Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A town called Dildo

Yup, you heard me right.

Newfoundland has a lot of towns with odd names. The week I spent on Fogo Island, I stayed in a town called Seldom-Come-By (a fitting name for a small town on an island only reached by ferry). Other names include Come-By-Chance and Happy Adventure. But I think Dildo takes the prize. Some sources I’ve found claim that the name has nothing to do with its current meaning – Wikipedia says that the word dildo initially referred to the pegs in a dory used to hold the oars in place (also called rowlocks), though I can’t say whether this is actually true. A few times, people from town have suggested changing the name to something more…child-friendly. But the name has stuck, and seems likely to stay – it may raise a few eyebrows, but the curiosity also seems to draw attention and tourists.

But I didn’t actually come for the name…I came to learn about the fish hatchery that operated on Dildo Island, just across from the town of Dildo in Trinity Bay, from 1889-1897.

I was interested in learning about the hatchery largely because its presence and the historical records from its time raise questions about the possibilities of overfishing and worries about how to maintain a sustainable fish stock that most people today tend to consider only a modern concern. In talking about the depletion of the northern cod stock, many people tend to only look as far back as the beginning of industrial fishing in the mid-twentieth century. But nobody really knows what had changed before then – this group of scientists and historians, for instance, found that there had been significant depletions in the cod biomass on the Scotian Shelf in the 1850s, long before the advent of modern trawlers. And certainly, the fish were not so plentiful in the nineteenth century as when John Cabot first arrived in Newfoundland in 1497 and reported that even though he had not found spices, he had discovered a source of fish so plentiful they could be scooped up in buckets.

As it turns out, Newfoundland has experienced fish depletions in the nineteenth century that, while by no means as widespread as today, were enough to cause alarm for the fishermen living in isolated coastal areas who depended on the inshore migrations of cod for their livelihoods. It was enough of a concern that in 1887 that when the Newfoundland government heard a presentation by a Norwegian named Adolph Neilsen on “artificial propagation” of fish stocks, they invited him to move to the island to begin hatchery operations and provided $4000 (a large sum in those days) to build the facility.

Nielsen took a steamer trip through some of the east coast bays to look for a suitable spot for the hatchery and finally settled on Dildo Island. Although a fish hatching operation in the nineteenth century seems far ahead of its times, the methods Nielsen used for his hatchery were the product of methods that had been developed in Norway beginning in 1864. An experimental hatchery had been opened in the US at Ten Pound Island, near Gloucester, around 1878 and had later led to the development of a hatchery at Woods Hole that opened in 1885 and ran until the 1950s. Another experimental hatchery had been opened at Arendal, Norway in 1882, which was run until it was taken over by the government in 1918 and has since been used as a research facility (today it is the Institute of Marine Research’s Flodevigen Biological Station).

As it turned out, the Dildo Island hatchery did not run for so long as the others – mostly because public debate over whether the project was worth the cost to the government led the government to pull out funding when a new party came into power. Nielsen funded the operation of the hatchery for its last year in 1896, but then was forced to close the hatchery due to poor health and lack of money. Today, all that is left of the facility is a rusty pump, but luckily there are fairly extensive notes on the hatchery both from a few early pictures taken of the facility and illustrations from the report of a visit from a French delegation considering the potential for a hatchery in their colony of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon.

Here you can see an aerial view of the hatchery on the island. You can see the holes cut into the wharf to use as holding tanks to keep both the large fish used to produce and fertilize the eggs and the small hatchery-raised fish just before releasing them into the bay.

This illustration shows the interior of the hatchery facility, with rows of water tight wooden boxes each containing cylindrical glass incubators where the fertilized cod eggs were hatched. By the last year the facility was running, 76% of the fertilized eggs survived to grow into the juvenile fish that would be released back into the bay – to my mind, quite an impressive success rate for nineteenth century technology.

The very presence of this hatchery and the debates over whether the hatchery was a worthwhile investment illustrate one of the major debates in fisheries science and management – namely, whether human influence was capable of affecting fish populations, whether through fishing out the stock or building it up with this sort of supplementary effort. Most people talking about attitudes towards fishing and the possibility of overfishing at the turn of the twentieth century cite Thomas Henry Huxley’s address at the London Fisheries Exhibition in 1883, in which he said, “I believe, then, that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems consequently, from the nature of the case, to be useless.” In looking more closely at the rest of his speech, though, it seems that his argument is not such a unilateral statement as it seems, but rather a sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation showing that the contemporary fishing methods were not catching enough to significantly add to what scientists today call “natural mortality.” Huxley also admits that local populations of sea fish, such as individual salmon rivers, can be fished out – and so it does not seem so unlikely that people at the time would also have seen that local bay stocks, such as those relied upon by Newfoundland’s inshore fishermen, could also be overfished.

Certainly this was Neilsen’s belief, as reported by the French delegation that visited the Dildo Island hatchery in 1894. They reflected on their own opinions of the usefulness of the operation: “‘Is artificial procreation useful?’ ‘Does the cod stock, plentiful off the coast of Newfoundland, tend to diminish by the very fact of overfishing which has been done?’ It is certain that if, as Huxley thinks, the stock is inexhaustible, the idea of harvesting a few million cod a year along a certain stretch of coast is something like a child every day carrying a little bit of water from the sea. For Mr. Nielsen it is undeniable that the cod supply is being exhausted, and if a future fishery is to be guaranteed, it is necessary, as soon as possible, to make up for the lost of each day.”

It is hard to say whether a hatchery operation such as Neilsen’s could significantly increase the overall population of a large stock such as northern cod, but for the local inshore fishermen in Trinity Bay it seemed to have improved their catches. A Norwegian article on the subject found that, “In various reports, one can see that the growth of young fish increased substantially in Trinity Bay. The oldest residents in the area confirmed that they had never seen so much fish as the years that the hatchery was in operation.” It is hard to say whether hatcheries such as this one could have averted the crisis in the fishing industry that today has devastated in the coastal communities of Newfoundland – as the French pointed out after their visit to Nielsen’s hatchery, even if such an operation would have helped keep good fishing in Trinity Bay, it would not have solved the problems of a declining fishery all around the coastal areas of the island. “Dildo is but a spot on the Newfoundland coast and, since other spots do not profit from this work of “restocking”, how can it be worked to their advantage? Will we be able to restock other places with the artificially-born cod from Dildo? It is possible. Must one establish in all bays a scientific industry like the one we have been viewing these days? That would be a huge enterprise and extremely costly, for uncertain results for which we would have to wait…. He [Nielsen] may have been able to set up a base for the prosperity of Dildo, but he has not yet resolved the more general problem: raising the confidence of the fishermen higher than it has ever been, to definitely guarantee the resources throughout all of the coast of Newfoundland if, as he has himself positively affirmed, the cod tend to become exhausted on this coast of Newfoundland, just as they continue to do in Norway.”

Today, though the hatchery is long gone (it was purchased by a local merchant, who took down the building and used it for construction elsewhere), but the (hi)story is still an important part of the community of Dildo – particularly since the cod fishing moratorium in 1992, which has lead the community to focus on opportunities to market its culture and history for tourists, not to mention prompting considerable reflection on the wisdom of Nielsen’s conservation mentality. I first heard about the hatchery from one of the men working at Hampidjan Canada, whose uncle Gerald has collected an incredible amount of historical information about the hatchery, including translating a number of old documents, putting together an interpretation center in Dildo about the history of the town and island and running boat tours out to the island to learn about the local history and environment.

He also still maintains his own fishing stage and boat, although now he says he really only uses it to take out his grandkids for a trip out in the bay.

There seems to be a sort of wistful attitude towards the hatchery, wondering about the “what-ifs” of the fishery – whether overfishing and the cod moratorium would have happened if they had followed Neilsen’s philosophy that Gerald described to me as “for every fish you take you should put one back.” It is interesting, however, that while many inshore fishing communities blame the inadequacies of science and the use of new fishing technologies (both the use of gill nets inshore and trawlers offshore) for the collapse of the fishery, Nielsen’s hatchery – using highly advanced technology for its time and the most modern science – as a potential savior of the fishery. In all likelihood, hatcheries like Nielsen’s wouldn’t have been enough to counterbalance the massive catches of offshore trawlers, but emphasis on local conservation – particularly if the government had remained involved in funding efforts at preserving local stocks – might have influenced people’s attitudes towards the potential problems of overfishing. History, it turns out, still has lessons worth paying attention to today.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

From Bonavista to Burin

After the end of the symposium, I set myself to more serious meanderings. I had rented the car for another week and had no plans for the next five days until I intended to take the ferry to Saint-Pierre from Fortune, on the southern tip of the Burin Peninsula. Which left me with plenty of time to explore the Bonavista peninsula, where Port Union is located, and make my way the two hundred miles south. For reference, here’s a map of the most direct route (obviously, not the one I took, though, which was slightly more circuitous) from Bonavista in the north to Fortune in the south.

View Larger Map
Bonavista, at the northern tip of the Bonavista peninsula, is thought to be the first place in Newfoundland visited by Europeans. According to the plaque on the statue of John Cabot looking out at the tip of the peninsula, “In early May, 1497, John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), a Venetian citizen bearing letters patent from Henry VII sailed from Bristol in the Matthew to seek a western passage to Asia. On June 24, he made land somewhere on the east coast of Canada. Although the sources do not allow unequivocal identification of the site, local tradition records Cape Bonavista as the landfall. From this, the first official English voyage of exploration in the Western Ocean, derived Britain’s subsequent claims in the New World and the beginnings of her overseas empire.”
Though there is debate within the historical community about whether this was the actual site of Cabot’s landing, the story is considered as fact in Bonavista. The story goes that when Cabot first saw land, he cried “Buon Vista!” – “Happy Sight!” – hence the name for both the town and the peninsula. In 1997, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s original voyage, a recreation of the Matthew was built in Bristol and sailed across the Atlantic to Bonavista for a ceremony on June 24 presided over by Queen Elizabeth II. (Everyone was proud to tell me about the Queen’s visit, though the most vivid story I heard about the day was from a woman who had decided to avoid the crowds and the rain and just watch from her house.) That replica then returned to Bristol, where it remains today. Seeing a promising tourism opportunity, however, Bonavista decided to build its own replica of the Matthew, which is seasonally on display in the Bonavista harbor right alongside the fishing boats. Built, maintained, and interpreted all by locals, the aura surrounding the boat is nothing like one generally finds around historic or recreated wooden boats. The new Matthew is too authentic to be seaworthy (no engine or safety features), but locals are very proud of such an historic monument in their harbor and the work of locals in doing all the carpentry and maintenance on the boat. Since the harbor regularly ices over for the winter, they even have a clever set-up for keeping the Matthew indoors during the icy months. Beyond the history, though, the real beauty of these days of wandering was the ability to see the unfolding of spring in the scenic outports, drive through some of the most interesting parts of the province, and meet some of the most welcoming people I have met this year. In my four nights of meandering, I was twice taken in by strangers I met along the way – the two people who discovered that my other option was to sleep in my rental car. (Yes, Mom, I went home with strangers and slept in my car. I promise they were very upstanding strangers, and I locked the car doors even though I was at campgrounds all by myself.) I spent one night at the base of Cabot’s statue, looking out over the water, and the other on the shore at a campground on the Burin peninsula, where I remembered to record the view when I woke up:
In Bonavista, I was taken in by a retired schoolteacher who I met at the local coffeeshop/bar while watching game five of the Stanley Cup finals (Pittsburgh won in triple overtime). I met his dog and talked with him about travel and education and his childhood in Newfoundland before he sent me off with an open invitation to visit anytime. In Grand Bank, the first person I met was the Anglican minister’s wife, who gave me a tour of the old fish plant-turned-theatre where she works and insisted that I come and stay the night with her and her family at the Anglican rectory. And, as most Newfoundlanders were quick to tell me, such unquestioning hospitality is the rule rather than the exception.

And if such welcoming people weren’t enough to sell me on Newfoundland’s outports, I was content just to wander the towns and watch the scenery. I saw old fishing stages, signs of a by-gone era of fishing,

and small boats and fishing stages still being used as they were decades ago, looking quaint but also continuing to provide a livelihood.

There were sheep – rounding out the tally of Watson year sheep sightings to include all four of my original project countries,
and peaceful domestic scenes.
When I got to Newfoundland, everyone kept telling me that this is a place that people just end up staying. It gets in your blood and you just don’t want to leave. And really, I can see why.

Port Union: “To Each His Own”

I set off on this grand road trip rather spur of the moment. I had begun feeling a sense of restlessness spending my days in St. John’s while knowing that the heart of fisheries in Newfoundland was in the outports and had been mentally planning to set off and search out a story of fishing that couldn’t be found in town. So when I saw a flyer for a symposium on the founding of the Fishermen’s Protective Union, that did it: I was off.

While in St. John’s, I had met with representatives from the modern-day fishermen’s union, now called the Food, Fish, and Allied Workers Union (FFAW). Fishers (men and women, here, unlike everywhere else I traveled) in Newfoundland are very well organized and represented, in no small part because of the FFAW. Having organized nearly all the fishers and fish plant workers in the province into a single infrastructure, the union was able to provide representation for the fishing communities, despite their being spread out throughout the province. The FFAW was instrumental in lobbying for the unemployment benefits that sustained whole fishing communities when the cod fishery collapsed, in helping communities keep their local fish processing plants from closing, and procuring representation for fishers in the policy-making process. It had seemed from my initial meetings with people at the FFAW office and from talking with union representatives in some of the outports that the unionization of fisheries workers has been instrumental in sustaining rural fishing communities and preventing the consolidation found in so many other places.

So naturally, I was eager to learn more about the beginnings of fishermen’s unionization in Newfoundland and the history that has shaped the modern fishery in the province. And key to that story is William Coaker and the Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU) he founded 100 years ago in 1908. The FPU was initially established as a political and social movement to provide independence to fishers as the working class of Newfoundland, their motto of “to each his own” focusing on the need for economic independence. At the time, fishing communities were beholden to the merchants who provided on credit the essential goods they needed to live on and in return for their cured fish at the end of the season. The merchants inflated the prices of the goods they sold and set low prices for the fish such that fishing families were constantly in debt to the local merchant. The FPU’s initial innovation was to create the Fishermen’s Union Trading Company, which bought goods and wholesale prices and shipped them to the outports, where fishermen could buy them at cost. They would also purchase the fishermen’s cured fish at the end of the season, paying them a fair price. This took away the merchants’ monopoly and ability to inflate prices, returning economic control to the fishermen. For a short time, the FPU also expanded into politics, attempting to provide not just economic but also political independence for the province’s fishermen (though at this time, Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada and not technically a province). William Coaker, who remained the driving force of the FPU throughout its early influential years, was elected to the House of Assembly and eventually became Fisheries Minister under the Union Party. This is a bust of Coaker, at the top of a hill overlooking the Port Union harbor.Port Union, where the symposium was held, was the center of the FPU’s efforts, a town actually founded by the union. The union built premises for retail and export in connection with the Trading Company, serving as the hub store for outlets in 40 communities, established a shipbuilding company and built a fleet of supply and trading ships which to transport goods and cured fish, and set up a publishing company for The Fishermen’s Advocate, the Union’s newspaper. The town had its own spur railway line, saltfish and seal plants, a cooperage and carpenter’s shop, a soft drink factory, a warehouse, a woodworking factory, a school, a debating club, a church, a hotel, a large meeting hall, workers’ housing, and even a movie theatre. Port Union also has its own hydropower plant, making it one of the first outport towns in Newfoundland to have electricity. As part of the symposium, a number of older people who had grown up in Port Union and surrounding towns described what it had been like in its early years. They saw the dances held in the meeting hall, the moving pictures shown at the theatre, and the town’s electric lights as the height of sophistication – nearly as exciting as the big city of St. John’s. Here they are speaking, flanked by a picture of William Coaker.Of course, things are very different today than they were in Coaker’s day. The FPU no longer exists, though its legacy of advocating for rural fishing communities’ social and economic independence doubtless helped keep the outport fishing lifestyle from collapsing under economic and social pressure and planted the seeds for the modern-day FFAW. Today, with cod populations still low, it may take new efforts to maintain these communities. During the symposium, a new project for Port Union was announced by Newfoundland Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn. The government is providing a grant for the Sir William Ford Coaker Heritage Foundation to restore the former retail store and fish plant, to “add to the area’s tourism infrastructure and help attract new business to the community.” Here's what the old fish plant looks like today, on the edge of the harbor at sunset.And new business is already on its way: part of the funding for the restoration will come from Iceberg Water and Vodka, which plant to use part of the building’s interior as a bottling plant for their water and vodka products (which indeed are made by towing real icebergs into the harbor and melting them for their water). The plan is innovative – it will promote tourism by restoring the building and providing tours of Iceberg’s bottling facility, and it will provide short-term jobs in construction and long-term jobs working for Iceberg, in addition to the new jobs from tourism. It’s a far cry from William Coaker’s initial vision for Port Union, but it just might work.

Refuge of the Roads

I think I may have developed some wanderlust. After four weeks sleeping every night in St. John’s, I started to get antsy. And so I rented a car and headed off in search of adventure and beauty and whatever it is that people search for.

I drove up the Bonavista peninsula and down the Burin peninsula, and found lighthouses and fabulous stories of lighthouse keeping at the tips of both,*

And even made it all the way to France (the French colony of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, only an hour’s ferry ride away from the tip of the Burin peninsula).

There were icebergs, rocky cliffs, sunsets, and fishing boats – sometimes all at the same time.

I saw living coastal cultures that blend the old and the new - old fishing stages in the same harbours as modern fish processing plants, a traditional Catholic ceremony blessing a modern seagoing fleet, the Bonavista harbour with a replica of John Cabot's 15th-century caravel that sailed to Newfoundland alongside today's fishing boats.

And after ten days of wandering, I’m back in St. John’s. I have one last week here to tie up loose ends and begin to put together some of the pieces of this year (and hopefully also write more here about what I’ve seen and done…) before setting off on the final homeward journey in this year of journeying.

*Newfoundland still has fifty-two manned lightstations, and I met two real-life lighthouse keepers!
They were painting the lightstation and showed me their office, complete with computer and desk, not so romantic as my image of a lighthouse keeper. But – both of them used to work at another lighthouse nearby, where they stayed alone on the island for twenty-eight days at a time. The dream still lives…