Editor's note: the following was first published in the July 3, 2012 print edition of The Compass, as part of its 20th anniversary coverage of the moratorium on northern cod.
It's mid-June and Tony Doyle, an outspoken and spirited fisherman from Bay de Verde, is sitting in his kitchen, a cup of tea cradled between his large, leathery hands.
His modest house sits on an elevated point of land, and offers a panoramic view of the bay, which is radiantly blue on this sunny spring day.
From his chair, he can look across the bay, and vividly recall what the scene on a day like this would have been like more than two decades ago, before the cod moratorium was called on July 2, 1992.
"You would see red balloons everywhere (marking the locations of cod trips), boats would be going and coming, the wharves would be alive with people clearing away cod fish, and workers would be back and forth to the plant. The place would be bustling," says Doyle.
Just describing such a scene fills Doyle with emotion. He has to clear his throat repeatedly, and his eyes start to water.
It's obvious he looks back on those pre-moratorium days with fondness and nostalgia. Those were the days when he fished with his father and uncle (both now deceased), when catching cod was a craft that took time to master, and required a strong back, an unrelenting work ethic, and a healthy dose of courage.
He learned the art of making and setting a cod trap from his father, Ronald, but never got the opportunity to pass along the same skills to his own son, 30-year-old Thomas.
A decision by the federal government to close the fishery, sending shockwaves throughout the entire province, made sure of that.
Doyle said it did away with an important part of the province's history.
"My son was 11 the last time he saw a cod trap hauled. He doesn't know anything about it ... all of that is going to be gone," he states.
A bittersweet anniversary
The cod fishery has largely disappeared from the public psyche in the two decades since then fisheries minister John Crosbie made that momentous announcement.
The groundfish has been replaced by shellfish such as crab and shrimp as the mainstay in the industry, and you would be hard-pressed to find a plant capable of processing codfish. What's more, the fishery has been largely overshadowed by the oil industry, which now accounts for roughly 30 per cent of the province's gross domestic product.
But this fish species that was largely responsible for the settlement of much of coastal Newfoundland and Labrador over the past five centuries is now making headlines once again.
Not because of any commercial comeback, but simply because, as a society, we often mark important anniversaries. That's it.
Truth be told, many of those engaged in today's fishery could care less if the cod ever returned, not when they can harvest snow crab at $2-plus a pound, and do it with far less effort, in much greater comfort and safety, and over a shorter period of time. They'll also tell you that cod is a predator of crab, and any threat to crab will never win a popularity contest, regardless of its place in history.
And what are cod being sold for these days? Fifty cents, if you're lucky.
But in an isolated and alluring place like Bay de Verde, where generations of men went to sea in search of codfish, this anniversary hits especially close to their hearts.
They'll tell you there's no comparison between today's business-like fishery, dominated by technology and bigger, faster boats. There's no passion in it, they'll say. It's faceless and lacks the same character and romanticism.
Doyle would often dream about codfish. He never dreams about crab, though he's thankful it came along in the mid-1990s and allowed smaller enterprise owners like him to continue making a living from the sea.
"It got in your blood and it drove you mad," Doyle says of the codfish. "I would dream about drying out a load of fish, about hauling a gillnet that was full, about the day you went out and spent all day and came back with only 300 pounds."
Across the harbour, retired fisherman Brian Walsh expresses a similar sentiment.
"Nobody gets excited about hauling a crab pot. Now it's like a chore," says Walsh, who served as mayor of Bay de Verde during most of the 1980s. He blames the decision to introduce individual quotas, and take away the competitive nature of the fishery.
"Today, fishermen jump out of the boat and they are gone. Years ago, when the stages were out, there were always people hanging around, yarning and everything else."
That's no exaggeration. On this day, there are plenty of boats tied up in Bay de Verde, and there's obviously activity inside the large crab/shrimp plant, where some 450 people work on different shifts.
It's hard to spot any souls out and about. You won't find a more attractive and colourful fishing outport, and there's a very rich fishing heritage in this place.
But don't expect to be greeted with swarms of fishermen milling about on the wharf. And you won't find young boys and girls, lurking about in search of ways to make a dollar or two.
Again, those days are a thing of the past.
Fact is, Bay de Verde is more prosperous then ever in its history. The modern homes and beefy new trucks are a testament to this. But the spirit and sense of community is gone, adds Walsh, who retired five years ago because of health problems.
With wealth comes independence, and neighbours do not depend on each other as much as they once did.
"I'd say you be hard-pressed to get enough people to launch a Rodney. If you were to go and launch a boat now half of the people would run away," Walsh states in a tone that leaves one wondering if he's serious or not.
Another factor in the changing dynamics of towns like Bay de Verde is demographics. There are very few young people in the town, which is located at the extreme tip of the Bay de Verde peninsula, about 90-plus kilometres north of Bay Roberts.
When Doyle's son graduated high school in 2000, there were 24 students in his class. Only three still live in the town.
That's a troubling trend, one that put Bay de Verde in the spotlight last month when the operator of the local plant brought in temporary foreign workers from Thailand in order to fill the ranks of its workforce.
"It's going to come to an end," Doyle says of his town's chances of viability long into the future.
And should there be a collapse in shellfish stocks, similar to the one that brought an end to the cod fishery, Walsh believes the fallout would be monumental.
He says fishermen in today's industry have much higher expectations, and carry much more debt in order to pay for their enterprises, large homes, new vehicles and other "toys." Walsh says the industry is "on the razor's edge."
When the cod fishery closed, Walsh basically had a phone and power bill to worry about.
"During cod, you never had very much and you didn't expect much. It's very different today."
Doyle agrees, but noted that the industry is no longer driven by a fish killing mentality. The collapse of the cod stocks taught a valuable lesson, he explains.
"Now we protect the fish stocks," says Doyle. "Who woud have thought?"