Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

How neglect of the fishery killed the Salvage fish plant

Peter Pickersgill reflects on the fish plant in Salvage and the life force of the town itself.
The Salvage fish plant. (CBC)

This is how I described, for the Fisheries Broadcast, the beginning of a terrible event that occurred in Salvage in 2001: "Doctors will tell you that when a person sustains a life-threatening injury, dozens of effective medical interventions are available. But no matter how leading-edge or high tech the treatment a doctor can bring to bear, the most important factor is the patient's will to live.

"Last Wednesday evening, as I watched dense, pitch-black clouds of smoke belch out of the fish plant in Salvage and, pummelled by gale-force winds, roll down the harbour toward our house, I was filled with terror. I knew the plant was gone and its loss threatened to tear the heart and lungs out of this place."

I wondered then whether our village of 200 had the will to live.

"By the next day, however, the will to live had re-asserted itself. It was helped by the arrival of one of the owners of the plant, Blair Janes.

"Standing amongst the smoking rubble, he directed the installation of new phone lines in a nearby house that would serve as a temporary office. He then ordered the necessary gear so that fishermen could begin to off-load their catch, beginning this last weekend." 

P. Janes and Sons could truck that catch to one of their other plants in Hant's Harbour, Trinity Bay, or Jackson's Arm, White Bay, so the fishermen would be OK. 

Future of workers

But what would become of the idled plant workers? 

2001 was a different time than today. There was still some empathy left in public life, so the heartfelt pleas to government describing the plight of the workers did not fall on deaf ears.

A project to build walking trails among the hills surrounding the village was launched. It employed all the plant workers, most of them women who, while they were cutting brush, building bridges and wooden steps, got fit, laughed a lot, and created trails that are a much-loved tourist magnet for visitors and locals alike.

This all happened in 2001. The brand new plant that P. Janes built after the fire was up and running for the fishing season in 2002. It continued until the end of the 2012 season — a decade.

Now, in the early days of the 2013 season, we can see how different the business and social environment has become. A few weeks ago, the three P. Janes plants were sold to the Barry Group, who promptly closed them all. 

Dangers of greed

In Salvage, we now understand the new social reality. Fire is not as dangerous as greed, and greed has become the cornerstone of the unfettered capitalism as practised in North America in the 21st century.

Back in 2001, looking at the ruins of their burnt plant, the people of Salvage realized their own will to live was not enough — they needed the decision of P. Janes and Sons to rebuild. 

As I wrote then, "Janes was the head that would decide if the heart and lungs would come back to life again." 

At the time, Janes had a 30-year history in Salvage.

"I had never heard a word spoken against the company — some kind of a record, and well-deserved. Through some of the toughest times in the modern fishery, Janes has balanced profit with humanity in a way that should be a textbook example to other entrepreneurs."   

Fire is not as dangerous as greed — certainly not as dangerous as greed aided and abetted by government at both levels. 

DFO interference

That starts with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans housed in a mirror-windowed high rise on Kent Street in Ottawa, interfering constantly with common sense practices of men and women in boats. 

DFO's mishandling dovetails with the neglect of a provincial government whose entire attention is focussed on the oil industry and their own ill-conceived mega-project. This, as they struggle to deliver services to dozens of villages and towns that have become a nuisance to the crowd who inhabit the upper storeys of Confederation Building. They know better than rural Newfoundlanders. Bigger is always better, and the inshore fishery is not big. The two levels of government rely on an ever-decreasing number of wealthier and wealthier fish plant operators to do their dirty work for them, buying up plants, closing them and centralizing operations in one of their big plants.

When P. Janes could no longer struggle against these odds, Bill Barry was only too happy to take over. He wanted the fish and the workers, but he only wanted them if they would deliver product to, and process it, in his existing plants.

That's what has happened in Salvage, Jackson's Arm and Hant's Harbour. They are only the latest on the list of communities disappearing into the salivating maw of the 21st century's ravenous fish merchants.

These are the latest towns, but by no means the last. This will make the merchants wealthier, the government satisfied that resettlement is being handled by the private sector, and the rural folk of our province increasingly homeless.

Together, the big plant owners and the governments are successfully sliding a once-profitable inshore fishery, and with it the rural life that has formed the cultural backbone of this province for hundreds of years, into the dustbin of history.

When Joey Smallwood reportedly delivered his off-the-cuff remark, "Burn your boats, by’s," I am not sure he pictured the empty coastline that will inevitably result as future generations take him at his word.