issue 234 - August 1992
The squid, the cod
and who we are
Ray Rogers argues that the decline of Canada's Atlantic fishery is
linked to our overall relationship with the natural world.
I was at the gas station near my home in Little Harbour, Nova Scotia when Vernon Murphy told me about the time he was fishing out on the edge of Roseway Bank with Hal Harding.
'I was just a kid, maybe 14 or 15,' Vern recalled. 'We had hauled our nets on the way out to the bank, and we got a couple of hundred pounds of herring, enough to bait out five or six tubs of gear.
'By and by, I managed to get a bucket full of squid and I chopped them up and baited nearly a tub of gear on it. We were hauling along on the herring the next morning and we weren't getting a thing. Then we came to the squid I'd baited on and the line was smother white. There was a steak cod as big as a man on every hook as far down as you could see.'
'Hal sunk the gaf into one of those steakers and rolled him up on the rail - its head the size of a wheel rim. He looked back at me with a glint in his eye and said, "It's moments like this, I know who I am."'
* * *
Canada's Atlantic fishery has changed dramatically since Vern Murphy described that scene from his childhood nearly 40 years ago. Yet the issue of 'who we are' has become even more urgent.
I've lived by 'longline fishing'1 for the last 12 years. Over that time I've come to see both the fishing industry and the community in which I live threatened. People blame the seals or the foreigners for the decline of fish stocks. But I'd say the cause was much deeper than that: the end of what was one of the world's richest fisheries stems more from how we as humans relate to the natural world, to the sea and the creatures that live there.
* * *
Most people who depend on the sea in Nova Scotia practise small-scale 'in-shore' fishing. But the 'dragger fleet' is a different story. These expensive trawlers are packed with sophisticated fish-finding technology. They can travel long distances to reach the fish and they don't need to worry about the weather. They can carry large supplies of food and fuel and tie up in the port nearest the fish. The Canadian 'dragger fleet' now has five times the capacity required to catch its annual quota.
As one of my friends in Little Harbour lamented: 'Ten years ago, I used to swamp load my old boat. Now there's nothing to go for. With these new draggers, all we've done is gear up for disaster. The ocean can't take it. Just look at one of those big draggers come in loaded with 100,000 pounds of twelve-inch long haddock. How long can the stocks take that?'
The noted environmentalist and writer Farley Mowat says this high-tech fishing for profit is 'a financial vortex' which has destroyed the fishery. And I believe he is right. Bigger ships and higher technology take more investment and that means bigger catches and bigger profits until, as Mowat writes, 'it spirals and you reach the point of no return'.
The earth was not designed to provide stock shareholders with a healthy return on their investment. Trees, fish and whales grow at around five or six per cent a year. In order to compete with the rest of the economy and provide a ten per cent return on investment, resource industries like fishing and forestry systematically deplete living natural communities.
Our culture has been taken over by a mindless drive for affluence and growth. In the process we've distorted our relationship with the natural world. The destruction of the fish stocks off Canada's East Coast is just one example of modern society's brinkmanship with environmental limits as we pursue our goal of ever-expanding consumerism.
If the much-ballyhooed concept of 'sustainable development' is to have any real meaning we are going to have to build a new relationship between ourselves and the natural world. And we are going to have to seriously rethink what we mean by 'community': in this sense there is a lot we can learn from the natural world.
Consider the basic ecological principle of 'interconnectedness' which says that no one aspect of a natural community is more important than another. This idea is a direct challenge to two cornerstone beliefs of modern society - private property and individual freedom. And that's what makes many environmental problems so daunting; they go right to the heart of the ways we understand ourselves as a society.
Human beings caught in the web of industrial culture have become a predatory species who have lost a sense of belonging anywhere. The painful process of reacquainting ourselves with the natural world in us' and 'out there' must begin soon. Either that or it will be imposed on us. In that sense the plight of villages like my home of Little Harbour is not just a fisheries problem - it's a dramatic sign that our whole culture has gone awry.
Ray Rogers used to fish for a living. He is now a doctoral candidate in environmental studies at York University, Toronto.
1 A fishing method where a length of line from 100 to 200 metres is set with individual baited hooks.
Also Worth Reading on ... the Sea
Straddling the line between journalism and literature is Rachel Carson's exuberant classic, The Sea Around Us, originally written in 1950. The newest edition (Oxford University Press, 1989), with a solid afterword by marine scientist Jeffrey Levinton, is still a prescient introduction to the history and mysteries of the sea. Another useful journalistic study is Our Common Shores (Earthscan/UNEP, 1990) by Don Hinrichsen, former editor of the Swedish environmental magazine Ambio. Hinrichsen summarizes the major policy and pollution issues in a comprehensive sweep through the world's seas. Also worth a look is The Living Ocean by Boyce Thorne-Miller and John Catena (Friends of the Earth/Island Press, 1991), both a survey and a plea for protecting the diversity of marine ecosystems. World Resources 1992-93 (Oxford University Press, 1992) a collaboration between the World Resources Institute, the UN Environment Programme and the UN Development Programme has a fact-filled chapter on oceans and coasts. For an up-to-date activist perspective two journals stand out. Sea Wind (available from Ocean Voice International, 2883 Otterson Drive, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1V 7B2) and Greenpeace Magazine (1436 U Street NW, Washington, DC 20009). Write to both for subscription information.