Published: April 2007
End of the Line
A village in Newfoundland faces a bleak reality.
By Chris Carroll

The story of how the Vautiers began generations ago to make a living pulling cod from the waters off Newfoundland, hefting each sleek green-and-white fish by hand as it came off the line, is lost in family history. But how it all will end is perfectly clear.

Ray Vautier is trying to sell his boat, and when he succeeds, all the uncanny skills repeatedly passed from father to son—the ability to read the surface of the water, to know each crevasse and outcropping of the bottom, and most of all to sense where fish are lurking—will die in his family. Vautier, 45, prepared for this when he sent his son to college in St. John's to study automotive technology.

What keeps him on the water for now is the glut of fishing craft going on the market as small-scale harvesters around Newfoundland abandon the industry that once defined the province. So far, no one has made a decent offer on the 35-foot (11 meters) fiberglass-hulled diesel Vautier bought new in 2003, at last realizing a goal he'd held since he started fishing as a teenager. "I'd always wanted a new boat, something solid with no leaks," he says. "Looks like I picked a poor time to get her." Scant months after his purchase, Canadian officials declared a moratorium on all cod fishing, the second time in a decade they closed fishing grounds because of overharvesting. Cod fishing became legal again the following year, but with catch limits so small and strictly enforced that Vautier has finally accepted that he can't make a living aboard the boat he christened Awaited Dream.

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.

"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."