiful, friendly and very fishery-oriented Fogo Island, I’m now back in St. John’s, settling in a bit for the last weeks of my long adventure. The places I’ve been deserve telling of their own, but for now what I really want to write is an experiment in…food blogging.

This, of course, is not a food blog, but I remember that quite a while back, my favorite food blogger mentioned that she would write something about bacalao and never got around to it. So, inspired by having the past and present world of bacalao all around me, I thought I’d try to pinch hit.

Bacalao, of course, is cod. Dried, salted cod to be specific. Although even today, there is no word in Spanish for fresh cod – it has to be specified as fresh bacalao. This may seem strange in an age where fish is flown around the world to arrive fresh to markets tens of thousands of miles away, but in the days when cod was a major staple food and item of trade, the only way to ship it was once it had been preserved for travel.

I picked up my saltcod in Bergen, Norway, where it goes by the name klippfisk. Bergen came to prominence in the Hanseatic age as an important trading center, and in those days most of the warehouses on the famous Hanseatic wharf at Bryggen were full of stockfish and klippfisk.

(Today, Bryggen is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and most of the buildings contain gift shops, restaurants, and museums.)

Having already tasted traditional Norwegian preparations of cod, I took the opportunity while in Bergen to try the dish simply known as “bacalao,” the traditional Spanish and Portuguese preparation of saltfish, no doubt introduced to Norwegians by the many foreign traders who come to buy their fish. (Even recipes on Mexican websites say that Norwegian saltfish is the best quality, and worth paying extra for.)

So I went to one of the restaurants along the historic wharf in Bryggen, decorated in proper Bryggen cultural-heritage style with old wooden ships, paintings of ships, and ropes, blocks, and other odds and ends taken from ships. Norwegian businessmen were enjoying lunch and plenty of Norwegian beer (only Norwegians enjoy Norwegian beer because everyone else is still too hung up on the price).

And I ordered myself a lunch portion of bacalao.

It tasted rather like a stew, with the fish cooked along with tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and a faint hint of spiciness, although not too much, since the Norwegian palate is generally not accustomed to very spicy foods. It was good, particularly with good French bread.

So good that I decided to embark on my own culinary adventures with bacalao. So I went across the street to the seafood store in town and bought myself my own kilogram of klippfisk to bring with me on my journey from Bergen to St. John’s.

Even though I didn’t cook my Norwegian klippfisk in Norway, Newfoundland is also an ideal place to experiment in cooking saltfish, since the original European explorers chose to settle on this rock in the harsh Atlantic climate not for its beauty but for its cod, which was both traded and eaten at home salted and dried for most of the island’s history as both the Newfies’ staple food and as the “Newfoundland currency” as proclaimed on an early stamp.

In downtown St. John’s, murals and statues speak to the importance of catching, preparing, and selling saltfish in the town’s history.

And on my trip out to Fogo Island, I had the chance to see some of Newfoundland’s best-preserved fishing stages, used for “making” the fish – the process of salting and drying the cod after it was brought back ashore.

So it was in the most appropriate of circumstances that I made my first-ever homecooked saltfish into bacalao. The process started the night before, since saltfish needs to soak for about 24 hours to rehydrate the fish and get rid of some of the saltiness. Although not all directions call for it, I also changed the water in the morning to make sure to get rid of enough of the salt.
Here’s the recipe I used, loosely adapted from a number of versions found online:

  • half a kilogram of klippfisk
  • 1 large or 2 small cans of peeled, cut tomatoes (whatever’s handy will do, just note that the more runny your canned tomatoes, the more watery your finished product will end up, determining whether it seems more like soup or stew)
  • half of a large white onion, chopped
  • a lot of garlic, (in my mind, the more the better), around 4 to 6 cloves, half as whole cloves and half pressed or cut fairly finely
  • half a cup of olive oil
  • a small jar of green olives (around a cup)
  • a sliced red pepper
  • a jar of chiles in vinegar (or if, like me, you can’t find chiles, whatever hot peppers are in the store)
  • 6 small potatoes, about 2 cups

You'll want to start with two pots on the stove - one with water to boil the potatoes, and a second one (the one everything will end up in at the end) with olive oil in the bottom. While the potatoes boil, heat the olive oil with half of the garlic, still as whole cloves, until the garlic is brown. Once the garlic seems entirely browned, discard it - now the olive oil has extra garlicy taste.

Add the tomatoes, cut garlic, and onion to the oil and mix will. Heat until everything reaches a boil and cook for a minute on a low simmer before adding the fish. Break the saltfish into pieces as you add it to the pot. After you’ve finished adding the fish, dump in the red pepper and olives. You can also add some of the vinegar from the chiles or hot peppers if you like spiciness – I used a couple of tablespoons, but you should taste it to check. Mix everything together and boil until everything is hot and the fish seems cooked, but not overcooked, which takes around 15 to 20 minutes. While it cooks, take your boiled potatoes, which should be done by now, and cut them into slices.

When the bacalao mixture is fully cooked, remove it from the stove and add the potatoes. It should look something like this:Serve it with the peppers or chiles on top. Very good with French bread. Also good with philosophical musings about the significance of saltfish throughout history and throughout the north Atlantic. Mmm, tasty.