BONAVISTA, Newfoundland, Canada, 1993

This summer, the smell of fish in Bonavista’s cavernous fish plant is the only remnant of its once-vigorous northern cod fishing industry. Down the road, on a vast cement wharf, grounded fishing boats are lined up like tombstones in a nautical cemetery. For the first time in memory, the fishers of this Newfoundland outport, one of North America’s oldest communities, are not putting out to sea. Because of a two-year federal moratorium on northern cod fishing, life in Bonavista has changed irrevocably.

For Dallas and Hedley Butler, the change has been radical. Hedley, now 40, has spent every summer at sea since he was a young boy. Now, his boat squats on a wooden cradle, and he keeps busy with union and community work. Dallas, 36, an office worker, was employed at the sprawling Fishery Products International fish plant for six summers. Now, she’s trying network marketing.

“On the day the moratorium was announced,” Dallas recalls, “it was as if everyone in Bonavista had a death in the family.”

But life soon returned, if not to normal, to some semblance of normality. In the sturdy, white Butler bungalow “down Cove way,” the neighbourhood nearest the Cape Bonavista lighthouse, Dallas and Hedley and their two children — Tiffany, 10, and Colin, 6 — learn to adjust to life without the fishery.

“I don’t want to end up poor like mom and dad, without jobs,” says Tiffany Butler, with the innocent brutality for which only children are forgiven. The youngster already knows she’s not going to follow her Newfoundland ancestors into the fishery. Instead, she declares, eyes shining, “I want to be a lawyer and travel all over the place — to St. John’s, Halifax, London! But I’ll always live here. I likes it here.”

For five centuries the riches of the ocean sustained Bonavista. Now, they’re exhausted

The Butlers, like most of Bonavista’s 4,597 inhabitants, are descendants of English fishers who began coming here nearly five centuries ago, drawn by the riches of the ocean which now, finally, seem exhausted.

Dallas is not at all upset at her daughter’s frankness. Fiercely, her chin up, she agrees. “I’m happy that she can see how things are at such a young age.” If Dallas and Hedley have their way, the children won’t have anything to do with the fishery when they grow up.

The sad truth is, there may not even be a fishery by then. The federal moratorium, called last July 2, was a last – ditch effort to stave off ecological and economic disaster.

In a good year, the northern cod is worth about $700 million — 40 per cent of the landed value of fish harvested in Newfoundland and Labrador. But overfishing and little-understood environmental conditions, such as unusually cold water, have decimated the older bigger fish. The two – year ban, due to end in May ’94, is designed to give an apparently healthy population of young cod, hatched in 1986 and ’87, the seven years they need to mature and begin spawning.

Still, few scientists or fishers believe the cod stocks will recover so soon. Many think the moratorium will be extended beyond ’94. Even if not, the future looks bleak. The fish plant, which employed 600 workers in a good summer, processing mostly northern cod and some crab, will have to close or at least downsize drastically. Young adults will have to find work outside the fishery, and the new jobs won’t likely be in Bonavista. It may be increasingly hard to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, and some people will either leave or have to fall back on welfare or their extended families. Fishing as a career move in this province has never been easy. Now, it seems impossible.

In good traveling weather, Bonavista is a three and a half – hour drive northeast of the provincial capital St. John’s. The town’s brightly painted wooden buildings are dotted along the Atlantic coastline — about 1,500 houses, eight churches, four drinking “clubs,” a handful of schools and stores.

Hedley, one of four Butler boys, was just a toddler when he was introduced to life at sea in his father Archibald’s fishing boat, and he wasn’t content until he quit school in grade 10 and became a fisherman too.

Dallas’s family, with its wholesale and distributing business selling everything from beer to potato chips, was only indirectly dependent on the fishery. The financially-comfortable household consisted of her parents, grandmother, two brothers and a sister.

When Dallas was 12, she seriously injured her hip while figure skating and had to spend the next three years on crutches. But crutches or not, Hedley couldn’t keep his eyes off 14-year – old Dallas at a community wedding. They became childhood sweethearts and, after Dallas graduated from high school and two years of community college training in arts and crafts, they married. She was 18, he 22.

“Oh, m’dear, it was the best job I ever had! We were always laughing and talking.”

In outport tradition, the newlyweds lived initially with Hedley’s father (his mother had died two years earlier), and began saving to build their own place nearby. Dallas had a number of short-term jobs before joining her father’s business as a book-keeper. When she was temporarily laid off during hard times in 1986, she transferred her skills to the fish plant with its several hundred workers and lively atmosphere. “Oh, m’dear, it was the best job I ever had!” she chuckles. “We were always laughing and talking. Even when we were complaining, we were laughing. I never did go back to dad’s business.”

Hedley, along with his father and two brothers (a third brother works as a telephone company supervisor in St. John’s), all with houses a stone’s throw from one another, lived off the land. Each summer, they fished for cod, capelin, lumpfish and salmon, and set crab pots. In winter, they hunted adult seals for their pelts and meat.

When it came time for Dallas and Hedley to begin building their house, Dallas explains, “Hedley went out into the woods and cut almost all the lumber himself and got it sawed up at a local sawmill.” One year, they put in the basement; another year, the walls and roof. A recent renovation was the kitchen. “We just took our time,” Dallas says contentedly. “And it’s all paid for.”

In winter, the house is battered by gales while breakers roar into shore a few hundred meters away. But indoors, in the warmth radiating from a big wood stove, the kids are home from school and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on TV. Hedley is talking fishers’ union business on the phone, Gizmo the hamster is gnawing the bars of his cage, and the black Chihuahua, Tiny, suspiciously circles a visitor. Dallas is in the kitchen serving the Jiggs Dinner — a traditional Newfoundland dish of boiled salt beef cooked with vegetables, which Hedley had prepared. Afterward, she offers her own carrot cake and tea.

In a normal winter, Dallas and Hedley would be keeping house with proceeds from the summer fishing season along with unemployment insurance commission (UIC) benefits drawn on these earnings. Dallas earned about $16,000 (including UIC) as an office worker, and Hedley’s income ranged annually from $15,000 to $20,000 (including UIC), depending on the price of fish, the length of the fishing season, and how much he, his father and brothers caught in their co-owned, 40-foot longliner Eastern Wave. Together, Hedley and Dallas would clear about $30,000 to $35,000, about half of it from UIC.

But 70 percent of Hedley’s fishing income would go to pay his share of the Butlers’ fishing expenses — $2,000 annually for boat insurance, $210 for the fishing licence, plus fuel, fishing gear and repairs. As well, the provincial Fisheries Loan Board would take 20 percent of Hedley’s net fishing proceeds to help pay off the $23,000 owing on the boat.

This past winter, their family income was much the same. While northern cod fishing is banned, Dallas and Hedley are dependent on federal emergency funds paid mainly to out-of-work fishers and fish-plant workers. They come out a bit below their usual incomes. “We’re doing very well because the moratorium is good to us,” says Hedley. “I get roughly $716 every two weeks. Dallas gets about $475 every two weeks. We’re surviving, right.”

The Butlers still have to make payments on the boat, pay boat insurance and so on. Dallas has lost, along with her plant job, health care benefits that paid the $900 cost of drugs necessary to control Hedley’s diabetes and Tiffany’s asthma. Because Hedley is a diabetic, he must (apart from injecting insulin daily) eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables — and groceries are costly in the province. The expenses would be much higher, but for the fact that all of the family’s potatoes come from a garden in the adjacent lot, which the Butler men plant for the whole clan. Hedley also provides the family with cod (personal fishing is still allowed) and other fish, seal and moose meat, all stored in the basement freezer. The moose was a lucky break; Hedley and his two brothers won the right to hunt four moose this winter in a moose draw for the region.

Hedley keeps heating costs down by cutting his own wood for the stove, but he can’t do much about annual property taxes ($274) and poll taxes ($120). Dallas and Hedley have also taken on some additional expenses: monthly, they pay $63 for life insurance; $27 toward a 12- year–old foster child in El Salvador; and $26 toward a scholarship fund for their own children.

The scholarship fund is part of a long-term “escape route.” Says Dallas, “I want Colin and Tiffany to go away and become professionals, and then come back — if they want.”

Dallas and Hedley themselves seem dead certain they will somehow find a way to live the rest of their days in this outport. “We own our house,” says Dallas. “If we moved to Toronto, we’d have to make more money just to pay for a roof over our heads.” Adds Hedley, “I’m going to stay fishing. Nobody else wants me — a 40-year-old fisherman!”

Bonavista life is replete with activities of family, church and community. The fears are for the future, when the money runs out.

And here, their life is replete with activities of family, church and community. Dallas’s roster includes Colin’s figure skating, the Women’s Institute, Beavers and Girl Guides, and community college courses. She longs for her own computer after taking word-processing and keyboarding courses. Last summer, she started her own network marketing business.

Hedley too is hardly sitting around all day: he’s an elected volunteer councillor for the region’s inshore fishers on Newfoundland’s powerful Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers Union. He’s also on call as a member of Bonavista’s volunteer fire department, and works with several community organizations.

Every Sunday morning, the Butlers attend the Anglican Christ Church, where Tiffany sings in the junior choir. And Sunday evenings, they almost invariably gather in the church basement along with some 50 other parishioners to have tea and sing folk songs and hymns with the church’s choral group, which Hedley accompanies on guitar.

On this Sunday, The Rev. Russell Osmond notes that a Toronto congregation might be able to help provide money and financial advisers to start new businesses in Bonavista. But there’s been no response to Osmond’s announcement of this offer. “Our people are conditioned to the fishery,” he says ruefully, adding that the shocking loss of northern cod has not yet sunk in.

Small wonder. Ironically, the federal emergency funding is providing the Butlers and many of their neighbors with a precious thing in these parts, a secure weekly income. There is even government money to help fishers maintain their boats. By the end of the moratorium, it’s estimated the payments could total a whopping $1 billion and cover as many as 23,000 Newfoundlanders.

It’s what happens after the moratorium ends in May ’94 that worries Dallas and Hedley. “Two years, as far as I’m concerned, is not going to be enough for the northern cod fishery,” says Hedley. “My biggest fear is what happens when the moratorium money is cut off.” Dallas admits she’s stressed and notes that there were four suicides in the Bonavista area last year, all young men. Some of the Butlers’ friends, from teachers to fish-plant workers, fear being “bumped” from their jobs by more senior union members. Other families are being torn apart as one parent leaves for a temporary job elsewhere and sends money to the other parent and children back home.

It’s a depressing situation, but Hedley and his brothers try not to let it get them down. Indeed, their 75-year-old father is still working on the new long-liner boat he started building for his sons last year, which now sits on a cradle just behind his house. Archibald Butler, who has spent 64 years at sea, smiles and shakes his head when asked if he thinks the fishery is finished. “No, we’ll always have a fishery,” he says.
His children and grandchildren can only hope he’s right.

Copyright © 1993 Deborah Jones

Originally published by Chatelaine magazine,  May, 1993


Epilogue: Twenty years later, northern cod had not recovered. A study in 2013, one of scores of dire reports on the fishery, blamed over-fishing and miscalculation.

References and further reading:

A F&O memoir: Two decades of disaster: Newfoundland’s fishery. Words and photographs by Greg Locke.