After the fish were gone

May 02, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

Towns usually die slowly in a cascading series of losses - the factory, the high school, the movie theater - making it hard to point to when or even why a once thriving community expires. But with Great Harbour Deep, a one-time outpost in a remote coastal stretch of Newfoundland in Canada, it was clear when the death spiral began and what triggered it.

When the cod went away, so did the town.

"It was overfishing," said Sharon Elgar, a former town clerk of the former town. "Fish, fish, fish, till nothing was left."

Today, Great Harbour Deep, once home to several hundred people, is a ghost town, one of a number of towns that died along with the collapse of the cod industry. In 2002, the Canadian government paid each of the remaining 52 households as much as $100,000 to abandon their homes and their community - it was cheaper than continuing to provide power, transportation and other services to the dwindling population. Given her official town duties, Elgar was among the last to leave, shortly before the date, Oct. 31, when the power would be cut and the lights, literally, would go out in Great Harbour Deep.

"We took everything we could from the house," said Elgar, who now lives 50 miles away on the other side of the peninsula from her hometown. "Even the furnace."

With Maryland's watermen facing new restrictions designed to prevent a potential collapse of Chesapeake Bay crab stocks, it seemed like a good time to revisit the experience of the Newfoundland fishermen who lost, in many cases, not just their livelihoods but their towns and a way of life.

"Everybody was family," said Robert Pittman, 50, who began fishing as a boy on his father's boat. "You could go anywhere, have a cup of tea. You never knocked on a door. That was unheard of. You just walked in."

Judging from several phone conversations, they speak in a distinct accent, with traces of what you might hear in small towns on both sides of the Atlantic, and with unique phrasing, no doubt the result of living in a village so remote it could be reached only by ferry in the summer and seaplane in the winter. They call their hometown Harbour Deep for short (it comes out sounding like "Aberdeen"), and sometimes add an "s" to their verbs.

"I plans it every year," Elgar said about how she always intends, but hasn't managed yet, to return home in the summer to visit the graves of her father and her best friend.

There are differences, for sure, between the two locales and their fisheries: Maryland's shore towns are mostly more diversified and not as solely dependent on crabbing as Newfoundland's were on cod fishing. And the threat to Maryland's crabs comes not just from the watermen but from the pollution of the bay, while the culprit behind the disappearance of the cod is more clearly overfishing.

And yet, the collapse of the cod fishery remains the great cautionary tale when it comes to fisheries management. It offers a real-life lesson on the need for restrictions today if we're going to preserve for tomorrow.

"It was a free-for-all, the cod industry before," Pittman said. "The government didn't stop it, the fishermen kept fishing."

Looking back now, Pittman, whose family also ran the fish-processing plant in Great Harbour Deep, staffed largely by town women including Elgar, thinks the government should have further restricted cod fishing much sooner, despite the resistance of some fishermen. Everyone, he said, failed to heed the warning signs of declining numbers of the fish that once was so plentiful that they were said to sometimes impede boat traffic.

"The government had a role to play," he said. "Some [fishermen] did resist; some realized what was happening."

By the time the moratorium was declared in 1992 - idling the fishermen and processing plant - it was too late to save the cod, he said. "It was supposed to be temporary," Pittman said of the measure. "It became permanent. They said three, five years, we'd be back fishing."

The cod never came back in the amounts that once supported an industry that previously had hauled in as much as 810,000 tons of the fish in a year. More than 40,000 people lost work as a result of the collapse.

It wasn't the small, local fishermen, but rather the industrial trawlers, usually coming from European countries and dragging huge nets, that experts generally blame for the collapse of the cod fishery.

"But we're the ones who paid the price," said Pittman, who now fishes for crab and runs a small lodge in the winter for snowmobilers. He and other Harbour Deep families still use their old houses occasionally in the summer when they go crabbing, but they have to use generators for power. He hopes his kids and grandkids will eventually enjoy it as a fishing or hunting cabin, even though the village is largely abandoned.

"It's lonely, and ghostly," he said. "There's no social life."

It was never a particularly hopping place by city standards, of course, but he and Elgar describe a close-knit community - you hear about a half-dozen family names over and over again - particularly during holidays. There was a church and a community center, there was dancing, particularly one unique to the town called "running the goat," which Elgar describes as a sort of jig and reel, although she's baffled as to where the name came from.

"That was the way we lived," she said of the isolated lifestyle. "That was just normal."

Now, scattered as they are in other parts of the province for the past six years, they realize that they are perhaps the last generation to have that kind of experience.

"I could not see the town lasting," Pittman said of the town's fate once the cod were depleted. He discouraged his son from following his forebears into the business. "There will be nothing else after us."

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