Ebb Tide In The Grand Banks

When explorer John Cabot discovered Newfoundland in 1497, the cod were so plentiful the crew caught them in baskets, a bounty that eventually spawned hundreds of fishing villages. But this summer, the cod served at Tanker Inn, a cafe in Arnold's Cove (pop. 1,400), was caught by Russian trawlers in the Barents Sea. There's a Canadian moratorium on cod fishing--and it's sinking the province's economy.

Decades of overharvesting plus a climatic shift that has cooled local waters have devastated Newfoundland's fishing grounds. Canadian cod catches plunged 90% from 1988 to 1993. And biologists say the number of mature northern cod has fallen to 1% of the level needed to sustain a healthy population. The fear is that "this once-rich fishing area may become a marine desert," says Brian Tobin, Canada's Fisheries Minister. Late last year, the government extended its 1992 ban on northern cod to some other species. And on May 31, it said it will arrest ships trolling for cod outside its waters--though arguably that's going beyond international law.

Meantime, the cod ban has shut down two-thirds of the fishing industry in Canada's most depressed province. Some 30,000 industry workers are idle, boosting unofficial joblessness to 30%-plus. In the outports, "there's nothing except fishing," notes Benedict Leonard, 44, of Southern Harbour, who started in his teens. His income is down 70% since 1991, to $15,000, but "I won't leave the fishery without a fight," he says. "What else can I do?" Still, many of Leonard's comrades won't return to the sea. No one can "tell you when the cod are coming back," concedes Walter C. Carter, Newfoundland's Fisheries Minister. Even optimists don't expect a recovery until the turn of the century. And by then, officials predict, fishing will support only half as many workers as now.

So far, the outports have been saved by government support payments, now 34% of income for the province's 580,000 residents. Canada is also phasing in a $1.5 billion program to provide idled fish-industry workers $275 a week for up to five years, plus training for other trades. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells also plans tax moratoriums for up to 10 years to lure companies that don't compete with existing businesses.

There's reason for hope. Although fishing has been the leading employer, it's less than 10% of local gross domestic product. This year, the economy may grow 1%, thanks to the $4.5 billion Hibernia oil platform. Some 4,000 workers are building the rig, due for completion in 1997. Meanwhile, Memorial University of Newfoundland's capabilities in marine and cold-weather research have helped spawn a high-tech industry with more than 1,000 employees. And local fish processors are finding new markets--handling Russian cod and preparing arctic surf clams for Japan's sushi bars.

The problems for fishers are that few have high-tech skills and that most outports are too isolated to attract industry. "What do you do if your life, your family, and your community are all linked to the fishery, but there are no fish?" asks Tobin. One way or another, the island's traditional way of life is going to go the way of the fish.

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