Land & Sea: The birth of the Fogo Island Shipbuilders Co-operative

Facing population loss and resettlement, a shipbuilding co-operative was launched on Fogo Island in order to access new fisheries.

Co-operative is launched on Fogo Island to access new fisheries and stave off population loss

For centuries people on Fogo Island survived through a traditional cod fishery. They caught the fish in small boats, brought it on shore to split it and salt it, then sent it to the Mediterranean or the West Indies. (Land & Sea 1975)

This archival episode of Land & Sea from 1975 tells the story of the Fogo Island Shipbuilders Co-operative, an effort launched to open access to new fisheries, create jobs and stave off the creeping threat of resettlement on the "isolated island off an isolated coast."

In the mid-1970s, Fogo Island was struggling. The way of life on this barren, windswept rock had changed little in the 200 years or so since it was first settled by Europeans who came for the plentiful cod in its surrounding ocean waters.

But at that time in Newfoundland and Labrador's history, about a quarter-century after Confederation, the provincial government was encouraging the residents of outport communities to resettle to more central locations where government services would be easier to provide.

At the same time, it was becoming harder to make a living with the cod fishery that had sustained Fogo Island for so many years.

In the past, fishermen could do well with only the trap boats and schooner that they used to catch cod, which was then split and salted on the island's shores before being exported to the Mediterranean and the West Indies.

But the arrival of foreign ships put pressure on the cod stocks off Fogo Island. As the cod fishery declined, long-established merchants began to leave the island, taking the fishermen's source of credit with them. By 1968, hundreds of Fogo Island families were on social assistance.

The impact of the shipbuilding co-op

One potential solution was the Fogo Island Shipbuilders Co-operative, which was formed with the hope of reviving the local fishery by building medium-range longliners that could access new species and fishing areas. The provincial government provided the $70,000 required to build the shipyard, and low labour costs meant the boats were accessible even to local fishermen.

In a good year, the boats could catch a million pounds of fish, which in those days was worth up to $60,000. They also created badly needed jobs: each boat took four men, and there were processing jobs on shore for a dozen more.

The plant also spurred government investment in the community, including road paving and a new central high school.

By the mid-1970s the local fishery was doing well with the new boats, but not necessarily with cod. Instead, new species like turbot and flounder were being caught.

But unlike cod, those species had to be sold fresh, and Fogo Island didn't have the necessary processing facilities to freeze the fish. The co-op had to find outside buyers, which meant a loss of both local jobs and of fish quality — and therefore money.

"The only species of fish that we can handle and process here on the island is cod fish, and the only way we can process that is to have it split, salted and dried," said co-op manager Dan Roberts. 

Homes on Fogo Island were well built and mortgage free, but by the 1970s it was becoming harder to make a living through the cod fishery. (Land & Sea 1975)

"All other species have to be shipped out in larger collectors, iced in their raw state, which has to be taken to other processing plants. Sometimes it takes three and four days before fish is delivered there."

People on the island were thankful for the new opportunities provided by the shipyard, but said early experience with new species had shown that a local processing facility would be needed in order for fishermen to continue earning a good living on Fogo Island.

For more archival Land & Sea episodes, visit the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador YouTube page.