It's chilly, and a mist is falling at 3 a.m. on opening day of the 2006 cod season, fine weather by a fisherman's standards. Vautier leaves his house and trudges along a darkened footpath that runs the length of La Poile. The village is what Newfoundlanders call an outport community. No roads reach it; no car has ever driven here. Since people began settling here in the 19th century, coming and going has meant taking a boat, and fishing has been about the only economic activity. Tidy, wood-frame houses built on granite outcroppings rise in tiers above a protected harbor that opens into La Poile Bay, a beautiful fiord-like expanse of salt water that pierces about ten miles (16 kilometers) inland. The village is peaceful, its setting idyllic, but it is dying. The young people, no longer able to make a living fishing, are forced to leave to find work. Again and again I meet people in La Poile who cite the elementary school as an indicator of doom: A generation ago it enrolled about 80 children; last school year there were eight.
The boats of several other La Poile fishermen are already gone when Vautier reaches the brightly lit wharf, where he's joined by his lone crewman, Alvin Bond. At 38, Bond has been working on fishing boats for years but doesn't hold a commercial license himself. Recent regulations don't allow his semi-retired father to pass down his license, and Bond doesn't have the tens of thousands of dollars he'd need to buy a license from another fisherman. These days, he says bitterly, banks aren't eager to lend money to someone trying to start a fishing operation.
Soon the Awaited Dream is chugging in the darkness through the bay toward the open sea. As the swell increases, Bond braces himself and prepares the longline La Poile fishermen have traditionally used to catch fish. Inside several barrels is about two miles (three kilometers) of heavy line with 2,000 herring-baited hooks dangling from it. The line will sink to the bottom, where cod live and feed, and in a few hours the harvesters will return to haul in the catch.
Not long ago, Bond says, fishermen could put out as many hooks on as much line as their boat could accommodate. Now, the government has limited the number of hooks to 2,000 to prevent overfishing, as well as limiting the cod season to only a few weeks a year. Bond believes that in the fishing grounds near La Poile, at least, the fish have recovered and fisheries managers are trumping up the crisis. "The government's hired a lot of scientists since the fishery shut down, and they all know that after fishing comes back, a lot of them are going to be laid off."
While such open accusations of bad faith are rare in La Poile, at least to an outsider, every working fisherman I spoke with here believes the fisheries crisis has been overstated—that there are far more cod than the government lets on. "I can't see any shortage of cod at all," says Peter Francis, a so-called sentinel fisherman, who is paid to fish several months a year for government researchers. He measures and weighs the catch, and from some fish removes a bone, the otolith, from the inner ear. By examining growth layers in the bone, a scientist will determine the fish's age. During cod season Francis also fishes on his own commercial license. He has a third job three months a year working thousands of miles away in the oil fields of western Canada, as do an increasing number of men from La Poile. It's the dangerous but well-paid oil work that provides the biggest part of the family budget.
A few days before the season opened, I had gone with Francis as he set his line on the far side of La Poile Bay. Two hours later he fired up his hydraulic-powered "hauler," and soon fish were coming up over the side. There were stretches of line where every hook seemed to hold a fish, and Francis threw them into fast-filling tubs in the center of the boat. In all, he brought in about 1,600 pounds (730 kilograms) of cod. "That's very good fishing—good as it ever was, probably," he said. But to scientists who look at fish stocks on a broad scale, the absence of cod is apparent in ways not obvious to local fishermen, says George Rose, a fisheries expert at the Marine Institute in St. John's.