"Where the rebuilding of stocks has taken place, it's a patchwork quilt," says Rose. "Even on the northeast coast, where depletion is worst, I could take you to places with as many fish as there ever were in history. The problem is that there used to be this abundance along hundreds and hundreds of miles of coast, and now it's in isolated spots."
Far offshore, on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and off the Labrador coast, the great historic stocks of cod—the valuable natural resource that first lured Europeans to Newfoundland 500 years ago—are gone. Those fish were taken out by massive factory trawlers that appeared after the Second World War, pulling up millions of tons of fish, dragging the bottom, and tearing up breeding habitat. Near La Poile in southwestern Newfoundland, smaller draggers had the same effect on local stocks, Rose says. Destructive though it may be, dragging is the only catch method used in lucrative Newfoundland fisheries such as shrimp, so it won't disappear anytime soon. Fishermen and scientists alike acknowledge that if cod quotas were significantly loosened, the draggers would quickly return to scrape the sea clean in places cod are now struggling to make a comeback.
The sad irony is that La Poile's hook-and-line fishery is actually the right way to fish, Rose says. If all fishing over the past 40 years had been with this method, spawning grounds would still be intact, fish would be plentiful, and the current cod crisis wouldn't exist.
It's now around noon on opening day, and boats are returning to the harbor with the first catch of the season. Vautier and Bond, like most others, are carrying roughly half the weekly quota of 3,600 pounds (1,600 kilograms). They'll go back for the rest tomorrow. The star of the day is Winston Organ, a hulking, black-bearded fisherman who's brought in his entire week's catch in one morning of work. As he waits in his boat for his turn at the unloading crane, he turns up his sound system and Newfoundland country music, mournful and Irish-tinged, floats over the water. The singer is lamenting the death of a way of life as families that formerly relied on fishing migrate elsewhere to find work. "It's sad but it's true, there be no one to welcome you home."
The song has the feel of a documentary. Just a few miles from here, empty houses stand in abandoned fishing settlements like West Point and Petites. The people of La Poile pass these ghostly places every time they take the ferry in or out. Many of them predict the same fate for their own community in a decade or two, now that the cod are gone or—depending on whose word you believe—just off-limits.
But the song and the pall it casts mean nothing to one person on the wharf today. Seven-year-old Cody Chant sits on his bike in the middle of the dock utterly delighted by the bustle revving up around him as more boats come in—the splat of 500 pounds (230 kilograms) of cod landing on the cleaning table, the flying fish guts, the forklift dashing back and forth with crates of ice.
"I loves fishing," he proclaims, his accent evoking the speech of settlers from England and Ireland who were drawn here centuries ago by the cod. "I'm going to be a fisherman when I grow up," he says. "I'm gonna have my own boat."