For centuries, the Newfoundland fishery was hailed as the greatest in the world. Then, in 1992, the cod disappeared. Now the islanders must find a way to keep that culture from going the way of the cod. An award-winning meditation on memory, fishing, music, and dance.
In Newfoundland today, there are two sounds that haunt me. The first one I heard twelve years ago. I was talking with the great traditional singer Anita Best about the sudden closure of the North Atlantic cod fishery. This cod stock was once the largest fish biomass on the planet. A year earlier Canadian fisheries scientists had belatedly woken up to signs that the cod were in serious trouble. A temporary fishing moratorium had been announced in hopes the stock would rebound. As Anita and I chatted then, one year into the moratorium, the signs were not good. People were beginning to think the unthinkable.
In public the talk was all about the economic impact. Thirty thousand fishery workers were out of work. But Anita’s concern was cultural. “I fear,” she said, “that the codfish off Newfoundland may be like the buffalo on the Great Plains. When they were wiped out the repercussion wasn’t only economic for the societies that depended on them. It pulled the rug from under their whole culture. And I really think we may have done it here, just like they did to the buffalo.”
I had asked her to sing a traditional song with the line “Lots of fish in Bonavist’ harbour,” and as I held my microphone her voice broke. “Please turn your tape off,” she said, and her body shook with a great wailing sob.
Today, the fish haven’t come back, and the cod fishery is still closed. Rural Newfoundlanders have left in droves. Some communities are turning to tourism for survival, and Petty Harbour is one of these. They’ve developed a four-year plan to attract tourists to come and see their 500-year-old fishing history. Central attractions will be a museum and fishery heritage interpretation center. Mayor Nat Hutchings says, “It’s a culture shock. I mean, your culture all your lifetime is the fishery. You’re living and breathing the fishery and all of a sudden, that’s gone. It’s like a death. But after awhile you start thinking I’ve got to do something. And that’s what Petty Harbour is doing. We’ve moved from fishing for cod, to fishing for tourists.”
Other rural communities have died. The 17th-century fishing community of Harbour Deep vanished from the map three years ago when the last of its residents left. But its ghost survives in the culture, because of a traditional “set dance” that Harbour Deep people had danced for longer than anyone could remember. It was unique to the place. Although the community has disappeared, the dance survives and is now stepped out by other feet – ironically including those of summer tourists looking for an “authentic” taste of Newfoundland outport life.
The tapping of those feet is the other sound haunting me. A 500-year-old society trying to keep its feet after cataclysmic change. An economy once based on the greatest fishery in the world, now retooling to replay its memory to strangers.
– Chris Brookes